Standard treatments of sovereignty in international relations theory conceptualize sovereignty as an absolute, unitary condition. Each state is (notionally) the ultimate constitutional political authority within a given territory. But in a development that has gone unnoticed by international relations scholarship, this Westphalian system of state sovereignty has broken down. At least since 1945 major powers have mutually acquiesced in each others’ settling of the internal affairs of their respective client states, and since 1991 the United States has exercised a near-global authority to settle the internal affairs of nearly all nominally sovereign states. This post-Westphalian system closely resembles the imperial Chinese system of tianxia: “all under heaven.” In the new American tianxia the United States is the central state of an interstate system in which the vast preponderance of interstate relationships are (1) associations with the United States, (2) in direct opposition to the United States, or (3) modulated by the United States. Moreover just as was the practice in imperial China, the United States primarily wages war to settle the internal affairs of other states, not to impose external conditions on them. In this new, post-modern world-system the most important lever of power is influence at the imperial center. Thus the post-modern citizen of the world inexorably seeks to become, either metaphorically or (increasingly) literally, a citizen of the United States. The emerging liberal, universal, homogeneous state is not the United States per se, but the American tianxia writ large to cover the entire world.
The Westphalian era is over. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia symbolized the consolidation of the modern world-system into a coherent system of distinct states with normatively accepted rules of interaction. A world-system in general is “a social system that encompasses a closed or semi-closed social world” (Babones forthcoming) consisting of overlapping cultural, economic, and political systems. The modern world-system (Wallerstein 1974) is the global world-system that for the first time incorporated nearly all of the inhabited areas of the world into a single overarching world-economy. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that ended with the Peace of Westphalia was one of several watershed conflicts that collectively constituted a global adjustment to the creation of this global world-economy: the Ming-Qing transition of 1618-1661 in China, the wars that created modern continental Russia (1598-1689), and the Iberian colonization of the Americas. The Westphalian system of sovereignty can be seen as a response to the vast expansion of the world-economy during this period, the price revolution it engendered, and the destabilizing forces it unleashed.
The Peace of Westphalia is customarily used as a symbolic marker for the emergence of the “Westphalian” system of state sovereignty. Sovereignty is conventionally defined as “supreme authority within a territory” (Philpott 2001:16). It is well-known and well-understood that the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia did not specifically reserve supreme authority within territories to territorial states, nor did it lay out the axiomatic corollary that sovereign states could not intervene in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. The Westphalian system of sovereignty is merely a normative artifact of the understandings and practices that emerged from the Thirty Years’ War and its associated peace (Croxton 1999), and norms take time to develop and solidify. Whatever the specific causal channels through which the Westphalian system of state sovereignty arose, the practice of exchanging resident ambassadors was established among European states in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia (Wheaton 1836:167) and it is perhaps this overt act that should be seen as the marking the beginning of the Westphalian system. After all, the Westphalian system is a norm, and norms are generated through human interaction.
As has been recognized by constructivist international relations scholars, the unitary conceptualization of sovereignty is increasingly at odds with reality. (Biersteker and Weber 1996) This gap has little to do with pathological cases of quasi-sovereignty like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and the Vatican, nor is it connected with the institutionalist bugbear of the rise of non-state actors. The emperor-has-no-clothes gap between sovereignty in theory and sovereignty in practice is the gross disparity in the character of sovereignty as exercised by, say, the United States and Grenada. This gap is not limited to external sovereignty, where it is well-recognized, but applies to internal sovereignty as well. For James this is not a problem. When a less powerful state alters its internal affairs in accordance with the demands of a more powerful state, “the decision to grant such rights or adjust its policy is the decision of the [less powerful] sovereign state” (James 1999:464). Thus the actions of the less powerful state can be influenced but its sovereignty cannot be diluted.
If this de jure device closes a window it also opens a door. James goes on to say of the less powerful state:
“Were it not sovereign, there would be another entity which, because of its own constitutional dispositions, would be regularly entitled to have a controlling or an overriding voice with regard to both the internal and external affairs of the territory concerned.” (James 1999:464)
The term “constitutional” in this sense refers not to a written constitution (though it may include that) but to the accepted mechanisms through which political authority is legitimately constituted within a territory. (Malcolm 1991:17-20) James’s scenario prompts a practical question: is the United States “regularly entitled to have a controlling or an overriding voice with regard to both the internal and external affairs of” Grenada, or any other country? Given James’ criterion, the answer depends entirely on the word “entitled,” since the United States regularly does exercise “a controlling or an overriding voice with regard to both the internal and external affairs of” Grenada — along with many other countries. And though no international legal scholar would say that the United States is constitutionally entitled to interfere in other countries’ affairs, many non-governmental organizations, media organizations, policy pundits, human rights activists, and citizens of other countries regularly call for just such interference.
That last group is crucial. It is often the case that a large and/or influential segment of the population of a nominally sovereign country actively calls for the United States (or another country) to exercise “a controlling or an overriding voice” in the internal affairs of their own country. In such cases it should not be taken for granted that the citizenry of the country constitutes a single body politic conferring legitimacy on the existing constitutional arrangement of the country. Accounting for such cases, the number of cases of unproblematic constitutional order (and thus unproblematic sovereignty) among the 193 member states of the United Nations may be relatively small. Even among powerful, long-established countries the adherence of domestic political elites to the formal independence of the domestic constitutional order may be called into question. When European elites place their European identity ahead of their national identities, when East Asian elites request an American military presence or advocate membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, when Central Asian elites maintain their families in Moscow, when Latin American elites call for American military intervention in their own countries, and when Chinese elites seek American passports for their children, they all call into question the bedrock certainty of James’s “key feature” that sovereignty must be a unitary condition, to say nothing of legal and absolute.
The Westphalian system of sovereign states emerged as a creature of the modern world-system. The modern world-system created an environment in which powerful individuals and organizations required the protection and support of state entities to survive and flourish in an otherwise anarchic world-economy. (Spruyt 1994) The formal sovereignty of these states arose out of the everyday practice of their peer-to-peer interactions. Though James (1999) considers the exchange of ambassadors to be three steps removed from sovereignty (after recognition and the establishment of diplomatic relations), from an historical and dramaturgical point of view the exchange of ambassadors seems more likely to have come first and to have ultimately given rise to the practice of diplomatic relations and the de facto recognition of other states’ sovereignty. The long and difficult struggles of Russia (Mancall 1971) and the United Kingdom (Fairbank 1953) to convince China to accept their ambassadors supports this point of view. However Westphalian sovereignty arose, it was certainly exported from Europe to the rest of the world through the agency of the core European powers. But in an enlarged post-colonial state system dominated by the overwhelming power of the United States the Westphalian conceit that interstate relations are fundamentally peer-to-peer relations is no longer tenable, if it ever was. Now that the material base of the Westphalian system has disintegrated, can the phenomenological superstructure be far behind?
In a development that seemingly went unnoticed by international relations scholars, the Westphalian state system disappeared some time ago. The crux of the Westphalian system was that states would have only state-to-state relations with other states; they would not “reach into” the internal affairs of other states except through the mediation of the respective state institutions. Wars between states might result in the transfer of territory, the payment of indemnities, the and/or the imposition of miscellaneous penalties. They might even result in the installation of a new sovereign. But they emphatically did not aim at the reconstitution of the society of the defeated state. The Thirty Years’ War had begun as a religious war, and the contemporaneous English Civil War had similarly strong religious overtones. These were two of the most (self-) destructive wars in European history before the twentieth century. The Westphalian Peace that followed may not have been much of a peace, but for some 300 years it resulted in wars that were in the main fought between sovereign states for state advantage in an anarchic interstate system. The central conceit of international relations theory — that states are fundamentally external actors vis-à-vis other states — ultimately derives from the Westphalian principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. (Lake 2008)
This principle ceased to operate in 1945. To see this, contrast the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk (1918) and Versailles (1919) with the Yalta Conference of 1945 and its aftermath. The treaties that ended World War One on both the eastern and the western fronts resulted in the transfer of territories and the payment of indemnities. They also coincided with changes in government. But they did not themselves mandate changes in the constitution of political authority in the defeated countries. The Soviet government that ultimately arose in the east was an anathema both to the Germans who facilitated its success and to the Western allies that defeated Germany. The political constitution of Germany also changed between the signing of the Armistice in 1918 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Yet the new Weimar Republic still had to accept full responsibility for the Kaiser’s war. The fact that yet another German government renewed hostilities a mere twenty years later had little to do with whether or not the terms of the treaty were just or fair. Hitler’s Nazi government had the same kinds of Westphalian aims as Wilhelm II’s imperial government did a generation earlier, only more grandiose and gruesome.
