Ideology and Scholarly Insights

The ideological divide between International Relations scholars varies greatly between foreign policy issues. Understanding which issues appear to stimulate strong ideological fissures allows us a measure of healthy skepticism when interpreting surveys of scholars. Consumers of academic knowledge should withhold some confidence in scholarly claims until we better understand how scholars arrive at their conclusions. On issues where ideology may cause differing views, we should acknowledge this difference when evaluating overall conclusions, particularly since IR scholars are mostly liberal.

The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project’s 2017 Snap Poll includes responses from 1,395 IR scholars at U.S. colleges and universities. In our sample, 181 scholars identify as somewhat or very conservative on economic or social issues. The large sample of IR scholars allows us to examine the ideological divide within the academy and provide initial support a potential causal relationship between ideology and views on certain issues.

The divide is present on some of the issues we asked scholars to evaluate. First, we asked scholars if they approved or disapproved of “President Donald Trump’s proposed policy of withdrawing U.S. support” (1) from the Iran nuclear weapons agreement and (2) for international climate change agreements. Finally, we asked scholars if they believe that ISIS is a major threat to the United States. According to basic logistic regression models, the apparent role of ideology varies among these issues.

Aidanfall1A simple logistic regression of approval to leave the Iran Deal on conservative ideology estimates that conservative scholars are 60 times more likely to support this policy than non-conservative scholars. Ideology explains about a third of the variation in support, suggesting this may be an ideologically salient issue. Iran is a controversial country and has a complicated history with America and its allies, so American perceptions of the deal are deeply partisan.

The next step is to control for factors separate from deep-seated political ideology. The deal relaxed sanctions on Iran and frustrated Israel, an American ally. Therefore, I first controlled for individuals’ belief in the effectiveness of sanctions and maintaining existing alliances as foreign policy tools of the United States. The power of ideology increased slightly, and neither of the foreign policy controls were statistically significant. Next, I included the perceived effectiveness of international agreements and military intervention, since that is often presented as the forced trade-off here. Both of those controls are significant, but conservatives are still 28 times as likely as non-conservatives to approve of Trump’s proposal.

I want to examine different ideological perspectives, so I finally control for confidence in President Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Conservative scholars are about 11 times more likely than non-conservative scholars to approve of Trump leaving the Iran nuclear agreement, even controlling for the policymaking controls and confidence in President Trump. 

An ideological divide is also present on President Donald Trump’s proposed policy of withdrawing U.S. support for international climate change agreements. A simple logistic regression estimates that conservatives are almost 80 times as likely as non-conservatives to support this policy. Almost half the variation in support for withdrawing U.S. support for climate agreements is explained by ideology.

I add controls for the perceived effectiveness of international agreements and international organizations and the ideology gap decreases to 54 times as likely. Belief in international organizations has a statistically significant and negative relationship with approval of this policy. This is unsurprising since the largest climate agreements, notably the Paris Agreement, are negotiated through the United Nations.

Finally, the full model controls for confidence in President Trump as well. Conservative scholars in our sample are about 26 times as likely to approve of withdrawing U.S. support for international climate change agreements than non-conservative scholars, controlling for confidence in Trump, international agreements, and international organizations. Scholars who are confident in Trump are 7 times as likely to support his climate policy. The variation between these estimates show that ideology appears to play a role in scholars’ beliefs on key questions in international affairs, even beyond their expressed political preferences.

However, the role of ideology, and its relationship with political preferences, is not consistent on all issues. A simple logistic regression between scholars’ belief that ISIS is a major threat and ideology finds no significant relationship. In fact, ideology explains less than 1 percent of their perceived threat of ISIS. A hawkish attitude, measured by confidence in military intervention to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals, appears to matter. However, even this relationship breaks down when controlling for confidence in President Trump. Candidate Trump ran on an anti-interventionist stance, but scholars with confidence in Trump are more likely to view ISIS as a major threat than those without confidence in Trump, even though ideology is statistically and substantively insignificant.

Some foreign policy issues, such as climate change agreements and the Iran nuclear deal, appear to stimulate ideological differences in how scholars view the issues and possible solutions. If ideology causes scholars to hold differing views, we must acknowledge this difference when evaluating overall conclusions. Understanding potential ideological biases of scholars allows us to more accurately compare their views. This would make data collected by TRIP and other groups far more valuable. If we can evaluate issues with an understanding of the role of ideology, we will benefit from the vast knowledge and experience of international relations scholars.

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.

Trump’s Foreign Policy and Presidential Powers: What Do the Experts Think?

By Lucas Arnett

October 1st, 2019

Last week, an anonymous whistle-blower filed a complaint calling into question handling of sensitive information. President Trump went to “great lengths” to classify the details around a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky in which the President asked his counterpart to “look into” a now discredited accusation of Former Vice President Joe Biden only a few days after announcing plans to withhold $400 million in military aid to the Ukranian government. Although Mr. Zelensky denies being pressured and Mr. Trump claims it’s just another ‘witch hunt’, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set in motion plans for an impeachment inquiry. 

