RA Posts Summer 2019

Cold War 2.0?

By Ziqian Patrick Zheng
Rebuilding the Eastern Bloc

China’s leader Xi Jinping arrived by plane in North Korea on June 20th, 2019. Although this is Xi’s fifth summit with Kim Jong Un since last year, this is the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has actually visited North Korea. At Pyongyang International Airport, Xi was met by Chairman Kim Jong Un and received full military honors including a 21-gun salute and a march-past by the Supreme Guard Command Honor Guard Battalion and the Central Military Band of the Korean People’s Army. Xi was also the first Chinese leader to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the Mecca of North Korea. More than 100,000 people lined up along the streets of Pyongyang to welcome Xi. Although the country is famous for its hospitality to foreign leaders, these grand welcoming events are still very unusual for North Korea. 

Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un also paid a visit to Russia and met with Putin. It was the first meeting between North Korean and Russian leaders since 2011. China and Russia have grown closer both economically and politically in the second decade of the 21st century. The growing mutual affection between China, Russia, and North Korea would easily remind people of the fear of the Cold War era. As U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats noted in the intelligence community’s threat assessment of 2019, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” Just like Dan Coats, many people fear that the recent interactions between China, Russia, and North Korea are the prelude of the next Cold War.

Pat1 The two leaders shaking on their ‘invincible’ friendship by Korean Central News Agency

Beyond Nostalgia

With its growing economy, China can easily find supporters or “friends” around the world. Countries would be happy to support China verbally in international affairs in return for economic benefits. On the contrary, DPRK and Russia are both isolated by western countries and have bad reputations for being threats to international peace. Just like playing with the weird kids at school, teaming up with them would damage the public image of China and make it seem more aggressive to other countries. On the other hand, programs like the Belt and Road Initiative allow China to expand its friendship network using its growing economic power, making it easier for China to find other supporters around the world. As a result, teaming up with China not only brings Russia and North Korea economic benefits, but also provides them with access to new potential allies. But why is China getting closer to Russia and North Korea? 

The previous communist ideological ties between China, Russia, and North Korea waned for years. Despite what they claim to be, none of the three countries are truly communist or democratic. Instead of following any universal ideological value, what binds these countries is their strong state-sponsored nationalist ideas. As a result, these countries team up not because of their ideological ties or their nostalgia of the cold war era friendship, but because of their own national interests. Although Russia and North Korea are less powerful in terms of their soft power, they both have a strong military power. Obviously, China and Russia have been engaged in close military interactions in the previous years. 

Although North Korea seems weaker in terms of military power because of less advanced technologies and outdated military equipment, it is still considered one of the top threats to the U.S. because of its colossal army and arsenal of up to several dozen self-designed nuclear weapons. With more than one million active military personnel, the Korean People’s Army is ranked as the fourth largest army in the world. Most importantly, North Korea is the only country in the world that has a mutual defense treaty with China. Signed in 1961, the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty declares that the two nations would “undertake all necessary measures to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation.” This serves as the legal basis for China and North Korea to provide military support to each other during wartime. As a result, by pulling Russia and North Korea to its side, China is seeking to maintain a balance with the U.S. and its allies in terms of hard power, especially military power.

What Do the Scholars Think?

Given the significant military threat these countries could pose, we have to face the fact that China is getting closer to Russia and North Korea than in the previous years. What is the possibility of a new cold war or even a war between the U.S. and these countries? A 2014 TRIP snap poll asked IR scholars to rate the possibility for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China over the next decade. The graphs for both China and Russia are right skewed with a mode at 1 or 2 (very unlikely to go to war with the U.S.).



When the same questions were asked again in a TRIP Faculty Survey in 2017, the answer was mostly the same. The distribution of both China and Russia moved slightly to the right, but the general shape does not change (still unlikely for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China).



These data show that most of the IR scholars that participated in the TRIP surveys agree that it is unlikely for the U.S. to become involved in direct military conflict with either China and Russia despite the ongoing tensions between these countries in other areas. This might be because China and Russia have a much stronger military power than North Korea. Both Russia and China have a large number of nuclear warheads which provides them with the ability of mutually assured destruction and thus deters the U.S. from starting a war. The economic connections between China and the U.S. might also be a reason that prevents them from going to war as it increases the opportunity cost of war between these two countries. 
However, in the same faculty survey, scholars present a very different forecast when they are asked about the possibility of the U.S. going to war with North Korea. The graph for DPRK is more symmetric, with a mode at 5.


