Fall 2019 RA Posts

Chugging Along the Campaign Trail: The Future of US Foreign Policy

By Moira Johnson
October 28th, 2019

Well folks, it finally happened. If you’ve been following the democratic campaign trail, you know that we’ve finally arrived at the moment that TRIP’s been waiting for: the candidates broke the seal on foreign policy discussion. With President Trump calling for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on October 13th, the debate on the 15th was the perfect opportunity for the democratic candidates to showcase their foreign policy platforms. While the conversation was sparked by a discussion of U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which many politicians on both sides of the aisle have spoken out about, there was a schism on the debate stage.

While all candidates onstage agreed that the U.S. should work to end military engagement in the Middle East (there have been many candidates from both parties who claimed that they would work to end the Forever War), few agreed on what direction U.S. Foreign Policy should be moving in. 

In the past, TRIP has surveyed scholars about their views on effective tools of statecraft and compared their responses based on the Hawks vs. Doves spectrum:

Hawks represent those more likely to favor aggressive action, including military intervention. Doves prefer to use other methods of engagement, such as diplomatic means. There is a large consensus across both groups when it comes to multilateral efforts, such as free trade agreements, maintaining existing alliances, and international agreements on the whole. Of course, the biggest divide is seen when it comes to maintaining U.S. military superiority. 

Made apparent by the discourse throughout the debate, the divide between Doves and Hawks no longer falls along party lines. While many of the candidates agreed that the U.S. should work to maintain its relationships and support our allies (in the case of Syria, the Kurds), there was a split in the remaining forms of military and diplomatic engagement. On the one side, centrist, internationally-focused candidates (Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar) advocate for remaining committed to our allies 100%. And on the other, more isolation-inclined candidates (Sanders, Warren, and Gabbard) present a more skeptical view of U.S. engagement abroad. 

Donald Trump has also changed the Hawk-Dove binary in this sense. While he has threatened to attack countries he views as antagonistic towards the U.S. as one would expect a Hawk to do, he acts like a Dove by avoiding confrontation.  

Does this division matter anymore? Can Democrats align themselves under the banner of ending wars? Will candidates commit to bringing the troops home or will they place a greater level of importance on maintaining our allies in conflict zones? 

In 2020, no matter if you vote Republican or Democrat, the future of America’s foreign policy is most certainly on the ballot. 

Moira Johnson is a senior at the College, majoring in Government and minoring in Physics. She has worked at TRIP since August of 2018. Her interests include Middle Eastern conflicts, Nuclear Proliferation, and the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Fall 2019 RA Posts

Don’t Chicken Out on Turkey

Peter Leonard
October 21st, 2019

The TRIP Twitter account recently had an insightful Tweet about the current situation unfolding in northern Syria. In the wake of the U.S. pulling out of the region, the door is open for a Turkish invasion.

The Tweet emphasizes the importance of staying with allies, in this case our Kurdish allies. According to a 2017 survey, 96 percent of international relations experts believe that maintaining existing alliances is an effective approach to achieving foreign policy goals. I think the Tweet also raises another valuable question: given the importance of maintaining existing alliances, how should we treat our Turkish allies?

The U.S./Turkish relationship goes back hundreds of years. The alliance was especially important during the Cold War as Turkey, a NATO member, served as a check on Soviet influence in the Middle East. Flash forward to more recent times and one finds that the relationship is in murkier waters. In 2003, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not allow the U.S. to use Turkish bases when invading Iraq. The relationship has only gone south from there.

Erdogan blamed a cleric, now living in the U.S., for instigating a 2016 failed coup attempt and demanded he be extradited to Turkey. Just before the events in Syria, Turkey went ahead with buying a Russian-made missile defense system, despite objections from both the U.S. and NATO. Now, despite President Trump’s warning of retribution if Turkey took action in northern Syria, Erdogan authorized a Turkish invasion to drive out the Kurds. The recent events beg the question of whether U.S./Turkey relations will improve or if the U.S. should back away from its Turkish allies.

Some evidence suggests that the alliance might be ill-fated and on its way out. A 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 79% of Turkish respondents held unfavorable views towards the United States. Academics have a similar weariness of keeping the relationship as it stands. A 2017 TRIP poll found that a plurality of academics thought that the U.S. should not have long-term military bases in Turkey.

If one looks at Turkey’s top priorities, it is easy to see why the relationship has soured. A 2014 TRIP poll found that Turkish scholars felt conflict in the Middle East, transnational terrorism, and immigration were the three most important foreign policy issues facing Turkey. Turkey has similar concerns today. Turkey still hosts over 3 million Syrian refugees and continuously denies Kurdish claims for independence. Most of these foreign policy interests do not line up with the United States, diminishing the common ground the countries can stand on.

