David McCourt

2017 Hellman Fellow


Assistant Professor, Sociology
UC Davis

Project Title: American Hegemony and the rise of China: 1945 to the present

The growth of China’s economic and military power makes the prudent management of U.S.-China relations a pressing task for policy-makers in Washington D.C. But while much has been written about “China’s rise,” the literature remains both strikingly presentist and focused largely on whether Beijing is a threat to or possible partner of America (e.g., Christensen 2015). What is missing is a historically sensitive analysis of the U.S. side of the Sino-U.S. relationship and how we got to this precarious point. The aim of my project is to help fill that gap by researching and writing a book—tentatively titled American Hegemony and the Rise of China¬, 1945 to the Present—that traces relations between the U.S. and China from the end of the Second World War.

My focus is on the organizations and individuals involved in creating U.S.-China policy, the processes through which China expertise is produced and how these have changed over time, and the resulting impacts on American foreign policy toward China. Preliminary research, including interviews at the U.S. State Department, has uncovered an extensive set of institutions in the Washington D.C. area that produce expertise on China. These include well connected academic departments and research centers such as Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Service, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) such as the RAND Corporation, for-profit business groups such as Booz Allen Hamilton. These groups compete to provide guidance on U.S. policy toward China, through everything from formal contracts with the government to informal advice. They also provide credentials to individuals who end up serving in the U.S. government itself.

American Hegemony and the Rise of China thus assesses the institutional underpinning of U.S.-China relations and its impact on policy since U.S. China policy since 1945. I will examine four periods in detail: the 1940s; the “opening” of China in the early 1970s; the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989; and the lead-up to the pivot to the Obama administration’s so-called “pivot to Asia,” announced in 2010 (see Campbell 2016). For each period, I will assess the publicly available justifications for U.S. China policy through an analysis of speeches, policy documents and media articles. For the more recent periods, I will also interview key policy-makers and advisors. I will then follow leads from documents and interviews back to the organizations that provided advice and expertise about China to U.S. officials.