Year of Graduation


Level of Access

Restricted Access Thesis

Embargo Period


Department or Program

Government and Legal Studies

First Advisor

Andrew Rudalevige


This thesis is an exploration of how American presidents have used rhetoric for strategic ends in the US-China relationship. Whenever a president speaks, he is speaking to multiple audiences at the same time, yet he also must balance a number of important considerations. I used Robert Putnam’s “Two-Level Game Theory” as a framework for understanding the conditions surrounding a moment of significance in US-China relations in order to decipher a president’s rhetorical choices. The project is divided into five main parts. First, I used the UCSB American Presidency Project to identify broad trends in rhetoric towards China across presidencies. I found that every president has spoken more about China than his predecessor since the 1980s and that presidents are increasingly using negative rhetoric when talking about China. Then, I conducted three case studies, within the Putnam framework, on important points in three presidencies: Truman’s decision to withdraw aid from the KMT, Nixon’s visit to China, and Clinton’s reversal on the issue of MFN status for China. Lastly, I concluded that when “win-sets” on both sides (in these examples: on both the American and Chinese sides) are either large or small, a president should speak about China more frequently. I also looked at Trump’s presidency and the beginnings of Biden’s in order to see how these trends are playing out currently.


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