12 Νοεμβρίου 2015

The American Tributary System.

The American Tributary System
by Yuen Foong Khong
Oxford Journals
© The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Oxford Journals. The Chinese Journal of International Politics aims to advance the systematic and rigorous study of international relations. Besides the papers based on modern methodology, this journal also publishes research products of historical studies and policy-oriented research. This journal is committed to providing a forum for academic papers and articles on problematic issues. Most of its articles are either related to China or have implication for Chinese foreign policy.


This article employs the idea of the tributary system—most often associated with China’s international relations from antiquity—to interpret how America relates to the rest of the world. I argue that the United States has instituted the most successful tributary system the world has ever seen. As the hub or epicenter of the most extensive network of formal and informal alliances ever built, the United States offers its allies and partners—or tributaries—military protection as well as economic access to its markets. In return for all its exertions, the tribute America seeks is straightforward: first, that it be recognized as the power or hegemon, and second, that others emulate its political forms and ideas. With both tributes in hand, the United States finds equanimity; it and the world are safe, at least from the United States’ point of view.

America has more in common with China than is generally recognized. In this article, I employ the idea of the tributary system—most often associated with China’s international relations from antiquity—to interpret how America relates to the rest of the world (ROW). I argue that the United States has instituted the most successful tributary system the world has ever seen. As the hub or epicenter of the most extensive network of formal and informal alliances ever built, the United States offers its allies and partners—or tributaries—military protection as well as economic access to its markets.1 Through an equally impressive array of international institutions and organizations, many of which it created, the United States transmits and imposes its values and its preferred rules of the game on the international system. The ensuing economic and politico-military ‘orders’ are construed as ‘public goods’ provided by a benign American hegemony. In return for all its exertions, the tribute America seeks is straightforward: first, that it be recognized as the power or hegemon, and second, that others emulate its political forms and ideas. With both tributes in hand, the United States finds equanimity; it and the world are safe, at least from the United States’ point of view.

I elaborate on these arguments below and provide preliminary evidence in support of them. We begin with a discussion and critique of some of the most influential contemporary interpretations of America as an international actor, focusing on accounts of the US empire, the United States as the unipolar power, and as the chief patron of a system of client states. I suggest that while these accounts illuminate important aspects of the US–ROW relationship, they fail to emphasize the payback the United States wants in return for its exertions as the hegemon. This paves the way for introducing the idea of the tributary system, which takes hierarchy as its point of departure, but which emphasizes two insights not found in the existing accounts: the United States’ desire for recognition (by its tributaries) that it is the number one power, and for them (the tributaries) to adopt (US-style) liberal democratic norms and institutions. A discussion of the Chinese tributary system follows, focusing on six of its key characteristics. I then demonstrate how each of these features has parallels in America’s approach to world since 1898. Differences between the Chinese tributary system and that of the United States will also be discussed. The article concludes by spelling out the empirical/theoretical payoffs and implications of viewing US–ROW relations through the tributary lens.

Characterizing America

City upon a hill, the first new nation, promised land, special providence, indispensable nation:2 these are some of the time-honored and contemporary conceptualizations of how America relates to the ROW. The common theme is difference: how America, by virtue of its history, ideology, and geography is different from all other nations. From George Washington’s warning about not following the Europeans in getting entangled in alliances, to John Quincy Adam’s adage about not looking for external dragons to slay, the United States in its early history portrayed itself as disdainful of the power politics that characterized Europe. For Walter MacDougall, the United States was a ‘promised land’ from its founding in 1776, to 1898; thereafter, it fell from grace as its growing power transformed it into a ‘crusader state’ for much of the 20th century.3

Consistent with MacDougall’s portrayal of the United States as betraying its promise, long range interpretations of the United States during the Cold War tended to be critical. George Kennan’s American Diplomacy was perhaps the most prominent and problematic.4 Delivered as a lecture series at the University of Chicago, the author of the famous X-article took his readers through six key episodes of American diplomacy, from the Spanish American War to World War II, in search of the fundamental drivers of US foreign policy. He found it in the legalistic–moralistic approach of the United States to foreign policy, which he assessed as lamentable and dangerous. For Kennan, as for all realists, national interest, not legalism–moralism, should drive policy. Kennan worried that a policy driven by the latter would endanger America’s security in the age of rivalry with the Soviets.