The survey shows that IR scholars think it is moderately likely that North Korea will go to war with the U.S. Still, nearly half (47.22 percent) of the scholars chose numbers less than 5, indicating they think war is less likely than it is likely.
Despite the small possibility of war, scholars still recognize China as a major opponent of the U.S. both today and in the foreseeable future. Question #6 of the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey asked the scholars about the area of greatest strategic importance to the U.S. today. The majority of the scholars (54.65 percent) consider East Asia to be the most strategically important area to the U.S today. US scholars’ concern about China becomes even more extreme when the scholars are asked about the most strategically important area to the U.S. in 20 years: 69.61 percent of scholars said East Asia.


In 2014, 38.45 percent of scholars answered yes when asked if they think that the U.S. and Russia are heading back toward a Cold War.


This shows that there are still a lot of scholars who worry about the emergence of another Cold War, even 20 years after the first one had ended. Due to the growing tensions with China and the strategic importance of East Asia, as well as the increasing ties between Russia, China ,and North Korea, there might be more scholars who would be concerned about China and the U.S. are heading towards a Cold War as well.

Goodbye to the Belle Époque

Although most of the scholars think that it is very unlikely for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China, the surveys do not deny the possibility of a potential cold war between the U.S. and these countries. Instead of directly engaging in military conflict with the U.S., China and Russia are using their military power to secure strategic national interests in many other areas. Now that China is getting closer with Russia and North Korea, the possible military alliance between these three countries has the potential to become the Sword of Damocles above the U.S. and its allies. As U.S. strategic interests shift towards East Asia, the possibility of a new cold war or small-scale military confrontations still exists despite the diminished role of an ideological conflict between East and West.

Patrick Zheng is a rising sophomore at William & Mary. He intends to double major in History and Economics. Patrick is interested in International Relations and Civil Rights issues. He has worked as a research assistant with Professor Betsy Konefal on her project studying human rights violations during Guatemalan Civil War. He was also a member of a research team based in the William & Mary Diplomacy Lab, studying social media in Turkey. This summer, Patrick is excited to see the connections TRIP is building between academia and policymakers.

RA Posts Summer 2019

Where’s My International Relations Debate At? Partisan Consensus on Global Issues in Presidential Debates

By Moira Johnson

July 1st, 2019

It was a big week on the campaign trail. Democratic Presidential hopefuls met for the first time to discuss campaign trail issues over two nights in Miami. The TRIP team took the time to watch the debates and we noticed something: Both nights were dominated by discussions of domestic issues. While these issues are important and give voters insight into candidates’ views about the current state of our nation, the debates were lacking in their discussion of U.S. foreign policy.

Artistic Credit: Marc Dion

While it’s early yet in the Primary season, we can still expect for there to be fewer discussions of foreign policy this electoral cycle. Foreign Policy published an article after the debates that claimed that foreign policy questions have been in decline for democratic hopefuls since the 2008 primaries. Here at TRIP, we discovered that our own data may support this claim. For example, in the most recent iteration of TRIP’s snap poll fielded in late 2018, we asked IR scholars their thoughts on Trump’s strategy for denuclearizing the DPRK.

We can see that scholars who identify as “Somewhat Liberal” or “Very Liberal” overwhelmingly agree that Trump’s strategy will be unsuccessful in denuclearizing North Korea. However, those who identify on the conservative end of the political spectrum have less of a consensus on the issue. For example, scholars who identify as “Very Conservative” equally responded (24%) “Somewhat likely” and “Not Likely”.

Near the end of Night 1’s debate, Moderator Chuck Todd asked the candidates if they would reenter the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) if elected. All but one candidate said they would reenter the deal (the exception was Cory Booker, who notably did not reject the idea of a treaty with Iran but rather stated that he would first renegotiate the deal before reentering.) TRIP’s data shows the same trend as the North Korean question, with scholars who identify as conservative equally responding (40%) “Positive Impact” and “Negative Impact” to the question: “What impact will the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have on regional stability in the Middle East?” 

TRIP’s data on these foreign policy questions shows a greater degree of consensus among liberal scholars on these issues. The lack of foreign policy questions in the Democratic Debate suggests that when a consensus exists on an issue within a party, there is less of an incentive to discuss these issues. This would also explain why during conservative primary seasons, candidates are more likely to be asked about issues relating to U.S. foreign policy and the U.S.’s standing in the global order. 

As primary season carries on and the number of contenders dwindles, we will hopefully see more discussions of global issues. The TRIP team will continue covering the primaries and the road to Election Night 2020. Stay tuned for IR student perspectives and more TRIP data.

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. 

RA Posts Summer 2019

Scholarly (Over)confidence and Global Predictions

By Aidan Donovan
June 25th, 2019

International Relations scholars have a mixed record in the challenging game of geopolitical predictions, but it hasn’t shaken their confidence.

