May 9, 2018

U.S. international relations scholars, global citizens differ sharply on views of threats to their country

(Left: DKAR Images. Right: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
(Left: DKAR Images. Right: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. foreign policy scholars are more concerned about climate change – and less worried about ISIS and refugees – than both average Americans and general publics abroad.

The international relations scholars in question shared their views via a survey conducted by the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project. The questions posed to these U.S. academics were mirrored in a 2017 Pew Research Center survey of publics in 37 countries, plus the United States.

Eight-in-ten international relations scholars surveyed as part of the TRIP project said that climate change is a major threat to the U.S., compared with 56% of the American general public. A median of 61% across 37 countries surveyed in spring 2017 also said climate change is a threat to their country. Fewer than one-in-ten (7%) IR scholars said the large number of refugees from places like Iraq and Syria is a big threat, while almost four-in-ten around the world and 36% of Americans held this view. And while 74% of Americans and 62% among global publics said ISIS is a major threat, only 14% of the scholars agreed.

The surveyed scholars were also far more negative than general publics when asked about various policies supported by U.S. President Donald Trump, such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear weapons agreement and trade deals. (Trump signaled in April that rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership was under consideration and announced on May 8 that the U.S. is pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement.)

On all these issues, overwhelming majorities of foreign policy scholars disapproved of these policies, with roughly nine-in-ten or more expressing such sentiments.

In the Pew Research Center survey, public disapproval of Trump’s policies was common across most countries. The intensity of disapproval, however, was typically far lower on each issue tested than among the U.S.-based scholars, possibly signaling a disconnect between this group and international public opinion.

The gap between U.S. international relations experts and the public is even starker at home. About nine-in-ten of the scholars (89%) had a negative view on the policy of restricting some people from Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S., compared with 48% of the U.S. public. The scholars also had a dimmer view than the American public about pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal by a 41-percentage-point margin. (A recent survey found that the American public is skeptical of the Iran agreement – and Trump’s handling of the issue, but only about a quarter have heard “a lot” about the nuclear deal.) The smallest gap between scholars and average Americans was on the proposal to pull out of international climate agreements (27 points), but even here there is a significant difference in sentiment.

This pattern of experts disagreeing with citizens is not a new phenomenon: Pew Research Center has tracked these differences over the years, including in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Note: The Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project, based at the College of William & Mary, is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Topics: Foreign Affairs and Policy

  1. Photo of Jacob Poushter

    is a senior researcher focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.