Despite evidence pointing to the relationship’s demise, there are also several arguments for why the alliance remains vital. The U.S. and Turkey do have one shared goal: combating ISIS. In a 2018 TRIP poll, U.S. academics still listed terrorism as one of the top five threats facing the U.S. While the U.S. and its allies reduced ISIS’s influence in the Middle East, the group still lingers long after President Trump claimed he “beat ISIS.” Turkey could play a key role in assuring that ISIS does not make a comeback.

Perhaps more importantly, the value in maintaining a relationship with Turkey goes back to the TRIP poll linked in the Tweet. Scholars overwhelmingly agree that maintaining existing alliances is an effective foreign policy tool. Allies are hard to come by in the Middle East. Losing Turkey as an ally would mean losing one of the U.S.’s few connections to the region. Worse yet, Turkey has already shown that it is willing to be friendlier with Russia. In 2014, U.S. scholars remarked that “renewed Russian assertiveness” was still a danger to U.S. foreign policy. Russia’s recent actions in Syria and elsewhere in the region only exacerbate that threat. If the U.S. turns its back on Turkey, Turkey would be further incentivized to embrace Russia as a main ally.

The situation in northern Syria is by no means over. Another blow to the relationship came when the U.S. announced it would place sanctions on Turkey over Turkey’s invasion. Turkey may not be “in the right” in this situation, but the U.S. must tread carefully with how it treats an important NATO ally.

Peter Leonard graduated from William & Mary in 2019 with degrees in Government and History. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in secondary education at William & Mary’s School of Education, as he wants to be a high school Social Studies teacher. Peter loves hiking, playing ultimate frisbee, and watching baseball (he’s been a diehard Rockies fan since birth and was raised in Colorado.) When it comes to International Relations, Peter is interested in how regime type and structure impacts how a government functions and how accountable the government is to its people.

Fall 2019 RA Posts

Ideology and Scholarly Insights

By Aidan Donovan
October 8th, 2019

The ideological divide between International Relations scholars varies greatly between foreign policy issues. Understanding which issues appear to stimulate strong ideological fissures allows us a measure of healthy skepticism when interpreting surveys of scholars. Consumers of academic knowledge should withhold some confidence in scholarly claims until we better understand how scholars arrive at their conclusions. On issues where ideology may cause differing views, we should acknowledge this difference when evaluating overall conclusions, particularly since IR scholars are mostly liberal.

The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project’s 2017 Snap Poll includes responses from 1,395 IR scholars at U.S. colleges and universities. In our sample, 181 scholars identify as somewhat or very conservative on economic or social issues. The large sample of IR scholars allows us to examine the ideological divide within the academy and provide initial support a potential causal relationship between ideology and views on certain issues.

The divide is present on some of the issues we asked scholars to evaluate. First, we asked scholars if they approved or disapproved of “President Donald Trump’s proposed policy of withdrawing U.S. support” (1) from the Iran nuclear weapons agreement and (2) for international climate change agreements. Finally, we asked scholars if they believe that ISIS is a major threat to the United States. According to basic logistic regression models, the apparent role of ideology varies among these issues.

A simple logistic regression of approval to leave the Iran Deal on conservative ideology estimates that conservative scholars are 60 times more likely to support this policy than non-conservative scholars. Ideology explains about a third of the variation in support, suggesting this may be an ideologically salient issue. Iran is a controversial country and has a complicated history with America and its allies, so American perceptions of the deal are deeply partisan.

The next step is to control for factors separate from deep-seated political ideology. The deal relaxed sanctions on Iran and frustrated Israel, an American ally. Therefore, I first controlled for individuals’ belief in the effectiveness of sanctions and maintaining existing alliances as foreign policy tools of the United States. The power of ideology increased slightly, and neither of the foreign policy controls were statistically significant. Next, I included the perceived effectiveness of international agreements and military intervention, since that is often presented as the forced trade-off here. Both of those controls are significant, but conservatives are still 28 times as likely as non-conservatives to approve of Trump’s proposal.

I want to examine different ideological perspectives, so I finally control for confidence in President Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Conservative scholars are about 11 times more likely than non-conservative scholars to approve of Trump leaving the Iran nuclear agreement, even controlling for the policymaking controls and confidence in President Trump. 

An ideological divide is also present on President Donald Trump’s proposed policy of withdrawing U.S. support for international climate change agreements. A simple logistic regression estimates that conservatives are almost 80 times as likely as non-conservatives to support this policy. Almost half the variation in support for withdrawing U.S. support for climate agreements is explained by ideology.