The TRIP Project occasionally asks IR scholars to make timely predictions on key international security and economic issues. Previous posts have fairly criticized the academy for faulty predictions despite their advanced training. The failures, while important to consider, overshadow an impressive record of successful predictions.

The academy’s successful predictions, often masked by misfires, are worth a second look. In 2015, 72 percent of IR scholars thought the likelihood of violent confrontation in the South China Sea was unlikely before 2020. Military tensions have cooled despite aggressive Chinese actions (with tensions possibly diverted to economic issues). The same year, 76 percent expected Greece to maintain the Euro despite concern that the government needed more economic autonomy.

In the middle of President Obama’s second term, 61 percent of scholars predicted the US would maintain military aid to Egypt in the future. The level of military aid to Egypt has barely changed since, remaining between 1.1 and 1.3 billion dollars annually. Three-quarters of IR scholars believe the executive branch controls military aid to Egypt. Given the vast ideological and policy differences between the Obama and Trump administrations, this suggests a deep understanding of U.S. strategic interests.

The JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Agreement) generated genuine concern about a lack of sufficient monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Despite these concerns, in 2015, IR scholars predicted that Iran would comply with the agreement. 64 percent believed Iran would allow IAEA inspection of nuclear facilities and uranium supply chains. 60 percent believed the agreement would successfully limit uranium enrichment. Despite the valid concerns about the scope of the JCPOA, earlier this year IAEA monitors maintained that Iran remained in compliance. In 2015, we asked scholars how a future American unilateral withdrawal would affect the likelihood of Iran renewing its nuclear weapons program. 85 percent of scholars believed it would increase the likelihood. IR scholars may have been correct: Iran has increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 6 percent since February and intends to break the agreement to pressure the remaining parties. In the past week, Iranian spokesmen announced that the country’s production of enriched uranium would surpass the JCPOA limit of 300 kilograms by June 27 and that American sanctions on Foreign Minister Zarif and Supreme Leader Khamenei “means the permanent closure of the doors of diplomacy.”

These successful predictions suggest that the academy’s record is stronger than it initially appears. IR scholars’ confident predictions indicate that they think the world should listen. However, it is unclear if their confidence stems from deeper understanding or human overconfidence.

Scholars are confident in their predictions, regardless of the content. 

TRIP’s recent Snap Polls asks scholars to estimate the likelihood of war between the United States and China, Russia, and North Korea in the next ten years, and then asks scholars to rate their confidence in their answer. 58 percent of scholars reported an average confidence level of at least 6 out of 10, indicating they were more confident than not in their grand geopolitical predictions. There is no difference in confidence between respondents who think war is likely versus those who do not. This confidence appears unjustified for predictions that may be “problematic” at best. At the extreme, 10 of 11 scholars who foresee zero chance of war with our major adversaries are more confident than not in their answers. 9 of 10 scholars who rate the average chance of war above eight out of ten are more confident than not in their answers. The fact that scholars are most confident in the extreme ends of the spectrum of possible predictions is perplexing if IR scholars understand international affairs better than the rest of us.

Liberal and male scholars are more confident than conservative and female scholars in their predictions, but neither the ideology nor gender gap explains why IR scholars expect to win a losing game.

Male scholars’ relative overconfidence has been studied with TRIP data previously, which is important since our sample, and the IR academy, is about 70 percent male. 59 percent of male scholars are more confident than not in their predictions regarding the likelihood of war, compared to 53 percent of female scholars. However, gender explains less than 1 percent of the variation in confidence according to a simple regression R-squared value. 56 percent of moderate or liberal scholars are more confident than not in their predictions regarding the likelihood of war, compared to 67 percent of conservative scholars. However, this ideological split reverses at other confidence levels but still fails to explain scholars’ confidence in their predictions. Political ideology, like gender, explains less than 1 percent of the variation in confidence again according to a simple regression R-squared value. 

IR scholars strongly believe in their predictions regardless of ideology or gender, and their recent track record is more positive than previous reports have indicated. Accurate geopolitical predictions are intrinsically valuable: they signal an invaluable understanding of strategy and politics, and might serve as a resource to scholars and policymakers who seek to prepare for the future. Still, more research is needed to examine the reasoning for scholars’ predictions and to understand why many IR scholars are so confident in their answers. 

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 Summer 2019

Are Scholars Neglecting Climate Change as a Foreign Policy Threat?