It’s no secret that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of unpredictability has been controversial for some time, but scholars could at least agree the President had not overstepped his authority as a President. Now, following the political storm surrounding Wednesday’s events, scholars are being forced to reconsider the impact of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy in a more serious light. The Teaching Research and International Policy (TRIP) team at the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute (GRI), at which I am a research assistant, conducted a survey in October investigating what scholars think of Trump’s foreign policy. 

Trump’s foreign policy has never been popular. Of the 1075 scholars who responded to our survey, 81.1% believe President Trump’s doctrine of unpredictability is not an effective tactic for negotiation. Being unpredictable makes it harder for analysts to understand the President’s agenda and priorities, and it makes our allies less certain that we will come to their aid if need be. Add to that the series of semantic slip-ups the President’s made including revealing classified information to the Russian foreign minister and referring to a variety of developing countries as ‘shitholes’ and it’s not surprising that his policy is unpopular. In October of 2018, 93.2% of experts agreed that the United States is less respected internationally since the Trump administration came into power, and 99.2% of those scholars agree that’s a problem. 


Scholars also disagree with almost every foreign policy decision Trump has made. One of the Trump administration’s first actions was to pass a budget proposal which included a drastic cut in development aid. When asked whether the United States should increase development aid to counteract Chinese influence, only 1.86% of scholars advocated for a decrease in aid compared to 72.9% advocating for an increase, and 22.07% advocating for no change. Additionally, only 6.7% of scholars think President Trump’s DPRK policy will lead to denuclearization, 93% of scholars oppose the President’s proposal to withdraw from NATO, and only 8% of scholars support the President’s decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

Despite a controversial foreign policy, scholars have largely been divided on the issue of executive authority. In late 2018, 48.6% of scholars believed the President had not overstepped his foreign policy powers compared to 41.6% who believed he did and 9.8% who selected “don’t know.” President Trump’s unorthodox travel ban and a flexible interpretation of “national emergency” also were not enough to convince scholars that executive power has increased; in fact 67.9% of scholars agree Presidential power has not increased under Mr. Trump’s administration. On the grounds of abuse of power, scholars don’t seem to recognize a precedent of unpunished impeachable offenses. 

The whistleblower’s complaint incited the political straw that finally broke Congress’s back and it has certainly drawn the public’s attention, but will this be enough to convince academics that President Trump’s ineffectual, unorthodox foreign policy may be putting our country at risk? Is the President’s “lockdown” of the phone call’s transcript symptomatic of an unconventional foreign policy or an attempted cover-up of a large-scale corruption, extortion, and bribery scandal? We’ll have to keep watching. 


Lucas Arnett is a proud member of William & Mary’s class of 2022. He’s  interested in going into the field of International Relations, ideally starting with the Peace Corps and then settling into a calmer desk job as an analyst after a few years. On campus, Lucas is involved with the WM Debate Society, the Eco Schools Leadership Initiative (ESLI), and the Catholic church. A fun fact about Lucas is that his ancestors founded a town in the Midwest called Arnettsville, which still bears his family’s name to this day.

Spooky Scary Cyberwar

By Peter Leonard

The news has been blowing up recently with reports that Iran may have been behind an attack on a Saudi Arabian oilfield and processing facility. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was among the first to point a finger at Iran, claiming that all evidence pointed to Iran’s involvement. Now, the U.S and Iran are back on the brink of conflict in what has been a tumultuous year. With conventional warfare an unlikely option, the U.S. and Iran could be gearing up for a full-on cyberwar.

When considering the events of the past week, it is important to examine the background of the conflict to contemplate where the countries will go from here. The current tensions with Iran can be partially linked back to the United States withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. President Donald Trump’s decision to renege on the deal frustrated scholars and policy practitioners alike. According to a TRIP poll conducted in 2017, 94% of scholars disapproved of Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the nuclear agreement. 


More importantly, the U.S. withdrawal angered many within the Iranian government. Those who had proposed making peace with the United States now had nothing to show for it. It also appeared to prove that the government’s hawkish factions had been right about not trusting the United States. As a consequence, militaristic factions in Iran became more aggressive about confronting the United States.

Here is where cybersecurity enters the picture. Scholars have said that cyberwarfare would be a major threat for years. In the same 2017 TRIP poll, scholars placed cyberwarfare as one of the top five foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today. When asked about the threat potential of cyberwarfare, 51.93% of scholars noted a cyberattack from another country was a “major threat,” compared to a minor threat or no threat at all. 


Tying this information back to Iran, the vast majority of scholars said international agreements were somewhat effective or very effective at achieving the foreign policy goals of the United States. These statistics stand in sharp contrast to a militaristic approach. Over 79% of scholars said military interventions were either “not very effective” or “not effective at all” in achieving foreign policy goals. Clearly, this data suggests that scholars would prefer a diplomatic approach like the JCPOA over military excursions, including cyberattacks. However, it now seems like current events are trending in the opposite direction.