Similarly, the little-remembered Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 imposed Westphalian-style conditions on the defeated minor powers of World War Two. Italy and Finland lost territories and paid reparations — Italy to Yugoslavia and Greece; Finland to the Soviet Union. But they retained their constitutional autonomy. Not so the main belligerents. Germany and Japan lost territories, to be sure. But they were also occupied and their societies radically reshaped by the victorious powers. The political constitutions of both (West) Germany and Japan were more or less dictated by the United States, which also imposed major economic restructuring (including the breaking up of industrial monopolies, land reform, and mass unionization), changes to school curricula, and formal war crimes tribunals. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union imposed even more extensive restructuring on the constitutions and societies of the states that came under its control. These gross violations of Westphalian sovereignty had been agreed in principle at Yalta and became the basis for the postwar settlement. It can fairly be said that the Westphalian system became a dead letter in 1945.
It remains a dead letter today. In the early twenty-first century five states have at least some real capacity to impose regime change on other states — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China — and the first four regularly exercise this power. It might be credited to the foresight of the architects of the postwar settlement that these five states are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which in the United Nations treaty system has the sole international legal authority to authorize the waging of war. That the United States and Russia routinely wage war in pursuit of the emphatically non-Westphalian aim of constitutional change is acknowledged by Lake (2008:55), but the United Kingdom and France have recently done so as well, albeit with support from the United States. And interstate war is only one tool of regime change. The United States employs a wide range of policy instruments to install and maintain constitutional orders that accord with its desires in countries around the world, often in conjunction with its (many) allies. The Westphalian principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states is repeatedly invoked in vain (if often somewhat disingenuously) by Russia, China, and other states that fall outside the American alliance system.
The breakdown of Westphalia does not apply only in the peripheries of the world-system. Though not threatened by forcible regime change, states in the established core of the world-system also lack full constitutional independence. James’ (1999) test of regular entitlement to “a controlling or an overriding voice” in the affairs of another country applies to the rich countries of Western Europe and the Pacific, though more subtly. Powerful individuals and organizations insist that their governments remain broadly in compliance with the preferences of the United States. For many national elites, continued access to the United States and its amenities is more important than the sentimental bonds of nationhood. Their preferred course is for their countries not to come into conflict with the United States, but where their countries’ constitutional arrangements do come into conflict with the demands of the United States, the demands of the United States generally prevail. In the twenty-first century this has been demonstrated repeatedly through other states’ complicity in American torture rendition programs, the acceptance of the extraterritorial enforcement of American law, the observance of financial sanctions imposed by the United States on third parties, the toleration of American intelligence collection on foreign soil, the acceptance of American intellectual property standards, and of course the routine hosting of American military forces.
If the Westphalian system of state sovereignty truly did arise as a reaction to the emergence of the modern world-system, the cessation of the Westphalian system may be seen as a reaction to the dissolution of the modern world-system. The modern world-system was a world-economy in which the economic system was too large to be controlled by any one political entity. As a result the world-market was an impersonal, exogenous force that placed hard constraints on all political actors, including sovereign states. In the modern world-system states may have been sovereign vis-à-vis each other but were not sovereign vis-à-vis the world-market. The eventual endogenization of the world-market under the control of the United States started (clumsily) with the Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates and limited international trade. It was temporarily set back by the 1970s oil crises but has now matured to the point where all peak markets (oil, metals, money) are politically managed by the United States and its collaborators. More importantly, the highest value economic activities are no longer concentrated in market sectors at all. The commanding heights of the contemporary global economy are in areas like telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and entertainment — areas that depend on state sponsorship through the protection of intellectual property. The only state with sufficient global reach to enforce global intellectual property rights is the United States. Thus the global economy is no longer characterized by the dominance of an overarching world-market. The peak sectors of the global economy have been endogenized under the political sponsorship of the United States. (Babones forthcoming)
In this post-Westphalian world degrees of sovereignty can be gaged by proximity to American power. Only the United States can be said to exercise full state sovereignty, since only the United States is, practically speaking, immune to all external “controlling” or “overriding” voices originating in other states. Outside this American center, three broad, hierarchical circles of more or less limited sovereignty exist in the post-Westphalian state system. These might reasonably be called shared sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and compromised sovereignty.
