From climate change to the Islamic State, from Russia to China, we asked scholars who they want tackling America's biggest problems.
- By Daniel MaliniakDaniel Maliniak is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, San Diego. , Susan PetersonSusan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves professor of government and international relations at the College of William & Mary. , Ryan PowersRyan Powers is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. , Michael J. TierneyMichael J. Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton associate professor of government and international relations at the College of William & Mary.
Foreign policy issues are getting a lot of airtime in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. In last week’s Democratic primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton faced off over whether it’s foreign policy judgment or experience that is most needed in a president. While on the campaign trail in South Carolina, the remaining Republican primary candidates questioned whether front-runner Donald Trump possessed the qualifications — and the temperament — necessary to serve as commander in chief.
In a recent snap poll, we asked international relations (IR) scholars what they believe to be the three most important international issues facing the United States today and which presidential candidate — Democrat and Republican — is most fit to tackle the foreign-policy end of the job. Additionally, we asked scholars about the effectiveness of various counterterrorism tactics, the impact of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, and whether the Iran nuclear agreement contains adequate monitoring provisions.
This snap poll — conducted by the Teaching, Research & International Policy (TRIP) project at the College of William & Mary, in collaboration with Foreign Policy — asked IR scholars 10 questions about contemporary international issues. This poll is the eighth in the series and includes responses from 701 of the 4,078 IR scholars currently teaching and/or researching at colleges and universities throughout the United States. (Read the complete TRIP Snap Poll results here.)
1. Most important foreign-policy issues
We asked scholars to identify the three most important foreign-policy issues facing the United States today. Out of a long list of options that included everything from terrorism to poverty — conflict in the Middle East and global climate change effectively tied for the most commonly selected issues. In fact, over 81 percent of scholars chose one or both of these issues. Following those issues — at 27 percent, 25 percent, and 24 percent, respectively — was renewed Russian assertiveness, transnational terrorism, and China’s rising military power.
When we asked scholars a similar question some 18 months ago, global climate change was also in the top spot (at 40 percent). Conflict in the Middle East was not nearly as high on scholars’ list of concerns — at the time only 26 percent of scholars put it in their top three list. Additionally, only 17 percent of scholars named increased Russian assertiveness.
There are likely several reasons why scholars’ concern over the state of Middle East security has risen in recent months, including the rise of the Islamic State. It’s worth noting, however, that most IR scholars do not consider the recent deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program a potential source of concern in the Middle East. Though some Republican members of Congress remain skeptical, the vast majority of IR scholars — 81 percent — believe the agreement includes sufficient provisions to effectively monitor Iranian compliance. (It appears that concerns about WMD proliferation have gone down among these experts, despite the recent North Korean missile tests. Only 10 percent of scholars listed WMD proliferation in their top three issues compared to 14 percent in our previous survey.
2. Foreign policy problems and the next president
We asked IR experts to select one Democratic and one Republican party presidential candidate who would most effectively manage the foreign policy issues confronting the United States today.
Between the two remaining democratic candidates, the vast majority of IR scholars in our sample — 80 percent — indicated that Hillary Clinton would most effectively manage foreign policy as president. (Bernie Sanders received the remaining 20 percent of responses.)
When it came to the Republican candidates, IR scholars were decidedly more split. At 54 percent, the majority of scholars chose Ohio Governor John Kasich, followed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who garnered the support of just under 30 percent of respondents. Interestingly, no other Republican candidate broke out of single digits with IR scholars. Despite strong support in national and state public opinion polls, just 1.7 percent of IR scholars selected real estate mogul Donald Trump, while 1.5 percent selected Sen. Ted Cruz.
3. Can the Islamic State be defeated… and how?
The U.N. Security Council has called the Islamic State an “unprecedented threat.” Candidates from both political parties have been talking tough when it comes to the Islamic State, calling for more direct U.S. action, even suggesting a role for U.S. ground troops. Others believe a more effective strategy would be leaving intervention to regional powers.
Scholars are split on whether defeating the Islamic State is a viable goal for the United States, NATO, or a force authorized by U.N. Security Council, with about half of scholars disagreeing in each case. In contrast, almost 70 percent of respondents believe that the defeat of the Islamic State is feasible for a coalition of Middle Eastern states. Our survey closed before Saudi Arabia organized a massive military exercise involving 20 other countries in the region.
At the same time, a significant portion of scholars appear to be cautiously optimistic about current U.S. military strategies to counter Islamic State factions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. When asked about the effect of the U.S.-led coalition, just over a third of scholars said that it was making the situation in Iraq and Syria “somewhat better.” But an additional third of respondents said the U.S.-led coalition is making things “neither better nor worse,” while nearly a quarter of respondents said the U.S. military campaign is making things “somewhat” or “a great deal” worse.
Scholars exhibited a similar split on the tactics that are most likely to be effective in the fight against the Islamic State. A majority, view air strikes by manned (60 percent) or unmanned aircraft (52 percent) as rarely or never effective in combatting suspected terrorists, but even more scholars were skeptical about the use of U.S. ground troops. Respondents were moderately optimistic about the efficacy of sending U.S. trainers and special operations forces, but almost all agreed (89 percent) that blocking terrorist financing was the most effective tactic.
4. From defeating the Islamic State to a new Cold War
In the midst of this election year, relations between Russia and the West continue to sour. Last November, Turkey — a NATO member — shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish Syrian border and refused to apologize for its actions. The United States and Russia have traded accusations about the bombing of civilians in Aleppo. Despite increasing tensions, the United States sent fighter planes and Russia introduced anti-air systems into Syria. These U.S. planes are designed to fight other, presumably Russian, warplanes, and the Russian anti-air missiles have presumably been deployed to counter NATO and other allied planes, since neither the Islamic State nor other Syrian anti-government forces have an air force. When we asked IR scholars whether Russia’s introduction of the anti-air missiles into Syria would increase the probability of conflict, the experts saw this as a potential flash point. Nearly three quarters of scholars believe that these missiles will somewhat or strongly increase the likelihood of violent confrontation between NATO and Russian forces.
Not surprisingly, 27 percent of IR scholars believe that renewed Russian assertiveness is one of the most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today. The rhetoric of U.S. presidential candidates suggests they agree as “how would you deal with Putin” has become both a talking point and an internet meme. As we observed in the South Carolina Republican debate, we should not be surprised to see Russian foreign policy used by candidates as a cudgel to attack each other in the race for the U.S. presidency.
TRIP Snap Polls are conducted with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Graphics by C.K. Hickey.
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