On June 13, 2019, Iran attacked two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, angering the U.S. and its allies. After saying the U.S. was “locked and loaded,” President Trump backed down from his threats to strike back, or so it seemed. More discreetly, the U.S. carried out several cyberattacks against Iranaian targets, focusing on groups that helped carry out the attack. The cyberattack was not the first time the U.S. had targeted Iran. The US/Israeli-made computer virus “Stuxnet” damaged Iranian computer programs in 2010, infecting over 200,000 computers

The difference between 2010 and 2019, though, is that Iran now has the potential to strike back. The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment stated that “Iran continued to present a cyber espionage and attack threat” to the U.S. The report further stated that Iran “is capable of causing localized, temporarily disruptive effects – such as disrupting a large company’s corporate networks for days to weeks.” The report refers to an example where Iranian hackers hit a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia, attempting to trigger an explosion. It now even seems that Russia has helped Iran improve its hacking abilities. 

As previously noted, scholars believe international agreements are more effective at resolving conflict than military interventions. However, the JCPOA is no longer on the table and it does not seem like the U.S. nor Iran are willing to renegotiate the deal any time soon. Iran’s increased technological capabilities, combined with the U.S. relying increasingly on cyberattacks instead of conventional warfare, leaves the two countries in a precarious position. A cyberwar presents high risk for low reward. Indeed, a cyberwar may just escalate to a full on war. Both countries should figure out a path forward through another diplomatic agreement, not through pernicious lines of code targeted at the other.


Peter Leonard graduated from William & Mary in 2019 with degrees in Government and History. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in secondary education at William & Mary’s School of Education, as he wants to be a high school Social Studies teacher. Peter loves hiking, playing ultimate frisbee, and watching baseball (he’s been a diehard Rockies fan since birth and was raised in Colorado.) When it comes to International Relations, Peter is interested in how regime type and structure impacts how a government functions and how accountable the government is to its people.

TRIP goes to APSA

TRIP is back after a brief hiatus. Before settling into Op-Ed and Journal coding for the semester, TRIP made a detour up to Washington, D.C. for the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) annual conference. We all attended different panels, learned about interesting methods, and got to meet scholars who have worked with TRIP data.


Here are some highlights from the weekend:


This was my first APSA, and I really enjoyed it! I had the opportunity to attend several intriguing panels. One of my favorite panels was a roundtable on Nomi Lazar’s book, Out of Joint: Power, Crisis, and the Rhetoric of Time, in which the author argues that leaders construct time (both rhetorically and literally) in order to consolidate power in times of crisis. The book spoke to my personal interest in power and discursive practices, and inspired me to think in new ways. Because APSA is such a large event (the 2019 conference had about 6500 attendees!), there was a wide variety of panels and presentations spread across three hotels. The conference exposed me to ideas that I wasn’t familiar with before, such as food systems theory, which is interested in a critical understanding of how and by whom food is produced and consumed, as well as meanings attached to food. 


 I really appreciate the opportunity to attend the APSA conference. It allowed me to communicate with researchers in the field of political science and international relations. It also provided me with the opportunity to learn about the research topics that are currently popular in academia. One of the most memorable events I attended was a panel focused on the dynamics of state-building across time and space. In this panel, scholars from different universities around the world presented their works regarding influential factors in the formation of different states. Under the division of comparative politics, this panel included researchers using both quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches and focusing on various regions around the world. 


APSA was my first ever time at a political science conference, so I had no idea what to expect going in. It was interesting seeing the relationships between scholars and policymakers play out right in front of me. At the panel hosted by William & Mary Professor Susan Peterson titled “Cult of the Irrelevant? The Influence of IR Scholarship of National Security” it was cool to see the effects of TRIP’s data dissemination efforts present in the work of policy makers. Other personal highlights included a panel titled  “The People as Swarm, Crowd, & Rabble” that discussed the diverse language invoked across different political locations and historical junctures to describe populist political movements and crossing paths with George Washington University Professor and prolific Monkey Cage contributor Henry Farrell.


Aidan provides his thoughts on the above mentioned panel hosted by Susan Peterson:

Michael Horowitz’s optimistic counter to Desch provided a few interesting ideas. A focus on micro-change, instead of direct and high-level policy influence provides a new perspective. Utilizing outlets read by low- and mid-level policymakers, which our current project examines, may be a very effective way to involve academic knowledge in policy-making. I also think we should study the possible intersection of policy relevance and a necessary focus on quantitative methods and research design. When I look at journal articles with a policy prescription in the TRIP Journal Article Database, I find only a small difference between quantitative and all other articles’ use of explicit policy prescriptions. Just 4 percent of quantitative articles and 11 percent of all other articles include an explicit policy prescription. However, linking scholarly irrelevance to methodological focus obscures the feasibility of answering policy relevant questions with rigorous empirical methods, given the right incentives and clear communication.