The closest allies of the United States may not have any voice in the constitution of political authority within the United States itself, but they do share with the United States some influence over the shape of the world-system in which they are embedded. This ring of shared sovereignty consists of the four major Anglo-Saxon allies of the United States: Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. These four countries are close collaborators in the project of American global governance, or to use a less flattering description they are like barnacles on the American whale. The citizens, companies, non-governmental organizations, and governments of America’s four Anglo-Saxon allies participate directly in American global governance through their participation in a common cultural space of opinion formation, their close integration into the American economy (especially Canada and the UK), and their deep cooperation with the American security services. While these four countries are clearly “outside” the United States itself they are to some extent “inside” the institutions of American global governance. Their inclusion in these institutions goes well beyond official intergovernmental cooperation. For example, while think tanks located in these four countries have virtually no influence on domestic politics in the United States, they are closely interwoven with the American foreign policy community. (Babones 2015)
Other allies of the United States enjoy varying degrees of partial sovereignty in domestic affairs (subject to currency, investment, and trade openness) while ceding nearly all decision-making over foreign affairs. Included in this category are the continental European NATO members, the East Asian treaty allies of the United States, and a few other states scattered throughout the world. These may be the only states in the post-Westphalian system that more or less fit the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty as interpreted by James (1999) and Malcolm (1991). They have voluntarily ceded to the United States the authority to make many of the decisions usually associated with sovereign authority — and could in principle seize it back. The fact that the states that govern every single developed country in the world today have chosen to align themselves, formally or (in a few cases) informally, with the American military alliance structure and the broader mechanisms of American global governance suggests that there may not be much sovereign freedom of choice in this decision after all. Nonetheless, the formal sovereignty of the Western European and East Asian allies of the United States is clear. Partially sovereign in the post-Westphalian system, these might be termed sovereign client states if viewed from a Westphalian perspective. (Babones 2014)
The remaining states of the world are subjected to compromised sovereignty: they (often loudly) proclaim the right of full legal sovereignty but are often unable to make this right effective. Those states that accept compromised sovereignty suffer peripheralization and economic colonialism. Those that do not accept compromised sovereignty face strong external push-back and internal pressure for regime change. From a definitional standpoint the key fact here is not that these countries lack sufficient power to enforce their sovereignty (this issue is fully accounted for in James 1999 and Malcolm 1991) but that the constitutional authority of the governments of these states to govern their territories in the ways that they do is not unambiguously accepted as legitimate by the populations they govern, and certainly not by their national elites.
In the new, post-Westphalian state system, many states — perhaps the majority of states — lack full political authority within their own territorial borders for just this reason. In the developed countries of the West it would be difficult to find members of the national elite who openly question the constitutional legitimacy of the states of which they are citizens and rarer still to find any who seek support from foreign governments and organizations to assist them in changing the constitutional orders of their countries. The fact that such support is often forthcoming in less developed countries regularly prompts their states to accuse the United States (and the “West” more generally) of violating international law by interfering in their internal affairs. When a state’s political authority is not accepted as constitutionally legitimate by many of its own citizens, including many of its intellectual elite, and when external states similarly question the constitutional legitimacy of that state and actively seek to change the state’s political constitution to bring it more into line with their external expectations, it seems only reasonable to consider the state’s sovereignty to be compromised.
Importantly, it is not only antisystemic states whose sovereignty is compromised in such a way. All non-western countries host substantial pro-western political elites. It may be politically incorrect for a Western author to make such a provocative assertion. Nonetheless, it seems to be the case that (1) large proportions of the elite citizens of African, Latin American, and Eurasian countries question the constitutional legitimacy of the political authority of the states under which they live and (2) many of these very elites seek Western political interference in the internal affairs of their own countries. If these two propositions hold, and if James’ (1999) constitutional interpretation of sovereignty is accepted, the implications for the Westphalian system of state sovereignty seem unavoidable. The passing of the modern world-system governed by the ultimate power of an exogenous world-market and the concomitant passing of the Westphalian state system organized on the principle of unitary state sovereignty may be cause for sorrow or cause for cheer. Either way, it is becoming increasingly difficult in the twenty-first century to file new empirical realities under the old conceptual labels.