I add controls for the perceived effectiveness of international agreements and international organizations and the ideology gap decreases to 54 times as likely. Belief in international organizations has a statistically significant and negative relationship with approval of this policy. This is unsurprising since the largest climate agreements, notably the Paris Agreement, are negotiated through the United Nations.

Finally, the full model controls for confidence in President Trump as well. Conservative scholars in our sample are about 26 times as likely to approve of withdrawing U.S. support for international climate change agreements than non-conservative scholars, controlling for confidence in Trump, international agreements, and international organizations. Scholars who are confident in Trump are 7 times as likely to support his climate policy. The variation between these estimates show that ideology appears to play a role in scholars’ beliefs on key questions in international affairs, even beyond their expressed political preferences.

However, the role of ideology, and its relationship with political preferences, is not consistent on all issues. A simple logistic regression between scholars’ belief that ISIS is a major threat and ideology finds no significant relationship. In fact, ideology explains less than 1 percent of their perceived threat of ISIS. A hawkish attitude, measured by confidence in military intervention to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals, appears to matter. However, even this relationship breaks down when controlling for confidence in President Trump. Candidate Trump ran on an anti-interventionist stance, but scholars with confidence in Trump are more likely to view ISIS as a major threat than those without confidence in Trump, even though ideology is statistically and substantively insignificant.

Some foreign policy issues, such as climate change agreements and the Iran nuclear deal, appear to stimulate ideological differences in how scholars view the issues and possible solutions. If ideology causes scholars to hold differing views, we must acknowledge this difference when evaluating overall conclusions. Understanding potential ideological biases of scholars allows us to more accurately compare their views. This would make data collected by TRIP and other groups far more valuable. If we can evaluate issues with an understanding of the role of ideology, we will benefit from the vast knowledge and experience of international relations scholars.

Aidan Donovan is a junior at the College of William and Mary, majoring in Economics and Government. He has worked as a Research Assistant for TRIP since February of 2019. His interests include law and economic policy, and he is particularly interested in understanding how scholars think and communicate with policymakers and the public.

Fall 2019 RA Posts

Trump’s Foreign Policy and Presidential Powers: What Do the Experts Think?

By Lucas Arnett
October 1st, 2019

Last week, an anonymous whistle-blower filed a complaint calling into question handling of sensitive information. President Trump went to “great lengths” to classify the details around a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky in which the President asked his counterpart to “look into” a now discredited accusation of Former Vice President Joe Biden only a few days after announcing plans to withhold $400 million in military aid to the Ukranian government. Although Mr. Zelensky denies being pressured and Mr. Trump claims it’s just another ‘witch hunt’, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set in motion plans for an impeachment inquiry. 

It’s no secret that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of unpredictability has been controversial for some time, but scholars could at least agree the President had not overstepped his authority as a President. Now, following the political storm surrounding Wednesday’s events, scholars are being forced to reconsider the impact of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy in a more serious light. The Teaching Research and International Policy (TRIP) team at the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute (GRI), at which I am a research assistant, conducted a survey in October investigating what scholars think of Trump’s foreign policy. 

Trump’s foreign policy has never been popular. Of the 1075 scholars who responded to our survey, 81.1% believe President Trump’s doctrine of unpredictability is not an effective tactic for negotiation. Being unpredictable makes it harder for analysts to understand the President’s agenda and priorities, and it makes our allies less certain that we will come to their aid if need be. Add to that the series of semantic slip-ups the President’s made including revealing classified information to the Russian foreign minister and referring to a variety of developing countries as ‘shitholes’ and it’s not surprising that his policy is unpopular. In October of 2018, 93.2% of experts agreed that the United States is less respected internationally since the Trump administration came into power, and 99.2% of those scholars agree that’s a problem. 


Scholars also disagree with almost every foreign policy decision Trump has made. One of the Trump administration’s first actions was to pass a budget proposal which included a drastic cut in development aid. When asked whether the United States should increase development aid to counteract Chinese influence, only 1.86% of scholars advocated for a decrease in aid compared to 72.9% advocating for an increase, and 22.07% advocating for no change. Additionally, only 6.7% of scholars think President Trump’s DPRK policy will lead to denuclearization, 93% of scholars oppose the President’s proposal to withdraw from NATO, and only 8% of scholars support the President’s decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

Despite a controversial foreign policy, scholars have largely been divided on the issue of executive authority. In late 2018, 48.6% of scholars believed the President had not overstepped his foreign policy powers compared to 41.6% who believed he did and 9.8% who selected “don’t know.” President Trump’s unorthodox travel ban and a flexible interpretation of “national emergency” also were not enough to convince scholars that executive power has increased; in fact 67.9% of scholars agree Presidential power has not increased under Mr. Trump’s administration. On the grounds of abuse of power, scholars don’t seem to recognize a precedent of unpunished impeachable offenses. 

