Donald Trump has openly questioned U.S. treaty commitments to mutual defense and nuclear proliferation agreements. What do statements like this mean for U.S. foreign policy? We polled international relations (IR) scholars at U.S. colleges and universities about the foreign policy implications of a possible Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency.
Overwhelmingly, IR scholars expect a Trump presidency to negatively affect U.S. relations with its allies — and damage U.S. credibility with Russia and China. By contrast, the scholars believe a Clinton presidency would have little impact on U.S. relations with either allies or adversaries.
While IR scholars are, on average, more liberal than the public as a whole, we found conservative and moderate IR scholars are nearly as apprehensive about a Trump presidency as their more liberal colleagues, and they are significantly more negative about Trump than their conservative and moderate counterparts within the U.S. public.
This survey, the ninth in a series of snap polls conducted by the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project, includes responses from 744 of the 4,078 IR scholars teaching and/or researching at colleges and universities throughout the United States. TRIP’s Data Dashboard includes the results of this poll, which asked IR scholars 13 questions between Oct. 5 and 9. Here’s what we found:
Which candidate reflects the foreign policy views of IR scholars?
An overwhelming majority (82 percent) responded “Hillary Clinton” (see Figure 1, below). Just under 4 percent of the scholars surveyed said “Donald Trump,” while 14 percent chose to write in a third-party candidate, other national political figure, or some variation on “none of the above.”
We asked respondents to identify their own political leanings, and Figure 2 shows a similar preference order is apparent across the ideological spectrum. Clinton most closely reflects the foreign policy views of 90 and 84 percent of liberal and moderate respondents, respectively. Exactly half the conservative IR scholars in our poll prefer Clinton, while only 7 percent prefer Trump. Among no ideological subgroup does Trump come close to breaking out of third place.
These results are consistent with our previous survey of IR scholars conducted during the February primary campaigns, which found that IR scholars believed that Hillary Clinton would do a better job managing U.S. foreign policy than Bernie Sanders; and that Donald Trump would be a less effective foreign policy president than most of his GOP competitors.
IR scholars lean left, but this preference for Clinton over Trump likely reflects respondents’ expertise on foreign policy as much as their ideology. To illustrate this point, consider a recent Pew Research Center survey of the general public, which asks which candidate would do a better job on foreign policy. Among conservative members of the public, 54 percent prefer Trump to Clinton, but only 7 percent of conservative foreign policy experts prefer Trump. And while 23 percent of self-described moderate voters believe that Trump would be better on foreign policy, only 5 percent of moderate scholars agree.
Similarly, many nonpartisan and GOP foreign policy experts and practitioners have not only come out against Trump; many of these experts also affirmatively support Clinton. Our survey results suggest that individuals who spend their careers studying and working in the area of international relations are deeply skeptical of Trump’s foreign policy approach precisely because they understand the details and the complexities of this policy area. In previous work we discovered a similar epistemic consensus among experts on the folly of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Trump’s election would damage U.S. foreign relations
Trump has said that as president he would come to the defense of NATO countries only if they “fulfill their obligations to us,” argued that the United States can no longer afford to honor its defense pact with Japan, and implied that he would encourage more states to secure nuclear weapons, a violation of U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In every case, Hillary Clinton has strongly disagreed with Trump.
So we asked IR scholars how the election of Clinton or Trump would affect relations between the United States and its allies. Figure 3 shows that over 95 percent of scholars said Trump would have a negative effect on relations between the United States and NATO states, and 91 percent of scholars believe that the election of Donald Trump would cause NATO allies to doubt the U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe. By comparison, about 3 percent of scholars said Clinton would have a negative effect on relations between the United States and its NATO allies, and only 2 percent said her election would lead NATO allies to doubt the U.S. commitment.
IR scholars have long argued that governments make alliance commitments to shape the expectations of other states, both to reassure allies, but also to make it clear to potential adversaries that any aggression will be costly to the attacking state. In this context, IR scholars were concerned about how Trump’s election might embolden aggressive behavior in states like Russia and China. Over 80 percent of scholars believe that Trump’s election would lead Russia to doubt the U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe, while just over 3 percent said the same of Clinton.
While respondents were more concerned about how Russia might react, 70 percent of respondents also said that the Trump’s election would lead China to doubt the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan, with similar numbers for questions on the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea (70 percent) and Taiwan (about 68 percent).
The prospect of Clinton’s election, on the other hand, raised less alarm among IR scholars. Only about 3 percent of respondents indicated that Clinton’s election would cause China to doubt the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and South Korea, and approximately 4 percent said it would lead China to doubt the U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan.
Who will deal best with Russia?
On the campaign trail, Trump asked, “When you think about it, wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?” He has argued that the United States would be better off finding common ground with Russia and cooperating more effectively to defeat the Islamic State and negotiate a settlement in Ukraine.
IR scholars we surveyed are skeptical that Trump’s purported dealmaking skills would benefit the United States. Our respondents believe that any future deals between Russia and a Trump administration would be “less likely” to benefit the United States. Broadly speaking, scholars see the election of Hillary Clinton as a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy and thus expect “no effect” of a Clinton presidency (see Figure 4).
Dan Maliniak is assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary.
Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves Professor of Government and International Relations at the College of William and Mary.
Hannah Petrie is a 2016 graduate of William & Mary and a TRIP project manager.
Ryan Powers is a PhD candidate in political science at University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Michael Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations at the College of William and Mary and the director of the AidData Center for Development Policy. TRIP Snap Polls are conducted with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.