An American tianxia
The global world-system is in the midst of a transition from the predominance of the global economic system (a “world-economy”) to the predominance of a global political system (a “world-polity”). The particular economic system that dominated the world in the second half of the second millennium was the market system; thus the late world-economy might be classified as a “world-market.” (Babones forthcoming) Other peak economic systems could be imagined, and often were. The particular political system that is coming to dominate the world in the first half of the third millennium is more difficult to classify. The Wallersteinian term for a world-system in which the political system is the predominant social system is a “world-empire,” but world-empires are weakly theorized in world-systems analysis. (Woolf 1990) In any case the word “empire” itself does not accurately describe the ways in which the United States exercises authority in the interstate system (Nye 2004) and its use has so many meanings and connotations in English that it prompts objections from all quarters (Khong 2013). The term “world-empire” is probably best reserved for world-systems in which a single state exercises full political jurisdiction over its entire world-system, such as the Roman Empire in the first few centuries AD. Another, less laden — or differently laden — term is required to describe the contemporary world-policy.
The contemporary world-polity dominated by the United States and its allies is unprecedented in scope but perhaps not in structure. It is a hierarchical polity composed of a central state (the United States), a small collection of allied states that are so closely identified with the central state that their military forces, intelligence services, financial markets, publishing houses, and intellectual communities are fully integrated with those of the central state (and have been for some 100 years), a large collection of treaty allies that broadly accept the overarching ideological assumptions of the central state, and an even larger collection of dependent states that generally accede to the existence of a hierarchical state system that places them in a subordinate position. A small number of antisystemic states overtly object to the hierarchical organization of the world-polity, but only three of these states are strong enough to pursue somewhat independent foreign policies (China, Russia, and Iran) while the few other antisystemic states are in practice client states of one or more of these three.
This political configuration is strongly reminiscent of the Roman world of the late Republic (c. 200-92 BC), with Rome as the central state, the Latin allies sharing in Roman sovereignty, and various Mediterranean powers enjoying partial sovereignty in alliance with Rome, while the three Hellenistic successor states vied with Rome as antisystemic powers. The structural correspondence between the two systems is very close. Their trajectories, however, are very different.
Unlike Republican Rome, the United States is not (or at least is no longer) expanding its directly governed territory via the conquest of its neighbors, and the United States is not on the road to world-empire in the Imperial Roman sense. Quite the contrary: the emerging American-centered world-system is near-static in its state borders, with nearly all changes of border since the end of World War Two consisting of the division of existing political entities while the external borders of those entities remain intact. The very few external border changes since the 1945 settlement have either been trivial (conflicts over maritime and mountain frontiers where few if any people actually live) and/or of unrecognized legitimacy (e.g., the annexations carried out by Israel and Russia). The world map has changed dramatically since 1945, but the borders that existed in 1945 have hardly budged. In any case most people’s understandings of the world-system structure of the Mediterranean world of the late Roman Republic are completely overshadowed by their impressions of the world-system structure of the high Roman Empire. Though the first may have been a world-polity without being an empire the second was unambiguously an empire and a world-empire.
East Asian history suggests a more appropriate model. From AD 1271-1911 a series of three dynasties (Yuan, Ming, Qing) ruled a united China that dominated East Asia from the disintegration of Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire until the intrusion of European territorial colonialism. Throughout this period China was the central state of the East Asian political system. The modern Chinese name for China, Zhongguo, literally translates as “central state,” though it is customarily rendered in English as “Middle Kingdom.” Like China itself, the political system of which China was the central state historically did not have a name (as such), since in the Chinese conception of the world it encompassed the entire relevant world. In the words of Mancall (1971:3), “the Chinese state was not a state at all in the conventional meaning of the word, but rather the administration of civilized society in toto.” Chinese scholars were certainly aware of the existence of other civilizations — including ancient India (Tianzhu) and Rome (Da Qin) — and of course India was well-known to be the source of Chinese Buddhism. But geographical factors made these civilizations politically irrelevant to the Chinese governance of the East Asian political system. (Mancall 1971:7) To the extent that the political system of which China was the central state had a name, or at least a label, it might be identified with the Chinese word tianxia (“all under heaven”).
