What is America? The world recoils when U.S. President Donald Trump says “America first,” but nothing should be more natural than a president putting his country first. The problem with “America first” is that for many people around the world, America is not just a country. The United States is a country. America is something more — not only the most powerful state, but the cultural, economic, and institutional center of a world that it has partially recreated in its own image.
The West does not have a good word to describe America in this expanded sense because the modern West has never seen something like it before. The last time a whole world was so organized around a single, central state was in the fifteenth century, when East Asia was centered on Ming-dynasty China. China at the time wasn’t just the leader or regional hegemon; it was the central state of a political and cultural realm that stretched from Burma to Japan. And the word that came to describe this world was tianxia.
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