By Lucas Arnett
June 17th, 2019

In response to a poll question in December 2017, a majority of scholars of International Relations (IR) chose “Global Climate Change” (GCC) to be one of the three most important foreign policy issues of today. However, less than three percent of publications coded by Research Assistants (RA) at the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project specifically study the environment.

TRIP Snap Poll X (Embedded in 2017 Faculty Survey) was the tenth in a series of questionnaires aimed at classifying U.S. scholars. RAs at the TRIP project have also compiled a database with every International Relations-related publication from 12 journals since 1980, known as the Journal Article Database (JAD).

Who are these scholars?

Of the 1565 scholars who took TRIP Snap Poll X, 385 identified GCC as one of the three largest foreign policy threats, along with Cybersecurity (248), and the Rising Power of China (275).


Female scholars are more likely to have chosen GCC. 29 percent of female scholars believe climate change is a major threat, compared to 21 percent of male scholars, and 20 percent of all scholars, according to TRIP data. More scholars who selected GCC are male, but only because there are considerably more male respondents (70 percent of all survey respondents). Also, the percentage of female respondents in the stratum of global climate change selectors is higher than the percentage of women in the sample. Gender minority data from the TRIP survey is not available.

Figure 1 compares the percentage of women who selected GCC to the percentage of men who selected GCC in response to the question: “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today?


Scholars who use a quantitative approach are the most likely to view GCC as a foreign policy threat. 56 percent of scholars surveyed use qualitative analysis, compared to 25 percent who use quantitative analysis, and 9 percent use policy analysis. However, figure 2 shows that even though scholars who use quantitative analysis are outnumbered by scholars who use qualitative analysis, more of them believe GCC is a foreign policy threat. Among the stratum of scholars who selected GCC, 56 percent use a quantitative analysis method.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of scholars who use each methodology who chose “Global Climate Change” as a response to “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today?” in TRIP Snap Poll X.


Feminist scholars believe GCC is a foreign policy threat than scholars who primarily employ any of the other paradigms. The majority of respondents do not use a paradigm, and the percentage of those scholars who selected GCC is only 24%. Once again, the largest group of scholars is not the one focusing on climate change. Surprisingly, only 20% of scholars who use the Marxist critique selected GCC as one of the three most important foreign policy threats. While Marx himself focused a lot on nature, it seems the critique named after him does not.

Figure 3 shows which the Paradigm advanced by scholars who chose “Global Climate Change” as a response to “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today?” in TRIP Snap Poll X.

Social Ideology

When it comes to politics, “very liberal” scholars are the most likely to select GCC. Alarmingly, even among “very liberal” scholars, only 33% chose GCC; that means a majority of scholars in each ideological stratum did not think climate change was a top foreign policy threat. Within the stratum of scholars who selected GCC, the vast majority are socially liberal—more so than in the field as a whole. The average scholar that selected global climate change as an important issue is more politically liberal than the average scholar surveyed, and there’s a smaller percentage of both somewhat conservative and very conservative scholars.

Figure 4 shows what percentage of scholars of each social ideology selected “Global Climate Change” as a response to “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today?” in TRIP Snap Poll X.

Region of Focus

Perhaps unsurprisingly, scholars who study East Asia (including China) are more likely to select climate change as a foreign policy threat than scholars who study any other part of the world. China continues to be one of the largest polluters in the world, so that makes sense. But what’s more surprising is that only 13 percent of scholars who studied the Sub-Saharan Africa chose global climate change as an important issue, and there is a smaller percentage of scholars who study Sub Saharan Africa from the GCC stratum that in the larger sample of scholars. Since climate change disproportionately affects developing countries, especially those with deltas, peninsulas, coasts, or islands, as is often the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, one would expect scholars who are worried about climate change to pay closer attention, not less attention. The region still remains largely understudied. Also, no region of focus has a higher percentage of scholars who selected GCC that the sample as a whole, including the arctic.

Figure 5 shows what percentage of scholars who study each region chose “Global Climate Change” as a response to “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today?”

Views on Foreign Policy

As in the original sample, most scholars who selected GCC believe East Asia is the region of greatest strategic importance. Almost 35 percent of scholars who chose China also selected GCC, a rate higher than the average GCC response rate from the general sample. Unfortunately, only 62 of 1632 scholars selected the Middle East and North Africa, and not a single scholar selected Sub Saharan Africa, so it’s hard to know which mainstream scholars are paying attention to climate change.

Figure 6 shows what percent of scholars chose “Global Climate Change” as a response to “What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today?” in each stratum of perceived foreign policy threat. Scholars were asked “Which area of the world do you consider to be of greatest strategic importance to the United States today?”