Tianxia is an ancient concept in Chinese philosophy (Yan 2011:43-46) but it reached its highest development as a practical guide to the governance of a multi-state world-polity under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Ming dynasty was a native Han Chinese dynasty that directly exercised what might be called full state sovereignty over the entire Han cultural area of the time, an area roughly corresponding to contemporary China minus Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Tibet. The founder of the dynasty, the Hongwu emperor, implemented a neo-Confucian civil religion embodied in a legal code that established the emperor as the embodiment of the mandate of heaven (tianming) under which all civilized peoples were to be governed. (Jiang 2015) The tianming concept was not new to the Ming dynasty, but its application via Chinese law to the entire East Asian world-polity (tianxia) was. Wang (2013:133) contrasts the Chinese concept of tianxia with the Latinate concept of imperium (“authority”), which is the root of the English word “empire.” He writes that tianxia “depicts an enlightened realm that Confucian thinkers and mandarins raised to one of universal values that determined who was civilized and who was not … tianxia was an abstract notion embodying the idea of a superior moral authority that guided behaviour in a civilized world.” Whereas the Roman imperium connoted an expressly delegated political authority to command obedience, the Chinese tianxia encompassed a moral authority that entitled the state to the obedience of its subjects and suzerains alike.
Those suzerains included three classes of external sovereigns. To the east and southeast of China were a ring of organized agricultural states that had adopted Chinese state Confucianism as a governing principle, accepted the Chinese astrological calendar (along with its cycle of official celebrations), and used Chinese as the official language of government: Korea, Japan, the Ryuku Islands, and Vietnam. These states occupied a position that is in some ways analogous to that occupied by the partially sovereign developed democracies of today’s world. They were clearly incorporated into and actively participated in the Chinese tianxia. To the south and southwest of China were the organized agricultural states of (what is now) Southeast Asia: Sulu (in today’s Philippines), Java, the Muslim maritime sultanates, the Khmer Empire, and Thailand. These non-Confucian states nominally accepted Chinese leadership and often turned to China for the settlement of disputes but maintained independent foreign policies vis-à-vis each other. They occupied a position that is in some ways analogous to the compromised sovereignty of today. And to the northwest and north of China were a shifting collection of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribal societies, including Jurchen, Mongolian, Turkic, and Tibetan groups. Ming China engaged with these groups much as the United States today engages with failed and conflict-ridden states. Their chronic problems were to be managed through education in the manners of Chinese civilization.
The political geography of the Ming tianxia exhibits only minor topical similarities to the political geography of the contemporary American-centered world-polity. Yet the governance structures of the Ming tianxia are strikingly similar. The main institutional mechanism through which the Chinese state managed the East Asian world-polity was the tributary system. In this system, the sovereigns of the other states (and quasi-states) of the East Asian world-polity regularly acknowledged the suzerainty of the Chinese emperor, who in exchange legitimized their rule over their various domains. Khong (2013:9-13) identifies six key features of the Chinese tributary system: Sinocentrism, hierarchy, cultural affinity, non-coercion, diplomatic rituals, and the conflation of the domestic and interstate spheres. Khong identifies close parallels between Chinese and American practices on all six dimensions, but the last dimension is key. In the Chinese tianxia, “the Chinese emperor is the ‘governor’ of not just China, but ‘all under heaven'” (Khong 2013:28), the “paterfamilias of all mankind” (Mancall 1984:38). This implied that the Chinese emperor was ultimately responsible for the sound management of the internal affairs of the non-Chinese states within the Chinese tianxia. As a result, the “divergent interests of each tributary or of groups within each tributary were … balanced by their common acceptance of the emperor’s power to recognize local political authority.” (Mancall 1984:39; emphasis added)
Khong (2013:29) draws an explicit parallel between the constitutional role of the Chinese emperor as “governor” of the East Asian world-polity and the constitutional role of the President of the United States as “leader of the free world.” Khong does not use the actual word “constitutional” but the relationship is clearly constitutional in the sense spelled out by James (1999) and Malcolm (1991): like Ming China’s Confucianism, contemporary America’s political and economic principles are embedded in the political authority structures of its allied client states. In the American system, democratic governance and respect for private property rights are prerequisites for admission to the society of civilized states (though not necessarily in that order). In an echo of the external application of China’s Great Ming Code to the entire Ming tianxia, the United States today projects outward to the dependent zones of its world-polity a human rights regime that is overwhelmingly tilted toward the protection of the rights of identity groups that are politically mobilized in the United States. The extraterritorial application of statutory American law is widespread, and frequently demanded by elites in subordinate states. (Cabranes 2015) Recent high-profile financial and sports corruption cases have even seen the extraterritorial application of American law in Western Europe.
