RA Posts Spring 2019

Foreign Aid: Scholars Stand their Ground

By Sydney Boer
March 25th, 2019

In fall 2015, the Obama administration continued to spearhead a liberal world order. The US led many counterterrorism efforts, denuclearization initiatives, and agreements to address climate change, signaling to the world of its global leadership role. International Relations (IR) scholars had little clairvoyance to the sweeping changings in US foreign policy that would occur with the election of Donald Trump in the following years. However, their opinions about US foreign aid and involvement would not sway with this political change.

In the September 2015, TRIP fielded Snap Poll VII asking IR scholars in the US their opinions on whether the US government should increase foreign aid to developing countries. Results show that a strong 72.7% of scholars believed the United States government should increase foreign aid contributions to developing countries.

Despite social and economic ideological differences, US scholars appeared to agree that the Obama administration should at the very least continue its foreign aid initiatives. The administration’s agenda and scholars’ attitudes seemed to move in tangent. It is possible that scholars influenced the administration’s policy, but it is also possible that foreign policy influenced scholar’s views. The Obama administration was comprised of many experts and academics, who might have swayed foreign policy in line with the scholarly community’s views. The administration could have also used public opinion to inform themselves on general foreign policy decisions. On the other hand, one could argue that this phenomenon was caused by the United State’s general foreign policy of multilateralism and global involvement over the last century. Therefore, a national bias could be at play. However, the following surveys demonstrate consistency in scholars’ views during the Trump Administration.  

Fast forward to the present day, and the Trump administration has pursued, with varied success,  an “America First” foreign policy. Domestic partisan divisions had increased dramatically since the first cited poll in 2015. In October 2018, TRIP fielded a survey titled Snap Poll XI: What Experts Make of Trump’s Foreign Policy. TRIP asked scholars what advice they would give the US government regarding China’s increasing aid and investments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

39.01% responded that the US should increase foreign aid to compete with China. In the same vein of global leadership, 33.89% responded that the US should collaborate with China on foreign aid and investments. Finally, 22.07% responded that the US should ignore China’s activity and  continue with their existing programs. Combining these percentages, 94.97% of experts believed that the United States government should either increase or maintain their global economic involvement.

The goal of this policy in the context of China would presumably be to implement soft power through aid and investments to maintain the US’s leadership status in Asia and deter China’s growing regional power. Although these responses differ along economic ideology more than the previous questions, with very conservative experts tending to recommend decreasing US involvement, the vast majority of scholars maintained their support of the US in a global order. Despite the growing public support of an increasingly isolationist American foreign policy, scholars did not concur with arguments for deglobalization.

The results of these surveys demonstrate the soundness of the scholar community in the face of dramatic political change. Despite the rise of nationalism and populism in the US and around the Western world, scholars still believe that a prosperous American future includes a global agenda. Underlying these results lies the assumption that US can use foreign aid as a soft power mechanism to cement America’s global leadership status. The inflexibility of experts to these growing forms of populism speaks to the theoretical and empirical inviability of this political ideology as a international soft power tool. If the people researching and analyzing the field of international relations believe that the US should continue to involve itself full force in the globalized world, then American politicians should perhaps reconsider their agenda for America’s future.

If you’d like to see more results from the surveys cited above:

TRIP Snap Poll VII (Fielded in September 2015):

TRIP Snap Poll XI (Fielded in October 2018):

TRIP Survey Data Dashboard:

If you’d like to read more work from TRIP on this topic:

Parajon, Eric, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael Tierney. “There Really is an Expert Consensus: Multilateralism Still Matters,” Lawfare. Jan 18 2019.

Sydney Boer is a freshman at the College of William and Mary, majoring in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies. She has worked at the TRIP Project for a semester as a research assistant. Originally from the Boston area, she is interested in sustainable global development, foreign languages, diplomacy, and improving the reputation of Patriots fans everywhere.