I was so happy that we were able to have the RAs come up to Washington with us for this conference. I loved seeing them excited about the world of political science, and I thought we all really benefited from listening in on the ‘rigor-relevance’ debate at the Desch roundtable. I went to a few different panels on my own, and as a prospective graduate student, it was great to learn about the research going on at different universities and even meet some of the people whose work I admire. My favorite panel was on advancements in qualitative methods. Hearing about archival and field work methodologies rooted in sociology and anthropology research traditions that are being put to use in political science made me really excited about the possibilities of an interdisciplinary research agenda.


Finally, we would like to thank everyone who donated to TRIP for One Tribe One Day. Your generous donations gave us the opportunity to travel to DC and learn interesting new things about international relations and political science outside the classroom. These are the kinds of enlightening experiences that your donations pay for, and it is so important to our education and undergraduate research experience. Thank you!

TRIP Summer in Review

These past 10 weeks have really flown by here at TRIP. We’ve accomplished quite a lot and had a lot of fun as well. On this week’s post, we’re taking a stroll down memory lane to relive the highs and lows of this summer.

We started out this summer by welcoming new team members to the TRIP family. Lucas, Patrick, Peter, & Vera were welcome additions and it was so great to have fresh eyes on data and new ideas contributing to this blog and other TRIP publications.

Next came team bonding in the form of Brickhouse Trivia every Wednesday night. The team’s name changed week to week, rotating through various TRIP research related names, including “Bring Back the Gold Standard”, “TRIP Trivia Trivago” and even the infamous Lawfare series, Water Wars. In week 8, the team won 1st place and $30. Bragging rights AND cash? A win-win for TRIP.

Summer1The TRIP trivia team after their big win

Next, we started up the TRIP Blog for the summerWe were very ambitious at first, claiming that we were going to publish new content twice a week. But, alas, we were not successful in following through on this goal. We still ended up producing new content each week, ranging from pop culture references to an in depth of analysis of the “new Cold War.”

After we established that 2x a week was too much content to ask of our team (who were also coding 9000+ Op-Eds & Blog Posts), Peter Leonard came up with the brilliant TRIP Vlog. Thanks to the Reeder Media Center, Peter was able to interview that week’s RA author and produce vlogs that helped to explain what motivated us to write on our chosen topic and explain our hot takes.

About halfway through the summer, we had to say goodbye (but not really) to our Senior Project Manager, Eric. While he still oversees all of our work and is only a conference call meeting away, we had to cope with the loss of his presence and his always thought provoking “Hey, how’s it going?” when you come into the office each morning.

On July 10th, the Global Research Institute (GRI) hosted its annual D.C. Day. GRI Interns were invited to travel up to D.C. and meet with William & Mary Alumni who work all across the city.

Patrick Zheng found the day to be great for discovering career opportunities and networking:

[D.C. Day] was a great opportunity for the students to build up connections with W&M Alumni and develop insights into the field. I visited the World Bank in the morning and met with alumni who work there. They shared their own experiences working in the World Bank and how they transitioned from college to the field They also talked about the work they did at the GRI and how it helped them become competitive candidates for their positions. I also learned about how the World Bank works and what types of employees it is seeking. Later in the afternoon, we met with former FBI director and current W&M professor James Comey in the W&M D.C. campus. Instead of specific working advice, Comey shared his stories about his college life and the qualities he developed when studying in W&M that later helped to guide him through many hardships in his life. We also had an opportunity later at night to chat with other alumni during a reception. Instead of directly building up connections with people in the field, the D.C. Day allowed me to learn about the diversity of working opportunities in D.C. and how I can apply the skills I developed working as a TRIP RA in my future career.

Lucas Arnett told us that the life advice he got from alums is what really stuck with him from that day:

Until D.C. Day, I had never experienced the real Washington...From the second you step off the metro, it’s obvious who’s who in Washington. Unfazed city veterans skim through their pre-selected sections of the newspaper in no particular rush to get to work. On the escalator first day interns anxiously watch the clock as self-important officials push decisively past them. But it’s not until you have the opportunity to hear from top officials at places like USAID, the World Bank, and the State Department, that you realize everybody in this city wants the best for its people and are more than happy to share their career insights, no matter the age and experience difference, because everybody started somewhere. “Don’t be afraid to follow your own path,” one alumna told me in conversation. “Sometimes that means changing clothes, countries, or careers, but that’s okay. The path to an outstanding career and a meaningful life is far from linear.” In our capital there are multiple ways of getting to the same destination: walking, scooting, taking the metro, and while some may take longer and are less entertaining, nobody’s going to judge you for choosing the path you think is right for you. And, if you do start to get lost, strangers in D.C. are always ready to point you in the right direction.
Summer2RA Lucas Arnett snaps a selfie with alum and current W&M Professor James Comey during D.C. Day

While all of these exciting things were happening, behind the scenes all of the RAs were working on our capstone project for the summer, our Op-ed/Blog Post Coding. We spent all summer debating “Is Brexit an IPE issue or a Security issue?” and “Is the ICC even relevant?” but ultimately, we coded approximately 5000 Op-Eds and Blog Posts over the course of 10 weeks and we are all stoked to be on track to finish coding and arbitrating by this coming October.