Writing about the potential for a renewed Chinese tributary system in the twenty-first century, Yan (2011:204) claims that “the idea of sovereign equality among nations has become a universal norm of the contemporary world and it cannot be replaced with the hierarchical degrees of the tribute system.” Yet Khong (2013) shows that this is exactly what has happened, albeit with the United States rather than China as the tribute-receiving and legitimacy-dispensing central state. And unlike Ming China, which demonstrated (or bought) its primacy by giving gifts to its tributaries that were of much greater value than the tribute received from them, the United States collects the ongoing tribute of dollar seigniorage while offering nothing of definite value in return. The emerging American tianxia is still taking shape, but already it reaches deep into the psyches of most of the world’s educated elites through its preeminence in the universities, in entertainment, in business practice, and on the internet. As in Ming China, where non-Chinese elites “participated in a culture that transcended, and knew no specific reference to, particular boundaries or geopolitical institutions” (Mancall 1984:66), the emerging American tianxia is fast becoming “the common ideological heritage of mankind” (Fukuyama 1989:9). Liberal democracy married to commodity fetishism is no longer the American culture but the world culture. If not the end of history, this does at least constitute the end of an era — and the beginning of new, millennial world-system.
A post-modern world-system
The military, economic, and cultural power of Ming China was unmatched in East Asia, but in general the successive Ming governments did not seek to expand the territorial extent of the Chinese state itself. Instead they sought to solidify traditional state and quasi-state boundaries. When disputes arose between subordinate states and quasi-states in the East Asian system, the normal practice was for the aggrieved party to seek a dispensation from the Chinese imperial center. The conceit of tianxia was that judgments from the center should in principle be obeyed at the periphery. When the rulers of subordinate states refused to obey the directions of the emperor, the general practice was to attempt to force a change in the ruler of the offending state rather than to use force against the offending state itself. Such a change could sometimes be accomplished through the withholding or redirecting official patents of office — in essence, through the use of tools of diplomatic recognition (Mancall 1984:39) Such spiritual tools were always backed up by temporal power, but the final resort to temporal power was viewed as a failure of the proper management of subordinates. Ming China sought to accomplish via internal interference what other world-polities (notably the Roman world-empire) accomplished via external coercion. Ming China acted as (forgive the anachronism) the central state of a post-Westphalian world-polity. The result was a period of extraordinary order and stability. (Kang 2010)
Similarly, the military, economic, and cultural power of the United States is unmatched in the world today, but for more than a century successive American governments have not sought to expand the territorial extent of the American state itself. Instead they have sought to solidify traditional state boundaries. When disputes arise between subordinate states in the American system, aggrieved parties often seek a dispensation from the American imperial center. When the rulers of subordinate states refuse to obey the directions of the President of the United States, the general practice is to attempt to force a change in the ruler of the offending state rather than to use force against the offending state itself. Such a change could often be accomplished through economic sanctions, bombing campaigns, or (in the final instance) military occupation. The spiritual tools of human rights reports, election certifications, and public pronouncements are always backed up by temporal power, which is perhaps used more frequently than it should … but the system is still young and not yet mature. The United States is able to achieve via soft power — “attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye 2004:256) — the acquiescence that Ming China had to purchase via subsidies and Imperial Rome had to enforce via conquest. The United States is now the central state of a post-Westphalian world-polity. The result is likely to be a period of extraordinary order and stability.
