RA Posts Spring 2019

An Ideological Divide? Reassessing the Public-Expert Gap on National Security Threat Perception

By Aidan Donovan
April 10th, 2019

International Relations scholars disagree with the American public on crucial national security issues like cybersecurity, terrorism, and nuclear weapons. While the American public is fairly evenly distributed along the ideological and educational spectrum, IR scholars are highly educated and the majority consider themselves to be liberal on social and economic issues.

The ideological imbalance in International Relations must be considered when studying public-expert gaps. On some issues, IR scholars may think similarly to the public and simply arrive at different conclusions based on their ideology. On other issues, we may find strong evidence of a persistent gap between scholars and public opinion, regardless of ideology. A closer look at the differences between conservative and liberal IR scholars could provide needed insight on the public-expert divide.

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, though the majority of scholars identify as liberal, 181 scholars identified 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 assess the origins of the significant public-expert divide on national security issues. Below, I examine survey data on several relevant foreign policy issues to explore divergences in public-expert attitudes and the ideological divide among academic experts.


71 percent of Americans think cyberattacks from other countries are a major threat to the United States. A 2017 Chicago Council survey indicates that Americans perceive the threat of cyberattacks on par with the threats of international terrorism and the North Korean nuclear program; all three are viewed as a critical threat by about three quarters of Americans surveyed. This threat perception is consistent across parties: 73 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats see cyberattacks as a critical threat.

According to TRIP data from our 2017 Snap Poll, 52 percent of IR scholars think cyberattacks from other countries are a major threat to the United States. 56 percent of conservative scholars and 52 percent of liberal scholars think cyberattacks are a major threat, indicating that this perception is independent of ideology. 41 percent of conservative scholars, compared to 36 percent of liberal and moderate scholars, consider cybersecurity one of the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today. Similarly, 46 percent of conservative scholars and 49 percent of liberal and moderate conservative scholars consider the issue one of the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States over the next ten years.

The ideological divide works in opposite directions for the public and scholars, but each is within the margin of error. The perceived threat of cyberattacks does not depend on ideology, as conservative and liberal scholars, similar to the public, generally agree that it is a serious foreign policy issue. A majority of both scholars and the public think cyberattacks are a major threat. While the public is more concerned, this aligns with our generally alarmist attitudes, supporting the conclusion that cybersecurity is a rare national security issue with common ground between conservatives and liberals, and experts and the public.


Three-quarters (74 percent) of the American public viewed ISIS as a major threat in 2017, but less than one out of six scholars agreed. Americans considered ISIS the second-biggest international threat to the United States, behind only cyberattacks from other countries. In the Spring 2018 Global Attitudes Survey, 62 percent of Americans rated the “Islamic militant group known as ISIS” as a major threat to the United States. Concern over ISIS may be declining, but it is still more than four times higher compared to IR scholars.

The salience and shock of international terrorism, and particularly ISIS, is more powerful on the general public than on IR scholars. The attributed motivation and social categorization of terrorist actors shape our understanding of and response to terrorist incidents. This public lens shapes government response, as we see substantial concessions after up to half of all suicide terrorist campaigns. The public-expert divide on the threat of terrorism thus has important policy implications.

According to TRIP data from 2017, only 14 percent of IR scholars think ISIS is a major threat to the United States. Conservative scholars were slightly more likely to view ISIS as a major threat, with a five point difference (19 versus 14 percent) between conservative and non-conservative scholars.

Conservative scholars are twice as likely to rank international terrorism as one of the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today: while only 19 percent of IR scholars overall consider international terrorism one of the three most important foreign policy issues, 34 percent of conservative scholars rank international terrorism this high. A nearly identical difference is present when we ask scholars about threats in the near future. 17 percent of all IR scholars consider international terrorism one of the three most important foreign policy issues over the next ten years, and conservative scholars are more than twice as likely as other scholars to report this (29 versus 14 percent).

There is a significant difference between conservative and other scholars on the perceived threat of ISIS and the significance of international terrorism to foreign policy. However, even conservatives, who tend to be far more worried by terrorism, are more than four times less likely to view ISIS as a major threat than the public. Ideology seems to influence beliefs (directly or indirectly) on international terrorism, but this does not explain the public-expert divide on the threat posed by ISIS and international terrorism generally. The divide may result from the additional foreign policy information scholars can access and their enhanced ability to process this complicated information.