It’s been fun, it’s been real. The TRIP blog is going on hiatus until the semester starts up again. Until then, we’ll be bridging the gap poolside.

Trump’s twitter sleight of hand, something other leaders should take note of?

By Conor Scanlon

July 23rd, 2019

In the spirit of reading through blog posts and op-eds as my primary assignment this summer, I thought I would write a blog post this week in a similar style to those that I read throughout the day.

As social media encapsulates a larger portion of people’s lives today, politicians have found ways to enhance the strength of their agenda using this platform. President Trump is perhaps the most prominent of these figures; not just because he is the president of the United States, but also because his use of twitter to promote his agenda and respond to critics is unmatched by those in similar positions of power.

Social media has power to place people directly in the spotlight and engage directly with criticism. Traditionally when a scandal has a hit a politician, a consolidated effort from their press team will often try to minimize the noise surrounding it. President Trump has embraced the polar opposite, often responding to specific media criticism and sharing his feelings on current events as they happen.

Another power social media has is the power to distract. Given the immediacy that technology brings to communication and news, what wins our attention will often be the most outrageous, shocking or noteworthy thing that we come across. In some cases, this will involve overlooking the more important policy changes in favor of responding to rhetoric.

A good example of this was seen with President Trump and his tweets regarding “The Squad” (congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib), specifically regarding the phrase “go back to where you came from”. This tweet attracted a large amount of attention not only on social media platforms, but news outlets also wrote articles and dedicated airtime to the topic, and congress held a vote to condemn the tweet. 

However, while all of this was happening, President Trump placed considerable restrictions on those seeking asylum in the United States. While this is certainly a huge development from a policy perspective regarding the crisis at the southern border, this story took a back seat to President Trump’s tweets towards “The Squad”.

My take on independent political analyst and commentator Tim Pool’s video suggests that President Trump has a general strategy via Twitter in which he can distract and influence the public to focus on specific issues while perhaps more controversial policy decisions are made with much less public and media scrutiny.

This isn’t the first time President Trump has been accused of doing this sort of thing. Mashable has put together an article that highlights the many controversial policy changes President Trump has made during the first year of his presidency, and also listed the social media frenzy that was surrounding an unrelated action or tweet. The continued use of twitter to create a reaction could certainly be attributed to Trump’s business personality; always looking to stay relevant and have a hand in things. It could also be said that Trump has a strong grasp of the power of social media, and has successfully used it to control narratives in the media during his presidency. It should also be noted that majority of scholars do not think that President Trump’s unpredictable rhetoric and behavior have been an effective negotiation tactic with over 81% of scholars disagreeing that the strategy has been effective.

Going forward, social media will only continue to impact our lives. As politicians born into a world with technology (think millennials and generation z) start to take office in the future, their comfort with social media will result in greater usage. However, with increased usage comes the desire to stay relevant in times in which headlines will come at a million miles a second. It will be important to recognize that while the rhetoric will likely get more and more extreme (as many have suggested since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign over three years ago now), but that shouldn’t take away our focus on the policy changes and the actions that truly matter.

There Are No Cowboys: Narrative and Meaning in HBO’s Generation Kill

By Vera Choo

July 15th, 2019

In July 2008, HBO premiered its adaptation of Evan Wright’s bestselling book, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War. The series, which depicts the first three weeks of the Iraq War through the eyes of an elite unit of US Marines, opened to critical acclaim. Helmed by the same team behind HBO’s The Wire (David Simon and Ed Burns), the series was lauded for its realism and faithfulness to the source material. Aided by its distance to its content, Generation Kill does not claim to endorse any one evaluation of the war; instead, the audience has the benefit of 5 years of the war to contextualize the events for themselves, allowing the opportunity for multiple perspectives.

Generation Kill is a jam-packed 7 episodes, a whirlwind of men in camouflage, humvees, and sandy landscapes. The series features a sprawling ensemble cast, reinforcing the messy, complicated nature of war. When critics complained that the characters were too hard to differentiate, obscured as they are by gear and helmets, Simon responded that was his intention: “That’s how it is when you’re dropped into a unit. I wanted you to feel the initial disorientation.” The series focuses on Bravo company of the Marines’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, with occasional focus on its sister company, Alpha (headed by Captain Bryan Patterson). Bravo company, headed by Captain Craig Schwetje, is plagued by poor leadership, with the exception of Lt. Nathaniel Fick, who leads 2nd Platoon. The main focus of the series is the humvee hosting reporter Evan Wright, led by Sgt. Brad Colbert. The story begins in Kuwait on the eve of the invasion and follows the men on their winding journey to Baghdad. 

