RA Posts Spring 2019

How Do IR Scholars Talk About Africa?

By Henry Crossman
May 10, 2019

In the latest issue of Political Science, Yoonjin Song finds “the uneven distribution of research publications with respect to continents and countries may be a source of several biases that should be of concern to the [comparative politics] field.” The top two comparative politics journals focus on African countries in only 8 percent of published articles from 1990 to 2015. Of that 8 percent, five countries are the focus of three-quarters of the articles (326).

How does the International Relations (IR) sub-field compare? The Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project has coded all articles published in the top 12 IR journals from 1980 to 2017. Over the past 37 years, less than 6 percent of 8,743 IR articles were written with Sub-Saharan Africa as a region under study.


Why are studies on African countries published at a lower rate than studies about other regions? Do IR scholars study African politics differently compared with the rest of the IR sub-field?

To begin answering these questions, I analyze the sub-set of 520 articles that study African countries against the 8,743 IR articles in the TRIP database.

What Regions Do IR Scholars Study Alongside Africa?

From 1980 to 2017, Sub-Saharan Africa – which includes 49 countries – is selected as a region under study for 6 percent of IR articles. Coders can select multiple regions for any given article, so the 520 articles that study Africa may also study other regions. Of these articles, 10 percent also have “global” selected as a region under study. This typically indicates an article with “a large-n study that includes a number of regions” that also contains a case study or focuses on Africa in greater depth.


As Figure 1 shows, when Africa is one of multiple regions under study in an article, it is typically associated with the Middle East and North Africa or other parts of the Global South. This is a similar (if less sophisticated) finding to Song’s analysis of comparative politics journals, which finds that African countries were compared with other African countries in only 6 percent of the share of articles with symmetric dyads (326).

What Do Scholars Study About Africa? Issue Area and Substantive Focus

Articles studying African countries also differ from the population of IR articles by issue area and substantive focus. TRIP defines issue area as “the primary issue area to which the article contributes,” and it is generally determined by the study’s dependent variable. As such, coders may only select one issue area for an article. Since the dependent variable is not an inclusive means for capturing the contents of an article, coders can also select a number of substantive foci, which offer more insight into an article’s substantive contribution and can cut across issue areas.

Figure 2 shows the top five issue areas for all IR articles and for articles with Africa as a region under study. International Security and Comparative Politics each capture about one-quarter of the articles about African countries. The percentage of comparative politics articles is higher relative to the set of all IR articles and the percentage of international security articles is slightly lower. Human Rights and International Political Economy (IPE) are studied at higher rates when Africa is a region under study relative to the set of all IR articles, while IR theory and U.S. Foreign Policy are studied about at lower rates.


Trends in substantive foci for African countries provide an explanation. Domestic politics and regime type, both national-level variables, are selected as a substantive focus at a higher rate for articles about African countries compared to the full sample of IR articles. Further, over 40 percent of articles about Africa study intra-state conflict. Together, the disproportionate selection of intra-state conflict and the high degree of domestic-level substantive focus explain why comparative politics and international security are the top issue areas for articles about African countries.

The higher percentage of IPE as issue area for studies about African countries can be attributed to the high levels of a substantive focus on development, north-south relations, and foreign aid for African country studies relative to the full sample of articles.

Nearly 7 percent of articles about African countries are primarily focused on human rights issues. This result is reflected in the higher relative percentages of African country articles focusing on public health, NGOs, humanitarian intervention, gender, ethnicity and religion, and migration. Human rights as a top focus is consistent with the concerns and priorities of citizens in African countries, who more than any other category select health care and education as major concerns.


How is Africa Studied? Epistemological & Methodological Differences

What scholars study about African countries is different from the general population of IR articles. Does how scholars study Africa differ too? To explore this question, I look at epistemological and methodological differences between articles studying Sub-Saharan Africa and the full set of IR articles.

While Figure 4 shows that studies with a focus on African countries follow similar trends to the full sample, it also suggests that articles about Africa are relatively more positivist and less non-positivist relative to the full IR sub-field. This difference poses interesting questions for future research, as it may suggest less theory-building or less interpretivism for African or Global South countries.