It seems scholars agree climate change is important, but aren’t thinking about it from a national security perspective, and perhaps as a result, neither do policymakers; President Trump’s 2017 National Security Policy omitted climate change entirely, and that’s dangerous.

Climate change and changing demographics are expected to “profoundly affect the availability of water resources in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA),” a region that’s already experiencing longer and more variable periods of droughts and rainfall events, according to a recent study. The region has already exceeded the water resources needed to supply food to its population, meaning governments have found themselves forced to ration water and import food.

In the next fifty years, Bangladesh could find itself almost entirely underwater, forcing its 164.7 million residents to flee. Low lying coastal plain regions, deltas, and islands face a higher risk, and could entirely disappear from the world map. Rising sea levels also threaten our supply of usable groundwater as saltwater seeps into our aquifers and eliminates the little drinking water we still have.

The field studying these effects, Environmental Politics, is relatively young and has core debates that are still “dynamic and rigorous.” Let’s just hope academics and policymakers pay attention to it before it’s too late. If we aren’t careful American academia and its readers could realistically find themselves blind sighted by the climate crises of tomorrow.

Lucas Arnett is a Research Assistant at the Global Research Institute on the TRIP project. He’s a rising sophomore at the College of William and Mary, and intends to double major in International Relations and History.

RA Posts Summer 2019

The Swan Song of Hong Kong: U.S. Regional Strategic Military Bases in Asia

By Marc Dion
June 11th, 2019

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf moored in Hong Kong in April 2019

In September of 2018, China denied USS Wasp a port visit in Hong Kong. While U.S. presence in Hong Kong is strong; the U.S. Navy alone normally visits between 60-80 times a year, this refusal of entry signals tensions between the U.S. and China. The Chinese Communist Party carried out the action, but it may have some traction within the American International Relations academy.

Data used from TRIP Faculty Survey fielded in November 2017; questions 27, 31, 32, and 35

A TRIP survey fielded in November 2017 asked respondents “Should the United States have long-term military bases in the following countries?” and gave a list of 17 different countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. In Asia, respondents examined the U.S. military presence in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Hong Kong stands out as the only Asian country where the majority of respondents said no. There are many motivations behind why American International Relations scholars push for withdrawal from Hong Kong.

Popularity of Military Strategy

Military strategy has always been the lynchpin of U.S. foreign policy. However, scholars are less enthused about the use of military intervention. There is much more support for non-military strategies, such as making international agreements. The popularity of non-military based strategies does not always translate into success of non-military strategies, though. Military strategy in Hong Kong likewise comes with many problems.

Hong Kong is a Catch-22 for U.S. grand strategy: not involve itself in Hong Kong and leave Chinese influence in the South China Sea unmitigated, or provoke China and risk confrontation by remaining there with a military presence.

Hong Kong is a prime location to contain the Chinese sphere of influence. Hong Kong’s geostrategic importance for shipping in the South China Sea, as well as its long political history of being unique from the mainland make it an impactful place to limit influence from the source. Having a large military presence there would be offensive to the Chinese, allowing them to retaliate in par. However, not being there means leaving China’s influence unlimited, spreading further across the South China Sea. This is only further complicated by the history of Hong Kong and current movements in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong as a Political Hot Bed

The shift in interest in having a base in Hong Kong comes at a time where Hong Kong-Chinese relations are at a boiling point. Relations between the Special Administrative Region and the Mainland have been at their worst since 2014, when the student-led Umbrella Movement championed democracy against an ever-encroaching Chinese administration. While there have been steps by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to quell these movements, there remains growing dissent towards the continued integration of Hong Kong back into China. The history behind this dissent is a story for another time, but here’s a link to a summary video by Vox explaining Hong Kong’s conflicted relationship with China.

The fear of getting embroiled in growing domestic dissent could be a potential reason why scholars believe that withdrawal is the best policy. As conflict continues to grow, it will be harder for the U.S. to explain its port visits. It also makes visiting the city riskier for servicemen.

It is now harder to justify maintaining a long-term military base in Hong Kong. The era of Hong Kong’s geostrategic importance to the United States is coming to an end. At least, for International Relations Scholars.

Authors Note: This is a story very close to my heart. Growing up in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement, as well as enjoying the hot summer afternoons on Fenwick Pier (a former U.S. base in Hong Kong) were some of my favorite moments. This is a very brief and America-centric understanding of the issues discussed between Hong Kong and China. I implore you to explore more about this issue, especially after the events of this weekend.

Marc Dion is a graduate of William & Mary’s class of 2019. He majored in International Relations and minored in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Marc has worked at TRIP for 2 years as a Research Assistant. His interests include organizational culture, U.S. foreign policy, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.