RA Posts Spring 2019

Have a Little Faith: Scholars’ Confidence in World Leaders

By Sydney Boer
April 29, 2019

In the fall of 2017, the TRIP Project fielded SNAP Poll X about the state of global affairs. American scholars of international affairs shared their opinions on prominent heads of state and these leaders’ international policy. TRIP specifically inquired, “How much confidence do you have in each of the following leaders to do the right thing regarding world affairs?” Respondents could choose between the options of “a lot of confidence,” “some confidence,” “not too much confidence,” “no confidence at all,” and “don’t know.”

Two parts of this question can be interpreted very broadly: confidence and the “right thing.” The “right thing” is a subjective phrase because it can evoke different concepts and people hold different opinions about each of those concepts. Since TRIP collected these specific results from American scholars, one can assume an American-centric bias for this question. Therefore, the “right thing” might correlate with American political interests. Or, since the question specifies world affairs, the “right thing” could evoke a moral dilemma of the welfare of humanity. Are scholars more pragmatic or idealistic? In this case, scholars’ responses would differ based on their political ideology in economics and social issues. Most faculty in the survey identified themselves as somewhat liberal (31.82% in social issues, 41.85% in economics ) or very liberal (51.72% in social issues, 23.04% in economics). The next largest category included middle of the road perspectives. Given this, one can pinpoint their possible global priorities. Do they believe that the “right thing” for global affairs is multilateralism? Open markets? Democracy? Human rights?  TRIP did not test the extent of other factors influencing faculty responses, such as their specific research projects, experience outside the ivory tower, or their personal histories. Therefore, one can never 100% know the motives to these responses.

The notion of confidence also allows a lot of ambiguity. It depends on the personal and professional factors mentioned previously, as well as scholars’ level of skepticism. Because this question alludes to global leaders’ future actions, it requires some extrapolation. Because these academics have dedicated their careers to the study of international affairs, they are most likely aware that scholarly predictions are not always accurate. In fact, they are usually not. Therefore, one can expect scholars generally avoid choosing the extreme options of “a lot of confidence” and “no confidence.” It is also well known that International Relations is a male-dominated field. Male scholars, in general, happen to be more confident in their opinions and academic judgment than their female counterparts; although these confidence levels do not determine the correctness of their statements. Now that the question has been qualified, let’s move on to the data.

SNAP Poll X inquired about seven prominent heads of states for this question. First, the survey asked about the President of the United States, Donald Trump. 82.84% of respondents had no confidence in him doing the “right thing” in global affairs. In 2017, Trump was still relatively new at his position, so a lot of extrapolation went into this question. Some of his presidential actions swirling in the media at this time included talk of backing out of the Iran deal, cutting parts of the Affordable Care Act, cutting taxes, and sanctioning North Korea. Keeping in mind the factors of scholarly confidence, these results speak heavily to the scholarly consensus on President Trump. Because most respondents self-identified as the middle of the road, somewhat liberal, or very liberal, a bias against his conservative policies could have influenced these results. However, the extremity of this poll clearly depicts a strong scholarly consensus.

Next, TRIP inquired about Chinese President Xi Jinping. 44.73% of respondents had some confidence in his leadership, and 40.52% harbored “not too much confidence.” I found these results particularly striking due to the growing animosity between China and Western allies. The option “not too much confidence” is tricky because analysts cannot fully determine whether it means that they think the leader will not significantly alter the state of global affairs, or that the leader just will refrain from doing “the right thing” (whatever that may be). Regardless, compared to the results for President Trump, scholars had a much more favorable view of China’s leader. Although, I suspect that these numbers have declined since President Jinping’s term extension, tensions in the South China Sea, and the proliferation of the Belt and Road Initiative that have occurred since the poll’s fielding in 2017.

In regard to Russian President Vladimir Putin, 65.78% of scholars has no confidence and 27.44% had some confidence that he would do the “right thing” in the international arena. International tensions fueled by the US and Russia were still high at this time over Ukraine, Crimea, the Black Sea, and even Syria to an extent. The majority of scholars are not going to praise President Putin anytime soon, but again, notice that scholars look more favorably upon him than President Trump.

The results for German Chancellor Angela Merkel were the most positive out of these seven prominent leaders. Almost half of the respondents at 49.14% had a lot of confidence that she would do the right thing in global affairs. 43.15% still had some confidence in her actions. For context, Chancellor Merkel has been a strong advocate of the EU embracing refugees. Her liberal refugee policies sparked criticism from EU citizens and EU policymakers. As witnessed through Brexit, the refugee crisis was a very contentious issue in this region in the mid 2010s. However, the mostly liberal scholars who took this survey supported her policies. These results shed light on scholars’ conception of the “right thing” in global affairs; in this case, they support a democratically elected policymaker who champions human rights, multilateralism, free trade, and environmentalism.

60.75% of scholars held some confidence in French President Emmanuel Macron’s abilities to do the “right thing.” Around 15% had a lot of confidence in him, and another 15% did not have much confidence. Because he had just been elected in the spring of 2017, scholars did not have many of his presidential decisions to make an educated opinion about the future of his presidency. Yet, they generally looked favorably on his foreign policy aspirations for free trade and a strong Western alliance. Given that he won the position over far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who ran on a position of populist nationalism, anti-immigration, and leaving the EU, these results suggest that scholars were much more pleased with a moderate political and economic leader than an extremely conservative one. From this data, scholars again seem to support leaders who support multilateralism.

Scholars held the second highest view of Canadian President Justin Trudeau. 35.85% held a lot of confidence in his foreign policy, and 48.21% held some confidence in it. Similar to Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Trudeau approached global affairs with an emphasis on multilateralism and social justice. He established a Low Carbon Economy Fund in response to the Paris Climate Agreement. He is a prominent supporter of gender equality, rights of native peoples, and the LGBTQ community under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Because of the correlation between his far-left social views and the respondents’ mostly liberal social views, I would expect the results to be mostly positive.  

Lastly, scholars shared their opinions on British Prime Minister Theresa May. 50.16% of scholars did not have too much confidence in her ability to do the right thing for global affairs. 28.89% harbored some confidence though. I believe these results were heavily influenced by Brexit, which propelled her into this position as Prime Minister. Prime Minister May and her relationship to Brexit are complicated because, as Britain’s leader, she is trying to comply with the British voters’ decision to leave the EU. Again, her efforts to successfully part with the EU are not a function of her foreign policy goals, but rather the will of the people and the democratic process. Based on the previous polls, scholars have confidence in leaders that support multilateralism and free trade. Because Theresa May feels it is her duty to withdrawal from an international organization, scholars would predictably not have good faith in her policy. Yet, 28.89% have some confidence in her, which could reveal some optimism about the Brexit process and British foreign policy as a whole.

These results about scholars’ confidence in prominent leaders’ ability to skillfully govern a globalized world suggest that scholars base their confidence on multilateralism, free trade, and generally liberal policies. The responses reveal a lot about what scholars look for in a global leader, as well as their notion of “the right thing” for the international community.

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

TRIP X Snap Poll (Embedded in the 2017 Faculty Survey) (Fielded in October 2017):

TRIP Survey Data Dashboard:

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.