The methodological differences are starker. Articles with African countries as a region under study use higher rates of quantitative and qualitative methods relative to the full sample of IR articles, and appear systematically less likely to use formal modeling, descriptive analysis, experiments or non-formal analysis.

Could these differences be a function of who is writing about Africa? Articles about Sub-Saharan Africa are slightly more likely to be written by women (21.9% vs. 18.5%) and more likely to be written by authors from non-U.S. institutions (36.3 % vs. 28.9%). These are both factors we know make scholars more likely to use qualitative methods. Data from TRIP’s faculty survey show women are more likely to use qualitative methods in their research than men (35.2% vs. 29.9%), and U.S. scholars are “more quantitatively oriented than most other national IR communities.”


Studying Africa Matters

Earlier, I asked why studies on African countries are systematically under-represented among the top IR journals. One factor is the relatively small number of IR scholars that focus on African politics. Just over 5 percent of U.S. scholars surveyed by TRIP in 2017 selected Sub-Saharan Africa as the main region of the world they studied.

Second, the plurality of articles in top IR journals study the United States, and U.S. Foreign Policy is one of the most common issue areas selected. However, among articles studying African countries and at least one other region, the United States accounts for the smallest percentage at only 15 percent. This is reflected in scholarship: very few of the articles about African countries are categorized as U.S. Foreign Policy, relative to the full sample of IR articles. This suggests that U.S. relations with Africa is absent from current research on U.S. foreign policy.

In part, this is because scholars do not perceive Sub-Saharan Africa as an area of strategic importance to the United States. In TRIP’s 2017 Faculty Survey, 0.2 percent of scholars considered Sub-Saharan Africa to be of the greatest importance to the United States today. In fact, the regions that scholars believe to be of the greatest strategic importance are studied at a higher frequency than regions scholars do not believe to be as important.


The persistence of failed states and humanitarian crises, paired with a rising middle class and powerful youth demographic necessitates taking Africa, and its politics, seriously. Yet, a recent report from the Atlantic Council identifies “a persistent misconception prevalent among the American public—and even many foreign policy professionals—that Africa is largely irrelevant to US national security.” Despite few scholars perceiving Africa as the most strategic region for the U.S. today, looking forward scholars are beginning to recognize the region’s importance.

Sub-Saharan Africa is second behind East Asia in terms of change in IR scholars’ perception of most strategic region today and in 20 years, indicating that scholars believe Africa will become increasingly important for U.S. interests. This suggests IR scholars may study the region more.

This blog post has identified several areas for future research into how Africa is studied and what this might tell us about the IR discipline in general. In many ways, more questions have been posed than answers given: how do scholars talk about Latin America? East Asia? Civil war? Trade? What do these trends mean for the IR discipline and for our understanding of the world?

The bottom line is this: IR academics have an important role to play providing a nuanced, systematic and unbiased research on Africa. The ivory tower’s neglect of the region is cause for concern as concepts, data and findings from academia seep into the journals and op-eds that policymakers and the general public consume.

If you’d like to see more results from the Journal Article Database and 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 worked at TRIP for 4 years as a Research Assistant. His interests include African politics, development, and international security. The TRIP Project thanks Henry for sharing his diligence, intelligence, and sharp wit with us over the past four years.

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.

RA Posts Spring 2019

R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Examining Respect Trends in Academic Surveys

By Marc Dion

April 24, 2019

*the author highly recommends you enjoy this song while reading this article*

In our most recent Snap Poll fielded in October 2018, the first question respondents answered was “Compared with the past, how respected is the United States by other countries today?” While this is a pretty intuitive question, prompting scholars to compare perceived respect of the U.S., it carries a lot of assumptions that lead to some important questions. What time is the scholar comparing levels of respect to? Is respect a static measurement? Is it a quantifiable measure? I will explore some of these questions here.

What Time is the Scholar Comparing Levels of Respect to?

