International Relations 101: What Scholars Say About the World Today


IR faculty, a survey finds, say the U.S. should wind down in Afghanistan, focus on China, and deal with climate change.

chinaRising june6 p.jpg

A naval ship docks in Shanghai. (Reuters).

Turn on the TV news, and you'll be bombarded by pundits offering their 30-second take on global affairs. But how do professional scholars of international relations see things?

The College of William and Mary recently completed its Teaching, Research, and International Policy survey of almost 3,500 international relations (IR) faculty around the world.

Some of the results are probably of greater interest to specialists in the field (for example, if you want to know what percentage of professors use dialectical research or hermeneutics, turn to page 36) than to most people.

But the section on policy issues gives a good sense of how professors see the world. Here are some key findings about the views of IR scholars based in the United States.

  • Go East, Young Man! The area of greatest strategic importance to the United States today is East Asia, they say, rather than the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Beijing Consensus: Over the next decade, the dominant issue will be the rise of China -- together with global climate change.
  • Clubs for the Rich: Trade organizations such as NAFTA and the World Trade Organization have been good for the United States but not necessarily for developing countries.
  • Beyond Afghanistan: The three great issues facing the United States are the Arab Spring, a rising China, and the global debt crisis (the war in Afghanistan is far down the list).
  • Ivory Tower Hawks and Doves: Most scholars supported the U.S. war against Libya in 2011. But large majorities oppose using force if there is war between North and South Sudan, if Iran produces a nuclear bomb, if extremists are about to take over Pakistan, or to support democratic change in Syria or Yemen.
  • The Cup is Half Full: IR scholars seem pretty optimistic. The world, they say, has become less dangerous for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War. The Arab Spring is good for the Middle East and for the United States. And war between the United States and China is very unlikely over the next 30 years.

Some of these views align with the outlook of the Obama administration, especially the desire to wind down the Afghanistan war and retool for challenges in East Asia. But the focus on climate change is not matched by presidential or congressional action.

Bill Buckley famously said that he would rather hand power to the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than the 2,000 faculty of Harvard. And it's true that the rarefied air atop the Ivory Tower can cloud one's judgment. But professional scholars can also provide a useful perspective on global issues.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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