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.

RA Posts Summer 2019

It’s Not All Fun and Games

By Peter Leonard
June 7th, 2019

The 2019 Women’s World Cup is underway, with opening festivities kicking off today, June 7th. The Cup is shaping up to be an exciting one – the United States, the favorite to win, has rising star Mallory Pugh, France is looking to win on their national soil, and New Zealand is looking to advance past the group stage for the first time. If one looks through all the fanfare, though, one finds that the World Cup has evolved from being more than just an international soccer match. The World Cup and its parent organization, FIFA, are now steeped in international politics, politics that affect all areas of FIFA’s decision-making.

Academics have talked about FIFA in relation to international politics before. Daniel Maliniak and Erik Voeten used TRIP data in a 2015 Monkey Cage article to see if the United States’ indictment of 47 FIFA officials was due in part to FIFA picking Qatar and Russia as host countries. The authors found that 62.8% of IR scholars supported the indictments, but “both scholars and the public think that the choice of Qatar and Russia as hosts increased the likelihood of the indictment.”

It now seems that FIFA is sailing in smoother waters. The 2018 Men’s World Cup went off without a hitch – a combined 3.572 billion people (more than half the world’s population aged four and older) watched the Cup. Due to these good times, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was just reelected to serve a second term “by acclamation,” skipping the traditional FIFA voting process . Under his reign, Infantino claimed FIFA has gone from being “toxic, almost criminal to what it should be”. Infantinio even considered expanding the World Cup’s reach from 32 to 48 teams in the 2022 World Cup.

Maliniak and Voeten’s findings, combined with FIFA hitting its stride, prompted me to reexamine the original TRIP data to see if it could provide any insight in 2019. I used the TRIP Snap Polls which polled 655 international relations scholars. I was drawn to one finding in particular. Responding to whether awarding the U.S. the 2022 World Cup would’ve made an indictment more or less likely, 49.7% of respondents (a plurality) agreed that awarding the World Cup to the U.S. would have made indictments less likely.

Flash forward to June 2018. On the heels of the Russian World Cup, FIFA announced that the U.S., Mexico, and Canada would host the 2026 World Cup. U.S. soccer officials saw the decision as a big win, especially after the U.S. did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup. FIFA said the financial impact was the primary motivator for its decision; U.S. officials promised the Cup would make $11 billion in profit. The aforementioned TRIP data, though, provokes questions about the authenticity of this claim. Awarding the Cup has been a historically cloudy and corrupt process. Letting the U.S. host a Cup could potentially ease international pressure (pressure that was primarily egged on by the U.S.) and further remove FIFA from the microscope. FIFA officials could not be blamed for factoring less international scrutiny into their decision-making calculus, especially when the organization is enjoying relative calm (at least for the moment).

Peter Leonard is a graduate student at William & Mary’s School of Education, where he is pursuing a degree in secondary education. He began working for TRIP in May of 2019.