But he need not have worried: the general consensus is that legalism–moralism took a back seat to realpolitik in shaping America’s conduct during the Cold War. The Soviet, and later Chinese, threat concentrated American minds, and prompted it to respond to numerous perceived challenges to its power position, from Korea to Vietnam to Nicaragua to Angola. Concerns about the prestige and credibility of American power and looking to history to learn about the consequences of not exercising power in time trumped legalistic–moralistic thinking so much so that later editions of American Diplomacy had Kennan wondering if the United States should have traded some realpolitik national interest thinking for a bit more of legalism–moralism. During the Cold War, however, such long range interpretations gave way to more traditional diplomatic histories and cases-based studies by political scientists interested in building and testing theories.

As the Cold War came to an end, long-range interpretations of the United States returned in force. The demise of the Soviet Union meant that the United States became the sole superpower, or the unipolar power. Was it a unipolar moment or was it something more enduring? William Wohlforth probably had the better of the argument when he wrote that US unipolarity would last a generation, challengers would hesitate to take the United States on, and consequently, a stable order would ensue.5 While international relations scholars debated when and if unipolarity would give way to multipolarity, and whether ‘soft balancing’ against the United States was already in train,6 a different cluster of writings, anchored around the notion of an US empire emerged.

This was evident even before the September 11 attacks, but after the attacks, with the United States invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, characterizations of the empire impetus increased exponentially. The notion of an American empire is especially intriguing for the purposes of this article for three reasons. One, the empire idea has spawned a voluminous literature, suggesting that historians and political scientists see it as an apt description of the United States.7 Two, it is also theoretically richer than most other characterizations in that inherent in the concept are a variety of hypotheses about the motivations and forms of American foreign policy.8 Finally, it also bears the closest resemblance to my characterization of America as the hub of a tributary system; it is thus necessary to spell out their differences as well as to suggest in what sense, if any, the tributary characterization gives us more analytic traction than that provided by ‘empire’.

Narratives of the American empire often begin with the westward expansion of the New England colonies, the depredations against the native Americans, and the wars against Mexico that annexed Texas, New Mexico, and California, to the United States. Securing the continental land mass was a pre-requisite for turning America’s gaze outwards. As America came of age as a world power, overtaking Great Britain at the turn of century, it also began to acquire lands beyond its own continent. Like Britain and France during their heydays, the United States, beginning with the Spanish–American War, began acquiring colonies and over time, an empire. The United States entered World War II to prevent German hegemony over the European continent and Japanese hegemony over East Asia; success meant that the United States became the hegemon in both Western Europe and East Asia. Between 1945 and 1991, it had to confront the Soviet Union, but the superiority of US political ideas, economics, technology, and culture (soft power) allowed it to outplay and outlast the Soviets. Aided by willing acolytes who provide it with hundreds of bases worldwide to project its power, the United States sits at the apex of a system of states more responsive to its will than that of most others most of the time. There is a case for the United States as the ‘New Rome’.9

Yet the empire lens faces several challenges. First, the notion of ‘empire’—conjuring up images of Rome, Great Britain, and France—is fundamentally at odds with America’s sense of self. Peter Katzenstein puts it well: ‘Most Americans believe that the United States, by its history and very nature, cannot be imperial, let alone imperialist.’10 Without batting an eye, Katzenstein proceeds to advance his argument about the ‘American imperium’, in Europe and Asia.11 But the contrasts between the empire/imperium and the ‘City upon a Hill’ constructs are too stark for the former to be accepted by most Americans. That is why US officials almost never utter the ‘E’ world in public. Historians and political scientists who see some utility in the concept have also seen fit to qualify the ‘E’ word by adding adjectives before or after as in ‘inadvertent empire’, ‘empire by invitation’ or ‘empire lite’.12 These qualifications accentuate the acceptability and benignness of the American empire: unlike previous empires, subjects of the US ‘invited’ or consented to US domination. Or the United States stumbled into acquiring an empire and runs it with a ‘lite’ touch. From the Spanish–American war forward, the way the United States acquired and annexed territories or tried to stop others from doing so do not seem that ‘lite’ or ‘inadvertent’ to those at the receiving end. The question that arises is whether the guts of what it means to be an empire have been expunged by such qualifications.

A novel variant of the empire thesis is David Sylvan and Donald Majeski’s recent contribution viewing America’s relations with the ROW through a patron–client lens.13 What is new about their interpretation is they focus on the instruments accumulated by the United States over time; these instruments, they argue, became a decisive force in shaping US policies. Equally interesting is their categorization of much of the world into clients and nonclients of the United States, which we will later adopt as proxy indicators for US tributaries and nontributaries. Where I differ from Sylvan and Majeski is that in focusing on the instruments, they seem to lose sight of how and why the United States acquired those instruments of power. For them, ‘what is distinct about 1898 is the relative paucity of policy instruments … . Policymakers had few ready-to-had responses for dealing with those problems …’ However, ‘[by] the 1940s and even more so by the 1990s, the situation was radically different … .The United States then had a set of developed policy instruments which had become the standard way of interacting with … .’.14

This focus on policy instruments begs the question of what was responsible for the advent and expansion of those policy instruments? The answer is of course the growth of American power. The cut off dates for Sylvan and Majeski are revealing. The year of the Spanish-American war, 1898, is seen by historians as the year signaling the United States’s coming of age as a great power. The early 1940s is when it becomes clear that it has overtaken Britain as the hegemon (in Europe), for without its intervention in World War II, Western Europe might have fallen to Hitler. The 1990s is of course when the United States inherits its unipolar position. In other words, Sylvan and Majeski are right to point to the development and availability of policy instruments, but what needs to be emphasized, in my view, is the growth of US power that made the acquisition of those policy instruments possible.15

The empire and patron–client concepts, however, contain the seeds of a new and potentially fruitful idea: the United States as the hub or epicenter of a tributary system analogous to that of China’s during the Ming and Qing dynasties. No author writing in the above or other genres has argued for the relevance of the (Chinese) tributary system as a possible framework for understanding how America relates to the ROW.16 Neither has any of the new and important works on the Chinese tributary system (many published by this journal) made the link between the latter and American foreign policy.17 That will be the purpose of this article...

These considerations argue in favor of our adopting their list of US ‘clients’ as a proxy for US tributaries and their list of ‘US nonclients’ as a proxy for nontributaries. There is the risk that transposing the concepts this way may involve some loss of precision for the tributary concept, but for the present purpose, that is more than offset by the gains of relying on quality data not specifically generated for the tributary thesis. Going by their data, 40% of the world fall into the US ‘clients’—or tributaries—category.22 The breakdown of US ‘clients’ or ‘tributaries’ for the various regions of the world in 2005 are: Western hemisphere (97%), Middle East/North Africa (55%), Europe (43%), East Asia/Oceania (43%), Caucasus, Central and South Asia (13%), and Africa (7%).23

The Chinese Tributary System

The Chinese tributary system is usually construed as a means of organizing and regulating China’s external relations from antiquity to the 19th century. It was a system that, according to John Fairbank, ‘handled the interstate relations of a large part of mankind throughout most of recorded history’.24 Generally seen to have reached its apogee from the 14th to the 19th centuries (the Ming and Qing dynasties), the system structured China’s cultural, economic, and security relations with both its neighbors in East Asia and countries from afar. In his recent study of the Chinese tributary system and its impact on East Asia’s international order, David Kang provides a succinct and historically sensitive elaboration of what the system was about:

[T]he tribute system was a set of institutional structures that provided an overarching framework for organizing external relations among political actors in early modern East Asia. A set of rules and institutions developed over time that regulated foreign diplomatic relations, social and economic interaction, and provided a clear sense of order to the system.25

For the purposes of analysis, it is useful to disaggregate the ideas, institutional structures, and rules that constitute the tribute system into the following six features.

Sinocentrism and Civilizational Greatness

Hierarchy, Inequality, and Hegemony

Concentric Radiation

Rituals and Tribute

A Benevolent and Noncoercive Hub

The Domestic is the International and Vice Versa

...What was the impact of the tributary system on the international relations of East Asia? David Kang has argued that it brought China and the region four centuries of inter-state peace and stability.44 All six elements had a role in engendering that peace. Most in East Asia accepted, or at least did not contest China’s civilizational greatness. The Sinicized states voluntarily gave China what it wanted—acknowledgement of its hegemonic status and recognition of its civilization-based superiority. For China, that was in large part what the tributary missions, kowtowing, and investiture ceremonies were about. For the secondary states, it was that and more: they also got protection and commerce. In the main, they also bought into the ideational system and this can be seen in the way that they sought to replicate the tributary model among themselves and in their idealizations of what the model ruler/bureaucrat did. They were not, as David Kang put it, smirking behind China’s back. They internalized the Confucian values and sought to replicate them in their dealings with one another.45

