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.

RA Posts Spring 2019

Is Withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Really the End of the World?

International Relations scholars’ consensus on the treaty, the threat of Russia, and the strength of international agreements
By Marc Dion
February 11th, 2019

Earlier this month, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This was the final blow for the treaty after accusations concerning whether Russia had remained within the boundaries of the treaty in the past few years. The INF Treaty was one of many nuclear arms treaties between the United States and Russia with the goal of limiting nuclear arms proliferation.

The most recent TRIP Snap Poll fielded in October 2018 asked this question to I.R. scholars: “President Trump announced last week that the United States is pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia. Do you support or oppose this decision?”

Looking at the graph below, more than 80% of scholars opposed withdrawing from the INF treaty. Yet, we see that there was still about 10% of respondents that supported withdrawal from the INF treaty. What differentiates this 20% (including the 10% that did not support or oppose withdrawal) from the greater majority that argues against withdrawal?

The largest proportion of I.R. scholars that support withdrawal are in the realist theoretical paradigm, with about 20% of realist scholars surveyed responding support for withdrawal. Scholars in other theoretical paradigms, including those who have identified as non-paradigmatic, are generally almost entirely opposed to withdrawal, with less than 5% for each supporting withdrawal.


What makes realists more supportive of withdrawal compared to other theoretical paradigms? This may lie within their theoretical origins and their emphasis on power dynamics and military capabilities in ensuring world order. But, does this mean that about 20% of realists disagree with seeing Russia as a threat with their intermediate-range nuclear missile capabilities? This graph from the TRIP 2017 Faculty Survey would suggest otherwise:


Only 5% of scholars surveyed in this Snap Poll responded that Russia was not a threat at all. This creates a gap between scholars that do not view Russia as a threat versus support for withdrawal. This suggests that there are scholars that believe both that Russia is a threat and that the INF treaty was not successful in limiting nuclear proliferation and curtailing the Russian threat. This mirrors the results from another question posed in the same snap poll discussing the effectiveness of international agreements: