Snap Poll: Does Obama Need to Put Troops in Ukraine to Prove America Is Tough?

We ask nearly 1,000 scholars about trade, aid, and what really stalled the Middle East peace talks.

Photoillustration by FP/ Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photoillustration by FP/ Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

When it comes to International Relations (IR), scholars don’t agree on much, but on free trade agreements, sending arms to Ukraine, and the United States’ global reputation, there is a remarkable degree of consensus. But this agreement among IR scholars — on many of these issues driving headlines today — stands in stark contrast to the views of the American public.   

The latest Snap Poll of IR scholars — conducted by the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William & Mary, in collaboration with Foreign Policy — reveals a widely held enthusiasm for multilateral trade and the importance of Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and optimism about diplomatic multi-tasking, while opinions were split on whether the president or Congress has more control over military aid to Egypt. The survey includes responses from 950 out of all 2,882 IR scholars at U.S. colleges and universities giving us a response rate of approximately 33 percent. For a complete list of the questions, topline results, and an analysis of the small differences between the respondent sample and the overall population, see the full survey report here.

On the Ramifications of U.S. Reputation and Resolve

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department and current president and CEO of the New America Foundation, made waves recently when she suggested that the U.S. failure to act in Syria last year may have emboldened Russia in Ukraine and concluded that “shots fired by the United States in Syria will echo loudly in Russia.” 

In his commencement address to 2014 graduating class at West Point, U.S. President Barack Obama found the middle ground between interventionists like Slaughter and “self-described realists” who argue that “conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.” “[T]o say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution,” Obama argued. “[S]tanding with our allies on behalf of international order … has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot.”

The academy’s views align more closely with the president’s than with Slaughter’s. According to our respondents, foreign leaders do not infer U.S. resolve in one issue area or region by observing America’s use of military force in other parts of the world. IR scholars overwhelmingly believe that the United States does not need to use force in Ukraine now to show our allies or rivals that America will stand firm later on other issues or in other regions of the world. [Ed note: Click images to expand.]

These findings hold across gender, ideology, theoretical perspective, and other factors. Identical majorities (87 percent) of women and men reject the idea that our allies will draw negative inferences, while 84 percent of women and 87 percent of men say the same of our international rivals. 

This consensus also crosses ideological lines — though respondents who describe themselves as conservative are somewhat more likely to believe that allies and rivals alike are drawing inferences from U.S. policy toward Ukraine. About 23 percent of conservatives believe rivals will draw inferences from U.S. behavior in Ukraine, and 20 percent or fewer of conservatives think U.S. allies are watching Ukraine. In contrast, among liberals only 10 percent think rivals will infer U.S. intentions, while 9 percent believe allies will do so.

Scholars of international political economy (14 percent with respect to allies, 17 percent for rivals) are somewhat more likely than scholars of international organization (4 percent for both allies and rivals) or international security (6 percent for allies, 9 percent for rivals) to believe that inaction in Ukraine will have reputational costs. Finally, realists (15 percent for allies and 17 percent for rivals) are more likely to worry about dominoes falling than either liberals (6 percent and 8 percent) or constructivists (9 and 10 percent), but these differences are dwarfed by the across-the-board consensus.

In the aftermath of the recent collapse of Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry took his share of the lumps. Kerry, like other members of the Obama administration, has had his hands full with events in Ukraine, Syria, the South China Sea, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations. We asked IR scholars whether the administration’s attention to these issues hampered efforts to jumpstart the Middle East peace talks. But IR scholars did not blame an overextended State Department, with just 17 percent believing that heavy diplomatic involvement in these other areas affected the peace talks.  Even scholars who have worked in the policy world, and who may well remember the difficulty of juggling many diplomatic initiatives at once, were no more likely than their ivory tower colleagues to think that the United States was too overextended to succeed in the Middle East.

The Crisis in Ukraine Continues, Now What?

Ukraine held a (mostly) successful presidential election last week, but pro-Russia separatists in the east are becoming more aggressive and Russian troops maintain a substantial presence near the country’s borders. When it comes to the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine, IR scholars and the American public appear to be on the same page. TRIP survey respondents oppose sending arms and other military supplies to the Ukrainian government at a rate of about 2 to 1, which matches closely the results of a Pew poll of the American public taken in April. It isn’t surprising then that IR scholars are largely against sending NATO ground troops, even if the Ukrainians requested the military assistance: fewer than 20 percent support such a move.

Scholars who focus primarily on international law are the most supportive, with 50 percent in favor of sending NATO troops if asked, but they account for only 3 percent of all IR scholars in the survey. And while NATO ground troops are unpopular among IR scholars as a policy response, neither is this the best time to contemplate expanding NATO membership to include Ukraine. Only 16 percent of respondents think NATO should invite the Ukrainian government to begin a Membership Action Plan (which is a necessary step before NATO membership, but which does not imply a mutual defense guarantee) in the next month, likely because this might only worsen the chance for resolution of the current crisis. 

Where do IR scholars stand on the long-run prospects of expanding NATO? Only 27 percent believe that NATO should welcome Ukraine into the fold over the next decade. This may be because IR scholars share the opinion of some observers that NATO’s eastward expansion contributed to Russia’s insecurity and subsequent takeover of Crimea as well as its support for ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. But not everyone agrees. Harvard’s Graham Allison explained decades ago that the model one employs to describe and explain international relations often colors what we see and what policy prescriptions we advance. We find that a plurality of respondents who describe their research as liberal (41 percent) think that Ukraine should begin the membership process within the next decade. IR scholars from other theoretical paradigms don’t come close (26 percent). The takeaway? Where you stand on NATO depends on the theoretical camp in which you sit.

Aid: When the U.S. Should Giveth (and Taketh) Away 

Despite the fact that U.S. law prohibits continued funding of countries “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree,” last week’s intervention in domestic politics by the military in both Thailand and Libya did not lead to a cutoff of U.S. support. Large amounts of U.S. military and financial assistance continue to flow to Egypt despite the fact that elected President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by the Egyptian military in July 2013. In response, some commentators and members of Congress have called for the suspension or cancellation of U.S. military aid to Egypt. IR scholars generally agree with the critics of U.S. aid policy as almost 60 percent believe that aid to Egypt should be decreased or stopped altogether, while only 34 percent believe it should be increased or kept about the same.
Those least enthusiastic about the suspension or reduction of aid are realists (50 percent), and those most insistent on cutting aid are constructivist scholars (64 percent) and those who study the Middle East (71 percent). 

While the snap poll suggests that IR scholars are generally supportive of cutting aid to Egypt, a very large majority believes that aid will neither be suspended nor reduced. In fact, 20 percent believe military assistance will be reduced and only 2 percent believe it will be stopped altogether.

All Agree to Agree on Multilateral Trade 

This year NAFTA turns 20 years old. This milestone anniversary comes after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In the wake of the crisis, political commentators and presidential hopefuls put some of the blame for the slow recovery of the U.S. economy at the feet of NAFTA. Perhaps as a result of this rhetoric, public support for NAFTA-style agreements declined significantly, but scholarly consensus on multilateral trade arrangements has not frayed. We asked scholars whether NAFTA has been good or bad for the U.S. economy and for the Mexican economy. Eighty percent of IR scholars said that NAFTA has been good for the U.S. economy and 71 percent said it has been good for Mexico. Among the general public, the pattern is reversed. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that more Americans believe NAFTA has been good for the Mexican economy than for the U.S. economy. Just 50 percent of American voters believe NAFTA has been good for the U.S. economy compared to 70 percent of Americans who believe that NAFTA has been good for Mexico.

We also asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the multilateral trade agreement that is currently being negotiated between 12 Pacific countries. We found broad enthusiasm for this effort among IR scholars — 68 percent support the idea while only 12 percent oppose it. However, unlike NAFTA, a large number of scholars (20 percent) are withholding judgment as not all the details of the TPP arrangement are yet public and/or finalized. As one might expect, those scholars who subscribe to the liberal IR paradigm (74 percent) and those who study IPE (75 percent) are more likely to support the initiative. But neither of these groups is as enthusiastic as realist scholars who support TPP at over 82 percent. While realists are typically more skeptical of multilateralism as it restricts the autonomy of U.S. foreign policymakers, perhaps they see TPP as an effort to balance against China, which has been excluded from these talks.

The level of support for multilateral trade agreements among respondents to the Snap Poll is similar to what we found in TRIP’s 2004 faculty survey. Then, 77 percent of IR scholars responded that trade agreements “like NAFTA and the WTO” have benefited the United States. In 2006 that positive consensus among IR scholars jumped to 81 percent.  

TRIP Snap Polls are conducted with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Daniel Maliniak is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves professor of government and international relations and the chair of the Department of Government at the College of William & Mary.

Ryan Powers is an assistant professor of international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Twitter: @rmpowers

Michael J. Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton professor of international relations and director of the Global Research Institute at the College of William & Mary. Twitter: @MikeTierneyIR