The whistleblower’s complaint incited the political straw that finally broke Congress’s back and it has certainly drawn the public’s attention, but will this be enough to convince academics that President Trump’s ineffectual, unorthodox foreign policy may be putting our country at risk? Is the President’s “lockdown” of the phone call’s transcript symptomatic of an unconventional foreign policy or an attempted cover-up of a large-scale corruption, extortion, and bribery scandal? We’ll have to keep watching. 

Lucas Arnett is a proud member of William & Mary’s class of 2022. He’s  interested in going into the field of International Relations, ideally starting with the Peace Corps and then settling into a calmer desk job as an analyst after a few years. On campus, Lucas is involved with the WM Debate Society, the Eco Schools Leadership Initiative (ESLI), and the Catholic church. A fun fact about Lucas is that his ancestors founded a town in the Midwest called Arnettsville, which still bears his family’s name to this day.

Fall 2019 RA Posts

Spooky Scary Cyberwar

By Peter Leonard

The news has been blowing up recently with reports that Iran may have been behind an attack on a Saudi Arabian oilfield and processing facility. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was among the first to point a finger at Iran, claiming that all evidence pointed to Iran’s involvement. Now, the U.S and Iran are back on the brink of conflict in what has been a tumultuous year. With conventional warfare an unlikely option, the U.S. and Iran could be gearing up for a full-on cyberwar.

When considering the events of the past week, it is important to examine the background of the conflict to contemplate where the countries will go from here. The current tensions with Iran can be partially linked back to the United States withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. President Donald Trump’s decision to renege on the deal frustrated scholars and policy practitioners alike. According to a TRIP poll conducted in 2017, 94% of scholars disapproved of Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the nuclear agreement. 

More importantly, the U.S. withdrawal angered many within the Iranian government. Those who had proposed making peace with the United States now had nothing to show for it. It also appeared to prove that the government’s hawkish factions had been right about not trusting the United States. As a consequence, militaristic factions in Iran became more aggressive about confronting the United States.

Here is where cybersecurity enters the picture. Scholars have said that cyberwarfare would be a major threat for years. In the same 2017 TRIP poll, scholars placed cyberwarfare as one of the top five foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today. When asked about the threat potential of cyberwarfare, 51.93% of scholars noted a cyberattack from another country was a “major threat,” compared to a minor threat or no threat at all. 

Tying this information back to Iran, the vast majority of scholars said international agreements were somewhat effective or very effective at achieving the foreign policy goals of the United States. These statistics stand in sharp contrast to a militaristic approach. Over 79% of scholars said military interventions were either “not very effective” or “not effective at all” in achieving foreign policy goals. Clearly, this data suggests that scholars would prefer a diplomatic approach like the JCPOA over military excursions, including cyberattacks. However, it now seems like current events are trending in the opposite direction.

On June 13, 2019, Iran attacked two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, angering the U.S. and its allies. After saying the U.S. was “locked and loaded,” President Trump backed down from his threats to strike back, or so it seemed. More discreetly, the U.S. carried out several cyberattacks against Iranaian targets, focusing on groups that helped carry out the attack. The cyberattack was not the first time the U.S. had targeted Iran. The US/Israeli-made computer virus “Stuxnet” damaged Iranian computer programs in 2010, infecting over 200,000 computers

The difference between 2010 and 2019, though, is that Iran now has the potential to strike back. The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment stated that “Iran continued to present a cyber espionage and attack threat” to the U.S. The report further stated that Iran “is capable of causing localized, temporarily disruptive effects – such as disrupting a large company’s corporate networks for days to weeks.” The report refers to an example where Iranian hackers hit a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia, attempting to trigger an explosion. It now even seems that Russia has helped Iran improve its hacking abilities. 

As previously noted, scholars believe international agreements are more effective at resolving conflict than military interventions. However, the JCPOA is no longer on the table and it does not seem like the U.S. nor Iran are willing to renegotiate the deal any time soon. Iran’s increased technological capabilities, combined with the U.S. relying increasingly on cyberattacks instead of conventional warfare, leaves the two countries in a precarious position. A cyberwar presents high risk for low reward. Indeed, a cyberwar may just escalate to a full on war. Both countries should figure out a path forward through another diplomatic agreement, not through pernicious lines of code targeted at the other.

Peter Leonard graduated from William & Mary in 2019 with degrees in Government and History. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in secondary education at William & Mary’s School of Education, as he wants to be a high school Social Studies teacher. Peter loves hiking, playing ultimate frisbee, and watching baseball (he’s been a diehard Rockies fan since birth and was raised in Colorado.) When it comes to International Relations, Peter is interested in how regime type and structure impacts how a government functions and how accountable the government is to its people.