With the principles and effects of the Chinese tributary system laid out, it is now possible to ask: do they have their parallels in America’s approach to the ROW? The task here is not to find exact parallels—an oxymoron and impossible task at any rate—but to discover plausible analogs in US diplomacy that resemble the elements and workings of the Chinese tributary system. Analogical reasoning does not prove; it functions best as a heuristic device for discovering new observations or hypotheses.46 For example, using the Chinese tributary analogy as a lens to examine US diplomacy allows us to ask, what might be the analog (in America) for the Sinocentrism/civilizational greatness assumption? Hypotheses we come up with can and should be assessed against the historical and contemporary experience of American diplomacy.

Table 1 presents, in a summary form, the US analog to each of the above features of the Chinese tributary system. The next section elaborates on each of these analogs.


American Exceptionalism and National Greatness

The American analog of Sinocentrism is an idea well known to students of American government and foreign policy: the idea of American exceptionalism.47 From John Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill’ to Magdalene Albright’s ‘standing taller, seeing further’, America’s sense of self has revolved around its being special and distinct, especially on the moral and political–ideological fronts.48 Whereas China saw itself as the Middle Kingdom—a center of the universe conceit, the United States sees itself as the city on the hill—a sitting at the pinnacle of the world conceit. Like China, the basis of the US difference was moral distance from the ‘other’. The New World’s ‘other’ was the Old World, Europe, rife with inequality, autocratic rule, warfare, and balance of power politics. And if the ideological basis of China’s moral rectitude was Confucianism, then that of the United States was liberal democracy, with a focus on individual liberty or freedom. Heavenly interjection was also central to both of their political identities. While the Chinese emperor ruled ‘all under heaven’ (tianxia) as the metaphorical Son of Heaven, Americans saw their land and themselves as being blessed by God and Special Providence. As President Andrew Jackson put it, ‘Providence has showered on this favored land blessings without number and has chosen you as the guardians of freedom, to preserve it for the benefit of the human race.’.

Difference alone, however, does not qualify one for occupying center stage or hub status in the hierarchy of nations. Greatness is also essential. China’s claim to greatness and to being the epicenter to which tribute must be paid was based on the discourse about the superiority of its civilization. Does the United States also have a notion of greatness, and if so, what is it premised on? Michael Hunt has argued that a vision of national greatness constituted one of three major strands of US ideology by the turn of the 20th century.50 That vision was premised on protecting and promoting liberty via an assertive foreign policy.

While some initially worried that the pursuit of national greatness might strengthen the executive to the point of threatening liberty within America, those who argued the reverse—that a policy of national greatness would actually enhance liberty within—won the debate by the late 1880s. By then the United States had become a great power. Not surprisingly, visions of national greatness captured the popular imagination and welding those visions to protecting and projecting liberty seemed natural. Josiah Strong, the evangelist, summarized the zeitgeist of the times well when he argued that God was ‘preparing mankind to receive our impress’.51 As the remarks of John Winthrop and Andrew Jackson’s suggest, no great mental leap is needed in moving from the ‘city on the hill’ to ‘national greatness’—all one needs is a rationale or justification connecting the two, and the United States found it in the idea of liberty. American elites conjured up a view about the intimate and mutually reinforcing relationship between liberty at home and liberty abroad. Hunt describes this mindset eloquently:

A policy devoted to both liberty and greatness … . was far from being a dangerous and unstable union of incompatibles. Instead, greatness abroad would glorify liberty at home. … Secure in their faith in liberty, Americans would set about remaking others in their own image while the world watched on awe.52

Pursuing national greatness, supporting liberty abroad to protect it at home, and remaking others in America’s image remain consistent and enduring themes in US diplomacy, as anyone familiar with US foreign policy, the speech-acts of US leaders, and the writings of US analysts will attest. From Woodrow Wilson’s fighting World War I to ‘make the world safe for democracy’, to the makeover of Germany and Japan into democracies after World War II, to winning the Cold War and becoming the unipolar power, to the Clinton administration’s (and before that Reagan and Carter's) efforts at promoting and enlarging democracies, it is clear that the United States acted on these imperatives when it could.53 There are of course competing imperatives such as strategic necessity (Bahrain during the Arab Spring), economic renewal (in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008), or world public opinion (in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq) that complicate and hold back supporting liberty and pursuing greatness, but they do not detract from their overall importance as major strands of US foreign policy.