The question of what date respondents are comparing levels of respect to is a challenging question to answer. Are we comparing it to levels of respect during the Obama administration? Since when Donald Trump first entered office? The question leaves that vague, but we can determine an estimate of what respondents were thinking. We argue that the past compared to was before the Trump administration since a significant percentage of respondents answered that the US is less respected, implying that there must have been some large change assumed to have occurred between now and the comparison period. We argue that this large change is a change of presidency, since that can bring about a radical change in the perceived status of respect. A good way to further narrow down the time period can be to compare the social ideologies of the respondents.

Are Perceptions Only a Reflection of Political Preferences?

When looking at social ideology, we start to see a clearer picture. Conservatives tend to have more disagreement across the board, with almost 30% arguing that the U.S. is more respected today. However, liberals almost unanimously agree that the US is less respected. Therefore, we can suggest that the time compared to would have likely been during a liberal presidential administration, or where liberal values were being advocated more. Looking at times when we have posed the question previously, specifically during the Bush administration, this seems to be the case, where scholars respond with dissatisfaction when their party is not in power. As such, we conclude that people are likely comparing levels of respect to the Obama administration since he represents a liberal administration.

Are Perceptions due to Nostalgia?

When comparing responses to this question in 2004, 2006, and 2008, a strange picture emerges. Each time the question was posed, more than 90% of respondents responded that the U.S. was less respected. Why? I argue that there is an inherent nostalgia associated with the past, which makes scholars/academics feel as though the past is always better than the present. This is because they reflect on the bigger picture of the past and compare it to the minutiae of the present, making it seem as though the present is a worse reality of the past. Perhaps this is the larger reason for such disapproval of the present?

For Whom Does Respect Matter?

We know that 93 percent of IR scholars perceive the U.S. is less respected today relative to the past, but does respect matter in international relations? Three-quarters of self-identifying liberal and moderate IR scholars think the decline in respect for the U.S. is a major problem while less than 1 percent think the decline is no problem at all. Yet, self-identified conservative scholars are more than twice as likely than their liberal and moderate colleagues to view the decline in respect as a minor problem and are far more likely to see the decline as no problem at all.

Pew Research Center explored the public and their perceptions of respect through posing the same question that TRIP had (which was sourced from Pew). We see that there is less consensus in the public sphere: in 2017, less than 70% agreeing that the U.S. had lost respect, with 95% of those respondents saying it was a problem. These results show that the concern with respect is generally important to the public, but not seen as concerning the public as much as scholars.

What is Respect?

With all that in mind, it’s important to discuss what respect entails. We know that all of the TRIP survey respondents are U.S. scholars, therefore we can assume that there is a somewhat unanimous conception of respect, if you assume that U.S. culture is somewhat unified. We will operate under the assumption that U.S. culture is at least somewhat unified due to how we perceive values of respect as being quite similar due to a similar upbringing and education background. While this does not assume that there is no diversity of culture in the United States, we do argue that conceptions of respect are developed through shared communities, and since many communities blend together, all conceptions of respect are somewhat similar.

Respect in the U.S. seems to have a lot of ties to personality politics, where the U.S. President is the symbolic carrier of respect in the United States. As such, choices made by the President have large implications on perceived respect. These choices then are compared to societal and academic status quos that align closely with perceived ideals of rational actors. Therefore, when a President challenges the status quo with their policy choices and is characterized as an irrational actor, they are cast as having lessened the respect of the U.S. This leads to a larger conversation though, one that cannot be easily summarised into a blog post. Regardless, we seek to start a conversation about what respect means in politics, and how societal forces can impact perceived respect, and even challenge how respect is used to credit or discredit politicians.

In conclusion, in the wise words of Aretha Franklin, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out what it means to me.” Me being the U.S. academy, of course.

For further reading, check out this link.

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 XI Snap Poll (Fielded in October 2018):

TRIP Survey Data Dashboard:

Marc Dion is a senior at the College of William and Mary, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He 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.

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.