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International relations scholars think that the U.S. spends too much on defense

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Nicholas Bell (William & Mary), Daniel Maliniak (University of California, San Diego), Susan Peterson (William & Mary), Ryan Powers (@rmpowers, University of Wisconsin – Madison), Darin Self  (@darinself, William & Mary), and Michael Tierney (William & Mary) are all involved with the Teaching, Research and International Policy (@WMitpir, TRIP) project at William & Mary .

For the past 10 years we have been surveying scholars of international relations (IR) about their views on teaching, research, the discipline, and various international issues. Now, with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have launched a series of “snap polls.” These short surveys take less than five minutes to complete and capture the views of IR scholars on contemporary public debates, foreign policy proposals, or international crises. We hope these snap polls add to the many different approaches scholars are taking, both individually and collectively, to bring their expertise to bear on “real world” issues.  Just as important, these data can help IR scholars reflect upon their own discipline and how it adapts or reacts to global events which may not fit their expectations.

Many commentators lament the “irrelevance” of political scientists and IR scholars to public and policy debates.  Whether relevance is a problem, and whether the problem is getting better or worse, IR scholars often are  not well represented in the public discourse on foreign policy issues. This stands in sharp contrast to the role of experts from other disciplines.  Economists’ views on macroeconomic issues and climate scientists’ views on human-induced climate change inform public and political debate in both domestic and international institutions.

One reason IR scholars are underrepresented in public debates may be the lack of evidence on their collective views.  To help bring these experts into policy debates, TRIP snap polls include several different types of questions.  We ask IR scholars to describe, explain, and predict outcomes, we ask about policy preferences in both real and hypothetical situations, and we ask questions that are similar to those asked of the public so we can compare public responses to those of IR scholars.

Two questions in the most recent survey on U.S. defense spending illustrate how snap poll results may inform policy debates. President Obama recently released a budget proposal calling for the reduction of Army troops to their lowest level since 1940 and the elimination of the Air Force A-10 attack jets, among other cuts. In response, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said the cuts would “weaken our nation’s security while the threats we face around the world are becoming more dangerous and complex.”

We asked IR scholars about their views on the current level of defense spending. Nearly three-quarters of IR scholars believe the United States spends “too much” on defense, while just five percent of IR scholars believe that the United States is spending “too little.”  A recent Gallup poll found that 28 percent of the U.S. public believes we don’t spend enough on defense.

We asked scholars the very question Sens. McCain and Graham raised: What effect, if any, would the proposed cuts to the defense budget have on the national security of the United States? A majority of scholars believe the newly proposed budget will have no effect, while a quarter believe it will actually increase U.S. national security.  More than 80 percent of IR scholars disagree with McCain and Graham’s claim that the Hagel budget would harm the security of the United States.

In addition to comparing the perceptions of IR scholars on defense spending vis-a-vis the public, we also compared those that employ a “realist” paradigm in their research – which assumes that the primary aim of states is survival – against all other theoretical approaches. A leading contemporary realist, John Mearsheimer, suggests that reduced defense spending by the U.S. might ameliorate security dilemma dynamics, like arms races and provocative demonstrations of resolve, between the U.S. and other powerful states that are brought on by high (or increasing) defense spending levels. He argues that the U.S. is currently spending too much on defense and that a reduction in spending would not damage U.S. national security. However, not all realists agree. The results of our survey show that self-described realists are far less likely to agree (59% to 78%) with all other IR experts that the U.S. spends too much on defense. Instead, realists diverge from the pack, and are more likely to say that the U.S. spending is about right (31% to 17%) or too little (10% to 4%) as can be seen below.

We also compared IR scholars who focus on security studies to the rest of the field. The results here are more aligned with expectations. Security scholars were less likely than their counterparts to respond that the U.S. spends too much on defense (67% to 76%) while having a seven point gap (25% to 18%) in saying that defense spending is “about right.”

Responses by scholars of international relations to these brief snap polls will not serve as a crystal ball on the future of international events, nor will they alone bridge the gap between the Beltway and the Ivory Tower.  However, over time we hope to learn what kinds of questions will provoke the most useful and interesting debates and/or whether there are conditions under which a “wisdom of crowds” effect will emerge.  We are happy to take feedback from readers on the kinds of questions to ask (and avoid) as we move this project forward.