Iran Nuclear Deal

In October 2017, one quarter (27 percent) of Americans surveyed by SSRS (for CNN) thought the U.S. should withdraw from the multilateral agreement intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. When TRIP polled IR scholars in the same month, just 4 percent approved of President Trump’s proposal to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

While the question was posed to the public without mention of President Trump, withdrawal from the agreement, popularly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, is typically framed in connection to Trump. As a result, the significant proportion of respondents supporting the nuclear deal appears to be a direct effect of support for President Trump generally. Of those who approve of President Trump, 46 percent think the US should withdraw. Of those who disapprove, just 16 percent think the US should withdraw.

While less than 4 percent of scholars approved of President Trump’s proposal to withdraw from the agreement, there is a significant gap along ideological lines. Less than 1 percent of moderate and liberal scholars support leaving the agreement. This is unsurprising, as scholars generally support international agreements and oppose President Trump’s international proposals. On the other hand, one quarter (24 percent) of conservative scholars surveyed support leaving the agreement. Scholars are more likely to support the Iran Nuclear Deal than the public, although conservative scholars are less likely to do so than other scholars. The ideological divide may be a consequence of conservative scholars’ slightly lower support for international institutions and agreements.

Overall, there is a small ideological gap among experts for these key national security issues. However, the gap between the public and experts is much larger and appears to be unexplained by ideological differences. It is important to consider the ideological leanings of IR scholars, and while on some issues this appears to exacerbate the public-expert divide, the academy’s ideological imbalance does not explain the divergent perceptions of foreign policy issues between experts and the public.

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.

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.

RA Posts Spring 2019

Sanctions: Overused and Understudied

By Henry Crossman
March 18th, 2019

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October 2018 sparked international outrage and demands that the U.S. government formally punish the Saudi regime by imposing sanctions. 68 percent of likely voters in the U.S. and 76 percent of international relations (IR) scholars surveyed contemporaneously believe the U.S. should target financial sanctions against Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s death.

Figure 1: IR Scholar Policy Recommendations

Following Saudi Arabia’s alleged violation of international norms against freedom of the press and extrajudicial killings, significant majorities of the U.S. public and IR scholars believed sanctions to be the most appropriate response for the U.S. government.

Why did voters and scholars coalesce around sanctions?

Democracies use sanctions to punish bad actors for violations of liberal international norms. A mechanism short of military action, sanctions inflict financial or reputational harm to the violator to deter future violations, without causing lasting economic damage to the norm-enforcer or escalating a crisis between two actors. Generally faced with low public support for conflict, particularly in situations in which the public does not see transgressions as threatening the state’s security, sanctions are a common solution to addressing violations to behavioral norms while avoiding armed conflict.

The number of IR publications concerned with sanctions is among the lowest compared to other substantive foci. However, that only 1.5 percent of IR articles published in top journals over the last 35 years focus on sanctions is not evidence of convergence among scholars. Rather, IR scholars are split nearly evenly (47.7 percent to 51.4 percent) as to whether placing sanctions on other countries is an effective approach to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. This disagreement is in itself interesting; IR scholars overwhelmingly agree on a number of issues from the benefits of free trade to the effects of climate change, yet are evenly split on the question of sanction effectiveness.

Figure 2: IR Scholars & Effectiveness of Sanctions

In the Khashoggi case, a different picture emerges among IR scholars.

Three-fourths of IR scholars recommend financial sanctions against Saudi officials, a policy prescription second only to naming and shaming the Saudi government. Consistent with expectations of voters’ aversion to escalating an international conflict, more aggressive actions such as severing diplomatic ties or suspending arms sales and ending support for Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen find lower levels of support among scholars. However, if we assume that IR scholars, like voters, have an aversion to escalating an international crisis, why would scholars not overwhelmingly choose the arguably least aggressive response, investigating or holding hearings on Khashoggi’s death?

If only half of IR scholars think sanctions are an effective policy tool, why do three-fourths recommend sanctions against Saudi officials for Khashoggi’s death? Surely it is not because scholars want the U.S. government’s response to be ineffective; almost no respondents selected that the U.S. should do nothing.

Figure 3: Substantive Focus of Top IR Journals (1980-2014)

The fact is, governments are increasingly relying on sanctions to address international conflicts, yet the academy has failed to rigorously study the effectiveness and implications of sanctions as a foreign policy tool. There is not a comprehensive understanding of the implications and effectiveness of the policy both the American public and scholars have overwhelmingly concluded is an appropriate punishment for such a transgression against international norms.

Despite widespread support among the public and scholars for imposing sanctions, policy analysts fear sanctions are an over-used foreign policy tool. In a September 2018 Foreign Affairs article, Peter Harrell notes the “explosion of U.S. sanctions” both in number and scope. Yet, “nobody is quite sure whether they actually work,” writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post.

The academy has an underdeveloped body of knowledge on the conditions under which sanctions are effective and has failed to develop an understanding of the direct and indirect economic, political and security implications of imposing sanctions on international actors. As sanctions become an increasingly common foreign policy tool deployed by governments to coerce adversaries and punish violations of international norms, scholars should address this under-studied sub-field of international relations.

If you’d like to see more results from the surveys cited above, visit the TRIP Survey Data Dashboard:

Henry Crossman is a senior at the College of William & Mary, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Economics. He has worked at TRIP for 4 years as a Research Assistant. His interests include African politics, development, and international security.

RA Posts Spring 2019

Climate Change: a Catalyst for the New World Order?

By Moira Johnson
March 11th, 2019

In June of 2017, President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement that had gone into effect only a few months before.

In October of 2017, TRIP fielded Snap Poll X, embedded in a faculty survey. One of the questions asked was “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today?”

From the graph below, the top three responses were in order: climate change, the rising power of China, and U.S. domestic political instability. While concern over climate change is most likely driven by Trump’s announcement in June, the two other responses coincide nicely with this raised concern.

Upon examining Op-Eds on the topic of climate change, we see that authors agree with scholarly consensus and are in favor of international agreements regarding the mitigation of climate change. Another theme that can be seen throughout these Op-Eds is the large amount of concern about the opportunity that China has to gain in power and international prestige.

It has been evident for quite some time that the U.S. is losing power on the world stage. China has seen this gap as an opportunity to gain prestige using soft power.

Soft power, or the ability to attract and co-opt (rather than coerce) international actors into doing what you want them to do, has been China’s weapon of choice as of late. We can see this through economic initiatives such as the One Belt One Road initiative unveiled in 2013 and pressing for control over shipping lanes in the South China Sea through the use of historical claims. While the US, which outputs 13% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, steps back from supporting international efforts to curb the effects of climate change, China has stepped up and voluntarily made commitments under the Paris Agreement.

While scholars express concern about the rising power of China, they have little fear that the U.S. and China will go to war anytime soon:

Why could that be? In essence, China has found a different theater in which to wage war with its rivals. While it looks as though climate change would come with a heavy price to pay (as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, the decision to back international climate agreements looks as though it would harm many of China’s own industries), it actually doesn’t have a huge impact. The goals are largely unambitious for a country with such large greenhouse gas output. By voluntarily setting goals, China takes a step beyond what many industrialized nations have done and are therefore are able to assert their global power.

Climate change is a pressing issue that will affect our planet for generations to come. It will affect crops in ways that could potentially result in global famine. It will lead to rising sea levels, which in turn will generate climate refugees, adding to the already complex global refugee crisis. In sum, it will affect our planet in ways that will be near impossible to reverse.

While China’s stepping up to battle climate change may only seem to be a small step in helping the planet, could this be a step towards the new world order that emerges following the decline of US post cold war influence? The U.S.’s stepping down from the mantle of global leadership leaves space for China to enhance its global prestige and expand its’ economic clout on the world stage.

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:

Moira Johnson is a junior at the College of William and Mary, 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. 

RA Posts Spring 2019

A Look Back at Past Predictions

By Conor Scanlon
February 20, 2019

Hindsight can be both a blessing and a curse. It can help provide insight for future decisions, but it can also point out what should have been obvious before. Studying International Relations, the students of today have the benefit of looking back at previous conflicts and outcomes to create more effective roadmaps towards solving the world’s problems. Unfortunately, every situation in the world is unique, and predicting outcomes can be a very difficult thing to do.

As a part of TRIPs recurring Snap Polls, the team asks IR scholars a range of questions regarding the state of the International Relations academic discipline, as well as preferences and predictions regarding the worlds biggest issues. Sometimes, these scholars flex their knowledge and intuition by accurately predicting outcomes of world events. Other times, they are wrong, very very wrong.