Hierarchy, Inequality, and US Leadership

...Unipolarity and hegemony, however, are not the favored descriptions of America for policymakers in the United States and its tributaries. Unipolarity sounds too social scientific and soulless while hegemony smacks of domination.62 Their preferred discourse is one of US leadership. Figure 1, an N-gram of the terms ‘US, Soviet, and British world leadership’, shows that the United States is associated most consistently, since the 1940s, with world leadership. It shows that the phrase ‘U.S. world leadership’ began appearing in books (written in English) in the early 1940s, with its usage showing a strong and consistent upward trajectory from the late 1970s. Britain makes an appearance from the 1930s to 1950s, but thereafter pales in comparison with the United States. The N-gram finds virtually no works in the English language associating world leadership with the Soviet Union. To be sure, most of these works are probably written by Americans, but one would also expect them to include authors from other English-speaking countries who generally buy into ‘the need for American leadership’ perspective.

Fig. 1 Ngram of US, Soviet, and British World Leadership


In the post-Cold War era, both official discourse and policy sustained this conception of American leadership. Officials talk about US leadership, academics write approvingly of it, and Pentagon plans call for preventing other powers—friendly or unfriendly—from challenging the United States in the key regions of the world (Europe, Persian Gulf, and Asia).63 When the US conception of the ‘New World Order’ was challenged by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United States felt it necessary to go to war to beat back Iraq’s aggression against its tiny but rich neighbor.
Democracy as the Sincerest Form of Flattery

There are two hierarchies in the Chinese tributary system. First, there is China, sitting at the apex of the system. Second, among the tributaries, those most similar culturally to China are ranked higher (and receive more perks) than those less similar. In the American case, the United States of course occupies the pole position. But are the secondary states ranked? They undoubtedly are. As Table 2 suggests, those who make it to the top echelons or inner circles of the American system are overwhelmingly liberal democracies.

Table 2 America’s Closest Tributariesa


Closeness or proximity to the United States is measured by 15 indicators developed for the purposes of this article. The indicators are: participation in America’s wars since 1945, hosting US troops and/or bases on one’s territory, opportunities to address joint Houses of the United States Congress, how favorable and/or great a friend the tributary is according to US public opinion, visa waiver status, signing of Free Trade Agreements with the United States, formal military allies since 1945, Major Non-NATO Ally status (MNNA), OECD membership, and major partners in intelligence sharing. Appendix Table A1 shows how US tributaries and nontributaries score on each of the indicators; Appendix Table A2 provides brief descriptions of the indicators and identifies the sources used for each of them. Space limitations prevent us from delving into and elaborating on each of these ‘measures’ of proximity to the United States, but most of the measures should not be controversial. Countries are given one point for each indicator in which they feature (e.g. South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War garners it one point), with 15 points being the maximum.

The results are in basic accord with our intuitive sense of who America’s closest allies and friends are. South Korea, Australia, and Britain emerge as the United States’ closest allies or tributaries (band 1); South Korea ticks 14 of the 15 boxes, compared with 12 each for Australia and Britain. Canada and France occupy band 2 while Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and Spain are to be found in band 3. In band 4 are Belgium, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey.

One should not make too much of the exact band that any particular ally or tributary is in. Some may argue that Japan and Israel deserve to be a band or two higher and with a different set of indicators, that may well be true. Even if that were the case, it should not change the central message of Table 2: America’s closest tributaries (bands 1–4) are, without exception, democracies. However one juggles the relative rankings of countries in the first four bands, the result is the same: fellow democracies make the best tributaries. In the lower bands (5 and 6), nondemocratic tributaries do show up, but they are in the minority.

The overall pattern is clear: the odds are strongly against nondemocracies being admitted to the highest ranks of the US tributary system. In that sense, both the Chinese and American tributary systems are very similar in possessing a ranking system of the secondary states. In the former, the basis for being admitted into the inner zone was proximity to Chinese civilization; in the latter, the criterion for joining the inner circle is adherence to liberal democratic norms and practices.66

Benevolence for Tributaries, Malevolence toward Challengers

The Domestic-International Nexus: Free World Leadership

US–China Differences

The Self-Perceptions and Behaviors of the Tributaries



White indicate US Tributary State.

Grey highlights indicate US Non Ttibutary State.


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