The stability of the American tianxia rests on the post-Westphalian intertwining of internal and external affairs. This has aligned the interests (and world-views) of decision-makers toward cooperation and self-restraint. (Chan 2012) The Westphalian use of force in sub-imperial interstate relations is rarely considered by state leaders to be a realistic policy option. The legitimate use of force is reserved instead to the United States. (Babones 2015) Though the present and increasing dominance of the United States in global affairs may not be apparent in conventional quantitative indicators like time series data on national proportions of global GDP, it should be remembered that economic preponderance is merely an enabler of power. (Nye 2015) It does not itself constitute authority, imperium, or tianming. This is made clear by the fact that even though the preponderance of the United States in global GDP was much larger in 1955 than in 1995, the preponderance of American hegemony over the world as a whole was clearly much greater in the 1990s. In any case much of the economic activity that contributes to the dominance of the United States occurs outside the territorial borders of the United States. For example, the global internet, finance, and energy sectors have been to varying degrees endogenized under American control. (Babones forthcoming)
China’s Ming dynasty did ultimately collapse in 1644, to be replaced by the Qing dynasty. While the Chinese concept of tianxia was appropriated by the Manchurian Qing dynasty, the East Asian world-polity that was the Ming tianxia did not survive as an independent world-system. Beginning in the (long) sixteenth century and with the Ming-Qing transition of 1644 as a symbolic inflection point, the East Asian world-polity was absorbed into the expanding modern world-system. This transition is reflected in the fact that whereas the high Ming emperors self-confidently embraced interactions with the wider world (including the presence of Jesuit missionaries at the Ming court) the Qing emperors threw up a cordon sanitaire to exclude, isolate, or neutralize external influences. Contacts with the non-Asian world were strictly limited and delimited. Though Qing dynasty sought to exclude Western influences, the long-distance trade by land and sea that integrated East Asia into the modern world-system created new patterns of interstate relations throughout the region. The Qing dynasty itself retained full independence until 1840, did not fall until 1911, and often prospered over the 267 years of its reign. But it was never the unchallenged central state of a distinct world-system. Its erstwhile client states had important interactions with external powers over which the Qing emperors held no authority. Whatever their rhetorical pretensions, the Qing emperors knew full well that their tianming did not encompass all under heaven.
The American tianxia is likely to last much longer, if only for the simple reason that there are no other world-systems for it to encounter. Barring science fiction scenarios, the American tianxia will play out strictly according to its own internal logic. Understanding that logic should be a major goal of the social science of the twenty-first century. Fukuyama (1989) should be read as prescient first attempt to achieve just such an understanding. It might be said that the American tianxia is the universal homogeneous state that Fukuyama was looking for but did not quite find at the end of history in 1989. Its civil religion of liberal democracy is more expansive, more universal, and (one might say) more attractive than the Ming civil religion of state Confucianism. Whereas Ming China exported governing ideas, the United States exports governing ideals. As a result, the “American tianxia… has a missionary drive that is backed by unmatched military power and political influence. Compared to the Chinese concept, it is not passive and defensive; rather, unlike other universal ideals, it is supported by a greater capacity to expand.” (Wang 2013:135) The anarchic modern world-system of constant interstate conflict lasted five hundred years. The hierarchical millennial world-system of regime management may last a thousand.
Pronouncements of thousand year reichs are always ripe for ridicule, perhaps rightfully so. But (as Wallerstein recognized) world-polities are highly stable systems. The Roman polity persisted over a continuous history of 2206 years (753 BC – AD 1453). It was a world-polity spanning the entire Mediterranean basin for more than 800 years, from the defeat of Carthage to the rise of the Caliphate. The Yuan-Ming-Qing polity lasted 640 years (AD 1271-1911), including perhaps 250 years as the central state of a much larger world-polity that spanned all of East Asia. In the absence of contact with the larger world-economy the Ming world-polity would certainly have continued in existence, or have transferred over into the next dynasty. As history actually did unfold the only factor compromising the Qing dynasty’s preponderance over East Asia was the intrusion of the European maritime powers. Other, less paradigmatic cases of world-empire were similarly long-lasting — despite the lack of modern transportation and information technology. By comparison a world-polity that has the capacity to monitor substantially all global communications has awesome powers of stabilization indeed. Increasing computing power and the advance of machine learning will only reinforce the concentration of political power at the center. Whether or not genuine political authority will follow is to be seen.
The Westphalian system of state sovereignty arose in the context of the 1640s consolidation of the modern world-system. Using conventional symbolic dates, the period from its emergence (1492) to its consolidation (1648) lasted 156 years. The entire reign of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) might be considered the period of consolidation of the Ming world-polity, giving 97 years from emergence to consolidation. The American tianxia may be said to have emerged in 1945 and consolidated after 2001: the Westphalian principles that were effectively discarded at Yalta were finally disavowed after the September 11 attacks. Thus in comparative and world historical terms, the new millennial world-system is still quite young. The states — and people — of the world are still learning how to inhabit it. The United States, long a magnet for the energetic and ambitious, has in the twenty-first century become the destination of choice for the world’s elites, particularly for the Chinese elite. Just as Josephus and Peter made their way to Rome, in the post-modern American tianxia the elite citizen of the world is inexorably drawn to the United States. Wherever they live, and whatever their opinions of the United States, elites recognize the value of being American. Fukuyama’s liberal, universal, homogeneous world-polity may not be the United States per se. It is instead the American tianxia writ large to cover the entire world.
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