In this second edition of the TRIP RA blog, I will be looking back at previous snap polls to see where the scholars got it right, and where they got it wrong. The purpose of this post is to take a light-hearted look back at the good and bad predictions scholars have made.

While the snap polls themselves ask many questions, it is important to note that I have only selected questions in which there is a clear right or wrong prediction made. For example, a scholar stating that they think Donald Trump would not be an effective foreign policy leader is subjective, based on one’s viewpoint and what factors they consider to be more important, so there is no clear right or wrong prediction there. With that being said, lets get on with it.

What they got right: this is straightforward. This category will indicate predictions made that eventually ended up being true.

What they got wrong: also pretty straightforward. This category will indicate where the majority opinion was incorrect on their prediction. Perhaps they were incorrect simply based off of misreading the situation, or firmly believing in a strategy that just didnt pan out this time.

What they got right:


One year from now, will Greece still be using the Euro? Published on May 31, 2015.

Congrats to the 65.44% that answered yes! In the beginning of 2015, the Greece Debt Crisis was starting to stir fear into EU leaders, as the far-left political party Syriza (who had been accused and associated with leaving the Euro) had just been elected and there were still fears that the government was running out of time and money. Those who voted no to this question probably made the assumption that Greece would eventually default on its loans, and Syriza would follow up on its alleged goal of leaving the Euro. However, in July 2015, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signed a bailout deal which has for now held off the potential of Greece leaving the Euro.


Some analysts suggest China may be reclaiming land to build a second airstrip on Subi Reef. Please rate the likelihood of violent confrontation in the South China Sea over the next 5 years with the current number of airstrips, with 0 indicating not likely at all and 10 indicating extremely likely.

Although the spread is a bit more even between not likely and extremely likely (I think of each category as a percentage of likelihood, so 1 would be 10%, 2 would 20%, etc), 72.02% of the respondents thought there was a 50% chance or less of a conflict breaking out. The survey was published in September 2015 and it is currently February 2019 with no sign of a violent confrontation between the U.S. and China. Not only that, but China hasnt necessarily stepped down on their pursuit of militarily building up the South China Sea (

What they got wrong


With which of the following obligations in the agreement do you believe Iran will fully comply?

Perhaps in the optimism of the Iran deal, scholars felt that everything would go right. Unfortunately, the world usually doesnt work that way, especially when the agreement is between two enemies. 64.31% of scholars believed that Iran would fully comply. However, in August 2017, Iran refused to allow IAEA inspectors into research and military facilities. While the U.S. did certify that the agreements of the deal were being upheld, it was rather begrudgingly accepted by President Trump, and the State Department came out with a statement declaring that it hopes that this doesnt happen again along with citing how Iran is violating the agreement.


In September 2013 the United States and Russia agreed to a framework under which Syria would relinquish its chemical weapons. According to the agreed framework these weapons would be destroyed under the supervision of international inspectors by June 30, 2014. Do you believe that Syria will fulfill its obligations under the agreement by the June deadline?

Perhaps another example of too much optimism within the academic community, the joint framework between the U.S. and Russia regarding the Syrian Civil war seemed like a step in the right direction by having two to major powers that are invested in the region come together to eliminate the use of chemical weapons (a war crime according to the Geneva Convention). 71.18% of respondents answered stating that Syria would comply with the agreement, with 10.5% saying they would actually comply by the July 30, 2014 deadline. While I cannot definitively say that the Syrian government will never comply with the agreement, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) claimed that on June 23, 2014, the last remaining chemical weapons in Syria were shipped out of the country.

However, there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons still being utilized by the Syrian government. Sarin Gas, XV and Chlorine Gas were reported to either have been developed in the country and/or being used by government forces. Once again, I cannot definitively say that Syria will not eventually comply the treaty, but given that over 4 years has passed since the agreement has taken place, I think it is safe to assume that many of the scholars got this one wrong.

Conor Scanlon is a senior studying International Relations in the St. Andrews/William & Mary Joint Degree Program and has been working at TRIP since his sophomore year (although he was in St. Andrews for his junior year.) His interests include Sub-Saharan African Development, Security and Political Risk, as well as being a genuine troll by pointing the (often occurring) mistakes of the IR academy.