A traveler guarding against COVID-19 leaves the railway station in Wuhan, China, in March 2020; Hurricane Irma pummels Miami in September. (Feature China/Barcroft Media, left; Warren Faidley, both Getty Images)
A traveler guarding against COVID-19 leaves the railway station in Wuhan, China, in March 2020; Hurricane Irma pummels Miami in September. (Feature China/Barcroft Media, left; Warren Faidley, both Getty Images)

Foreign policy might not be the primary issue of the 2020 presidential election campaign, but Americans have clear ideas on the various threats facing the United States. Recent Pew Research Center surveys find that Americans are especially concerned about the spread of infectious diseases and are more likely than not to blame China for its role in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

But foreign policy experts have distinctly different perspectives. A September survey of 706 international relations scholars in the U.S. as part of the College of William & Mary’s Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) poll found that their assessment of the current crises facing America and the world are often at odds with those of the U.S. general public.

U.S. international relations scholars rate a variety of global threats much less seriously than the American public but are more concerned about climate change

These experts are less concerned about terrorism, more concerned about climate change and much more positive about China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, even as they are harshly critical of the U.S. response. However, scholars and the American people do agree that U.S. policy should work to promote human rights in China, even at the expense of economic relations.  

The scholars also tended to express much less concern about various issues than people in 13 other advanced economies surveyed by Pew Research Center.

This analysis focuses on differences in views between international relations scholars surveyed by the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project and public opinion in the U.S. and 13 other advanced economies around the world. This post focuses on differences in opinion on global threats, how countries and international organizations are handling COVID-19, and relations with China.

For this analysis, we use data provided by the TRIP Project’s survey of international relations scholars. The poll was conducted online from Sept. 17-24, 2020, among 706 scholars working in the U.S. More information on methodology for TRIP surveys and further findings can be found here, and further analysis of results can be found here. Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project, based at the College of William & Mary, is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Pew Research Center data comes from nationally representative surveys of 14,276 adults conducted from June 10 to Aug. 3, 2020, in 14 advanced economies. All surveys were conducted over the phone with adults in the U.S., Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Australia, Japan and South Korea. For additional data points, we used data from a Pew Research Center survey of 1,000 U.S. adults conducted over the phone from March 3-29, 2020.

This study was conducted in countries where nationally representative telephone surveys are feasible. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, face-to-face interviewing is not currently possible in many parts of the world.

Just 14% of the scholars say terrorism is a major threat to the U.S., compared with about two-thirds of the U.S. public (69%), a difference of 55 percentage points. Similarly, a median of 66% across 14 countries say terrorism is a major threat, a much higher reading than among U.S.-based foreign policy academics. And international relations scholars are also much less concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons than both Americans and surveyed general publics.  

On the power and influence of Russia and China, a smaller share of the scholars see these as major threats, while the U.S. public is generally much more concerned. There is a 16-point difference between the U.S. general public and the scholars on the threat from China.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, foreign policy scholars and the U.S. public are more closely aligned in their concerns about the spread of infectious diseases: 76% of scholars and 78% of the U.S. public say this is a major threat. Across 14 countries surveyed, including the U.S., a median of 69% say infectious disease poses a major threat. The foreign policy scholars overwhelmingly consider the issue of global climate change to be a major threat, while the U.S. public shows less concern. Almost nine-in-ten scholars (88%) say climate change is a major threat, compared with about six-in-ten Americans who say the same (62%), a difference of 26 percentage points. This is in keeping with previous TRIP Project surveys.

Around the world, people in 14 advanced economies, including the U.S., also perceive climate change to be a threat: A median of 70% say climate change is a major threat, making this issue the top perceived threat on this year’s survey.

When it comes to views of global climate change as a threat, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are more closely aligned with the scholars in their attitudes: 85% of Democrats and 88% of scholars see climate as a major threat, compared with only 31% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. But Republicans are more closely aligned with the scholars in their characterization of Russia as a major threat, with 46% of Republicans saying this in a spring 2020 Pew Research Center survey, compared with 32% of the scholars and 68% of Democrats.

U.S.-based international relations experts much less positive on U.S. response to COVID-19 than general public, but more likely to give China good marks

The scholars surveyed differ from the American general public when measuring how various countries and multilateral institutions have handled the coronavirus outbreak. For example, more experts give China high marks for its handling of the pandemic, with 61% saying China did a good job compared with only 31% of the American public saying the same. Across 14 countries, a similarly low median of 37% say China has done a good job of handling COVID-19.

In evaluating the U.S. response, only 3% of the scholars say the U.S. has done a good job of containing the outbreak compared with 47% of Americans who say the same. On this measure, IR scholars are more closely aligned with the view across all 14 nations, who generally see the U.S. response to the virus as poor.

However, on evaluations of the European Union’s and World Health Organization’s responses to the crisis, the general public (in both the U.S. and across 14 advanced economies) are closely aligned with the positive marks that IR scholars give to these institutions.

Both U.S.-based international relations scholars and American public support promoting human rights in China

Despite differing quite clearly on China’s handling of COVID-19, scholars and the U.S. public hold similar views concerning priorities for the U.S.-China relationship. About three-quarters among both groups say the U.S. should try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations between the two countries. In contrast, roughly a quarter of both IR scholars and the U.S. public say that the U.S. should prioritize strengthening economic relations with China, even if it means not addressing human rights issues.

Jacob Poushter  is an associate director focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.
Moira Fagan  is a research analyst focusing on global attitudes research at Pew Research Center.