Central to the series’ excellence is its relentless persecution of narrative itself. Scholar Joshua Clover argues that the “episodic aimlessness of David Simon’s Generation Kill […] summons up the unnarratibility of the Iraq adventure, its unreason, and inevitably the idea that there was no reason to start with.” Ironically, this lack of narrative chiefly manifests in the narratives that the characters create for themselves. These vary from personal to overarching narratives about democracy and American military might. Some of these narratives are shared, like the myth of the warrior Recon Marine. The men envision themselves as elite cold-blooded warriors—“America’s attack dogs.” This belief influences how they process events and carry out their duties; however, even this narrative is threatened by the events of the war. Espera notes that he doesn’t even feel remorse at killing anymore, asking, “Is this how true warriors feel?” To which Colbert responds, “Don’t fool yourself. We aren’t being warriors out here. They’re just using us as machine operators, semi-skilled labor.”

All of the characters operate within their own narratives of what war should be like. Sgt. Sixta (a native Nebraskan) affects a bizarre dialect because he has “decided that all sergeant-majors are supposed to talk with a Southern accent.” Captain Schwetje (nicknamed “Encino Man” because of his lack of intelligence) is a former high school quarterback who understands the world exclusively through football metaphors. Captain McGraw—also known as “Captain America”—thinks of himself and his fellow marines as heroes in a Vietnam War movie. Trombley thinks of the invasion as a game and is consequently disappointed by how little he’s fired his weapon. Lilley uses it as material for his home movie which, by the last episode, has transformed from a motivational film to a horror film. Rudy envisions the war as a warrior’s journey, but by the end, even he, who began the war meditating daily, is prone to displays of aggression. Most notably, Colbert, nicknamed the “Iceman” in Afghanistan, embodies the warrior ethos. Colbert’s moniker is well-deserved; the rest of the marines look up to him for both his skill and stoicism. However, this façade reveals itself when a member of his team accidentally shoots a young boy. Colbert, taking responsibility for the incident, is torn by the sight of the boy and emotionally withdraws from the team. His emotional response to the child’s shooting ruptures his Iceman persona, exposing the reality that war affects even the coldest of warriors. In this way, the narratives that the characters have created for themselves obscure the reality of the war and fracture the series’ overall plot.

Scattered between the firefights and offkey sing-a-longs is serious discourse over their presence in Iraq. The official line is that they are tasked with liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. This is reinforced by their translator, Meesh, who rarely translates anything, but instead repeats a stock phrase: “They are grateful to be liberated by the Americans and look forward to working hand-in-hand here in Iraq.” The characters often return to questions of their purpose in Iraq, frequently after displays of senseless violence or bureaucratic ineptness. The series leaves the door open to the idea that the invasion was ill-advised. This is especially poignant in an exchange in episode 6:

WRIGHT: No, really, if we’re not in our MOPP suits, that means there’s no WMDs. If there’s no WMDs, then why are we here in the first place?

PERSON: I knew you were a fucking gay-ass liberal. You tried to pretend by invading Iraq with us, but I knew.

WRIGHT: I’m serious, Ray. Isn’t that the whole point of us being here?

TROMBLEY: The point is we get to kill people, you dumb fuck.


These in-universe examinations reflect the real-world debates over the invasion. The Bush administration argued that the US needed to stop the development of WMDs in Iraq, but this goal was eventually discredited after inspectors failed to find any WMDs. Instead, the administration turned its focus to ensuring US security and fighting terrorism. While public opinion showed high levels of support for the war throughout its duration, scholarly opinion was less positive. TRIP’s 2004 faculty survey found that 63% of scholars would have opposed the invasion even if Iraq did have WMDs.


In 2002, 33 leading IR scholars placed an ad in the New York Times, arguing that “War with Iraq is not in America’s national interests;” rather, the US should concentrate on defeating al Qaeda. In TRIP’s 2004 faculty survey, 78% of scholars reported opposing or strongly opposing the decision to invade Iraq. Conversely, over 70% of the American public supported the decision to go to war with Iraq. Unlike public opinion, scholars did not experience a rally effect that would result in higher support for the war; instead, scholarly support for the war remained consistently low throughout its entire course. In 2004, only 9% of scholars believe that the invasion would benefit US interests. This again stands in opposition to public opinion, which overwhelmingly thought the war would benefit US interests and security.

While Generation Kill does not presume to make any judgement on the morality of the war, the audience is left with the nagging sense that maybe the invasion was not what it promised to be. By 2008, the rally effect and initial optimism for the war had waned, and public support for the invasion dropped to 40%. Similarly, the finale, all of the characters (with the noted exception of Trombley) have become disillusioned with the war. They can no longer bear to watch buildings blowing up or wounded civilians. Their confidence broken, they leave the set one by one, until only Trombley remains in an empty warehouse. The repeated “failure of plot”—made manifest in the meandering path to Baghdad, the ever-changing rules of engagement, the defeated narratives of the characters, and the eventual failure to solve the renewed crisis in Iraq—challenges the myth that Americans are the “conquering heroes.” As Colbert tells Person, “there are no cowboys,” because the romanticized notion of Americana has been eroded to reveal the chaos at its core.


