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TRIP research spotlights foreign policy issues in 2020 Election

  • Spotlight on foreign policy:
    Spotlight on foreign policy:  The Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project, a research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute (GRI), has worked diligently the last few months to inform the public about critical foreign policy issues leading up to the Nov. 3 presidential election.  Courtesy photo
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The Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project, a research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute (GRI), has worked diligently the last few months to outline critical foreign policy issues leading up to the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

Led by W&M professors Susan Peterson and Michael Tierney and alumnus Ryan Powers ’08, TRIP’s work has spanned a broad range of topics resulting in a book, two academic articles, and three essays in the Foreign Policy magazine published in the last six months. 

Peterson, the chair of the government department, and Tierney, director of GRI, co-edited a book with fellow W&M professor Daniel Maliniak and Powers called “Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations” that was published in May. 

Since May, TRIP has been featured in four articles co-written by Peterson, Tierney and Powers, among others, for the Foreign Policy magazine. Their most recent article, “Poll: How Biden and Trump Differ on Foreign Policy” was published Oct. 22 and explores how international relations scholars view U.S. foreign policy issues in relation to President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden. 

For the article, TRIP presented data obtained from a survey of 706 international relations scholars at U.S. colleges and universities. The same research team surveyed the same sample of IR scholars for another article titled, “Trump, COVID-19, and the Future of International Order.” 

The foreign policy experts polled saw climate change, the spread of infectious disease and cyberattacks as the top three threats to the United States. Terrorism, respondents said, was a minor threat. The polling showed the experts believed Russian meddling was somewhat likely to undermine public confidence in the outcome of the presidential election. 

Peterson and Tierney recently spoke to W&M News about their team’s work. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Could you summarize the findings detailed in your most recent article, “Poll: How Biden and Trump Differ on Foreign Policy?”

PETERSON: “The article examines the opinion of international relations experts related to the upcoming presidential election. Experts see dramatic differences in the candidates’ approaches to addressing critical foreign policy issues such as climate change, global health and engagement with multilateral organizations. We asked these experts to put aside their personal political views to assess the effectiveness of each candidate’s ability to execute on his foreign policy goals. Overall, respondents are more confident that Joe Biden will achieve his foreign policy agenda than President Trump, if elected.” 

TIERNEY: “Most people who do research full time on international relations don’t really think that individual leaders matter very much when it comes to explaining the foreign policy of Democratic countries or outcomes in the international system. But when you ask professors of international relations about the consequences of this election, you get very different results. They aren’t practicing what they preach, or at least they perceive in this election that the identity of the President is going to matter a lot.” 

Your book, as well as your Sept. 28 article, “Beyond IR’s Ivory Tower,” state that the world needs international relations experts to engage with policy more than ever. How does TRIP’s recent foreign policy research support this?

PETERSON: “These publications, like all the work we do at TRIP, are designed to help us understand the relationship between the academic discipline of international relations and the foreign policy community, particularly the role of academic knowledge in the policy-making process. Our long-term goal is to study and improve the interaction between scholars and practitioners of IR by providing more and better data on the academic discipline of IR, the practitioners who make and implement foreign policy and the mechanisms that link the academic and policy communities.” 

TIERNEY: “Two of our recent Foreign Policy articles present information on the content of academic experts’ views. Our surveys provide an opportunity to inform the public of pressing foreign policy issues by identifying expert consensus, when it exists, to illustrate the wisdom of an expert crowd. Publishing in outlets such as Foreign Policy allows us to share this expert consensus beyond the walls of the ivory tower.” 

Could you tell me more about your research team?

PETERSON: “TRIP is led by three co-principal investigators. Mike Tierney and I have been working on this project with William & Mary students since 2003. One of the students who worked on this project back in the day was Ryan Powers ’08, who is the third PI and an assistant professor of international relations at University of Georgia. All three PIs help design surveys, develop coding protocols and write books and articles together. When it comes to the fancier quantitative data analysis, Ryan is definitely in the lead. 

“We have two project managers, Alex Murphy and Irene Entringer, who are funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. They not only manage the day-to-day workflow, but they are also co-authors of our most recent article in Foreign Policy.” 

Could you explain the role of W&M students in TRIP’s research?

TIERNEY: “We currently have five research assistants that are working with us, but at any given time, depending on workflow, we have had as many as 15. These students play an important role in creating a strong foundation for the various surveys we produce at TRIP. In addition to helping us identify individuals that belong in our samples, many of the research assistants end up co-authoring articles with us or use TRIP data to write about their own perspectives on foreign policy for the TRIP Research Assistant Blog.  Since we have been working with W&M students since 2003 on this project, we now have over 100 TRIP alums spread around the world. We could not have done any of this work without them.”