Vera Choo is a graduate of William & Mary’s class of 2019. She majored in Political Theory, with a minor in Classical Studies. During her time as an undergraduate, Vera worked in the Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) Lab as a research assistant. Her interests include Political Theory, minority politics, politics and the media, and data analysis.

Cold War 2.0?

Rebuilding the Eastern Bloc

China’s leader Xi Jinping arrived by plane in North Korea on June 20th, 2019. Although this is Xi’s fifth summit with Kim Jong Un since last year, this is the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has actually visited North Korea. At Pyongyang International Airport, Xi was met by Chairman Kim Jong Un and received full military honors including a 21-gun salute and a march-past by the Supreme Guard Command Honor Guard Battalion and the Central Military Band of the Korean People’s Army. Xi was also the first Chinese leader to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the Mecca of North Korea. More than 100,000 people lined up along the streets of Pyongyang to welcome Xi. Although the country is famous for its hospitality to foreign leaders, these grand welcoming events are still very unusual for North Korea. 
Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un also paid a visit to Russia and met with Putin. It was the first meeting between North Korean and Russian leaders since 2011. China and Russia have grown closer both economically and politically in the second decade of the 21st century. The growing mutual affection between China, Russia, and North Korea would easily remind people of the fear of the Cold War era. As U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats noted in the intelligence community’s threat assessment of 2019, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” Just like Dan Coats, many people fear that the recent interactions between China, Russia, and North Korea are the prelude of the next Cold War.

The two leaders shaking on their 'invincible' friendship by Korean 
Central News Agency

Beyond Nostalgia

With its growing economy, China can easily find supporters or “friends” around the world. Countries would be happy to support China verbally in international affairs in return for economic benefits. On the contrary, DPRK and Russia are both isolated by western countries and have bad reputations for being threats to international peace. Just like playing with the weird kids at school, teaming up with them would damage the public image of China and make it seem more aggressive to other countries. On the other hand, programs like the Belt and Road Initiative allow China to expand its friendship network using its growing economic power, making it easier for China to find other supporters around the world. As a result, teaming up with China not only brings Russia and North Korea economic benefits, but also provides them with access to new potential allies. But why is China getting closer to Russia and North Korea? 

The previous communist ideological ties between China, Russia, and North Korea waned for years. Despite what they claim to be, none of the three countries are truly communist or democratic. Instead of following any universal ideological value, what binds these countries is their strong state-sponsored nationalist ideas. As a result, these countries team up not because of their ideological ties or their nostalgia of the cold war era friendship, but because of their own national interests. Although Russia and North Korea are less powerful in terms of their soft power, they both have a strong military power. Obviously, China and Russia have been engaged in close military interactions in the previous years. 
Although North Korea seems weaker in terms of military power because of less advanced technologies and outdated military equipment, it is still considered one of the top threats to the U.S. because of its colossal army and arsenal of up to several dozen self-designed nuclear weapons. With more than one million active military personnel, the Korean People’s Army is ranked as the fourth largest army in the world. Most importantly, North Korea is the only country in the world that has a mutual defense treaty with China. Signed in 1961, the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty declares that the two nations would “undertake all necessary measures to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation.” This serves as the legal basis for China and North Korea to provide military support to each other during wartime. As a result, by pulling Russia and North Korea to its side, China is seeking to maintain a balance with the U.S. and its allies in terms of hard power, especially military power.

What Do the Scholars Think?

Given the significant military threat these countries could pose, we have to face the fact that China is getting closer to Russia and North Korea than in the previous years. What is the possibility of a new cold war or even a war between the U.S. and these countries? A 2014 TRIP snap poll asked IR scholars to rate the possibility for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China over the next decade. The graphs for both China and Russia are right skewed with a mode at 1 or 2 (very unlikely to go to war with the U.S.).



When the same questions were asked again in a TRIP Faculty Survey in 2017, the answer was mostly the same. The distribution of both China and Russia moved slightly to the right, but the general shape does not change (still unlikely for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China).



These data show that most of the IR scholars that participated in the TRIP surveys agree that it is unlikely for the U.S. to become involved in direct military conflict with either China and Russia despite the ongoing tensions between these countries in other areas. This might be because China and Russia have a much stronger military power than North Korea. Both Russia and China have a large number of nuclear warheads which provides them with the ability of mutually assured destruction and thus deters the U.S. from starting a war. The economic connections between China and the U.S. might also be a reason that prevents them from going to war as it increases the opportunity cost of war between these two countries. 
However, in the same faculty survey, scholars present a very different forecast when they are asked about the possibility of the U.S. going to war with North Korea. The graph for DPRK is more symmetric, with a mode at 5.


The survey shows that IR scholars think it is moderately likely that North Korea will go to war with the U.S. Still, nearly half (47.22 percent) of the scholars chose numbers less than 5, indicating they think war is less likely than it is likely.
Despite the small possibility of war, scholars still recognize China as a major opponent of the U.S. both today and in the foreseeable future. Question #6 of the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey asked the scholars about the area of greatest strategic importance to the U.S. today. The majority of the scholars (54.65 percent) consider East Asia to be the most strategically important area to the U.S today. US scholars’ concern about China becomes even more extreme when the scholars are asked about the most strategically important area to the U.S. in 20 years: 69.61 percent of scholars said East Asia.


In 2014, 38.45 percent of scholars answered yes when asked if they think that the U.S. and Russia are heading back toward a Cold War.


This shows that there are still a lot of scholars who worry about the emergence of another Cold War, even 20 years after the first one had ended. Due to the growing tensions with China and the strategic importance of East Asia, as well as the increasing ties between Russia, China ,and North Korea, there might be more scholars who would be concerned about China and the U.S. are heading towards a Cold War as well.

Goodbye to the Belle Époque

Although most of the scholars think that it is very unlikely for the U.S. to go to war with Russia and China, the surveys do not deny the possibility of a potential cold war between the U.S. and these countries. Instead of directly engaging in military conflict with the U.S., China and Russia are using their military power to secure strategic national interests in many other areas. Now that China is getting closer with Russia and North Korea, the possible military alliance between these three countries has the potential to become the Sword of Damocles above the U.S. and its allies. As U.S. strategic interests shift towards East Asia, the possibility of a new cold war or small-scale military confrontations still exists despite the diminished role of an ideological conflict between East and West.


Patrick Zheng is a rising sophomore at William & Mary. He intends to double major in History and Economics. Patrick is interested in International Relations and Civil Rights issues. He has worked as a research assistant with Professor Betsy Konefal on her project studying human rights violations during Guatemalan Civil War. He was also a member of a research team based in the William & Mary Diplomacy Lab, studying social media in Turkey. This summer, Patrick is excited to see the connections TRIP is building between academia and policymakers.

Where’s My International Relations Debate At? Partisan Consensus on Global Issues in Presidential Debates

By Moira Johnson

July 1st, 2019

It was a big week on the campaign trail. Democratic Presidential hopefuls met for the first time to discuss campaign trail issues over two nights in Miami. The TRIP team took the time to watch the debates and we noticed something: Both nights were dominated by discussions of domestic issues. While these issues are important and give voters insight into candidates’ views about the current state of our nation, the debates were lacking in their discussion of U.S. foreign policy.

Moira2Artistic Credit: Marc Dion

While it’s early yet in the Primary season, we can still expect for there to be fewer discussions of foreign policy this electoral cycle. Foreign Policy published an article after the debates that claimed that foreign policy questions have been in decline for democratic hopefuls since the 2008 primaries. Here at TRIP, we discovered that our own data may support this claim. 
For example, in the most recent iteration of TRIP’s snap poll fielded in late 2018, we asked IR scholars their thoughts on Trump’s strategy for denuclearizing the DPRK.


We can see that scholars who identify as “Somewhat Liberal” or “Very Liberal” overwhelmingly agree that Trump’s strategy will be unsuccessful in denuclearizing North Korea. However, those who identify on the conservative end of the political spectrum have less of a consensus on the issue. For example, scholars who identify as “Very Conservative” equally responded (24%) “Somewhat likely” and “Not Likely”.

Near the end of Night 1’s debate, Moderator Chuck Todd asked the candidates if they would reenter the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) if elected. All but one candidate said they would reenter the deal (the exception was Cory Booker, who notably did not reject the idea of a treaty with Iran but rather stated that he would first renegotiate the deal before reentering.) TRIP’s data shows the same trend as the North Korean question, with scholars who identify as conservative equally responding (40%) “Positive Impact” and “Negative Impact” to the question: “What impact will the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have on regional stability in the Middle East?” 


TRIP’s data on these foreign policy questions shows a greater degree of consensus among liberal scholars on these issues. The lack of foreign policy questions in the Democratic Debate suggests that when a consensus exists on an issue within a party, there is less of an incentive to discuss these issues. This would also explain why during conservative primary seasons, candidates are more likely to be asked about issues relating to U.S. foreign policy and the U.S.’s standing in the global order. 

As primary season carries on and the number of contenders dwindles, we will hopefully see more discussions of global issues. The TRIP team will continue covering the primaries and the road to Election Night 2020. Stay tuned for IR student perspectives and more TRIP data.


Moira Johnson is a senior at the College, majoring in Government and minoring in Physics. She has worked at TRIP since August of 2018. Her interests include Middle Eastern conflicts, Nuclear Proliferation, and the U.S. Intelligence Community. 

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.