International Organizations

There Really is an Expert Consensus: Multilateralism Still Matters

By Eric Parajon, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, Michael J. Tierney
Friday, January 18, 2019, 11:35 AM

How do international relations experts evaluate President Trump’s efforts to reshape the U.S.-led international order and the multilateral institutions that help govern it? IR scholars have long argued that multilateral institutions like the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) offer significant economic and security benefits to the world in general and the United States in particular. In a field where consensus is not the norm, there is broad agreement that multilateral institutions and alliances are effective tools of statecraft and that such organizations likely reduce the probability of war. For much of the past 70 years, the U.S. commitment to these institutions has been a cornerstone of the post-war international order.

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy choices have changed that. The president’s attacks on the WTO, NATO, and the U.N., and his decision to withdraw the United States from a number of landmark international agreements and institutions, led a group of 42 prominent scholars of international relations to publish a paid advertisement last July in the New York Times warning that Trump administration policies pose a serious threat to the maintenance and productive reform of the global order. They warned, “Almost nobody benefits from a descent into the chaos of a world without effective institutions that encourage and organize cooperation.” The authors of this advertisement invited IR scholars to sign a petition registering their agreement with the ad’s sentiments, and to date, 599 additional scholars from around the world have signed.

But how widely shared are these views among American IR experts? The organizers of the letter were among the most prominent scholars of IR, but that and two other facts make them unrepresentative of the broader community of international relations experts. First, the organizers (David Lake and Peter Gourevitch from UC San Diego) and all of the original 42 signers were affiliated with Ph.D.-granting institutions and disproportionately from those ranked among the top 10 international relations programs in the country.  It turns out, the majority of scholars who teach and do research on international relations study something other than international organizations or international political economy and most do not teach at top tier Ph.D. granting institutions. Second, this group is not representative of IR scholars in terms of the issues they study: The group disproportionately studies international organizations and international political economy, with far fewer studying international security, conflict processes, or U.S. foreign policy. Finally, if we move beyond the advertisement to the “opt-in” petition, the process by which the 599 scholars came to be aware of the petition is likely to have been shaped by network effects and thus disproportionately likely to be the friends, colleagues, and former students of those who funded and signed the advertisement. This process is unlikely to produce a representative sample of the academy. For these reasons, it seems sensible to ask whether the views in the advertisement on the value of multilateralism and international institutions are representative of international relations expert opinion in general, or whether this view is restricted to the group that published it.

To find out the extent to which the Times advertisement sentiments represented the broader international relations academy, we invited all IR scholars affiliated with four-year U.S. colleges and universities to take part in our survey. We asked over 4,800 scholars and 1,157 responded. These respondents were statistically similar to the broader population of all U.S. IR scholars in terms of gender, rank, and type of university where they teach. Notably, our respondents are more representative of the broader IR discipline than the original signers of the statement appearing in the Times. The 42 original signers were almost entirely senior professors at major research universities, but our sample comprises a more representative group that also includes untenured experts and faculty at regional universities and liberal arts colleges. By including a broader swath of the IR professoriate, we can ask whether the arguments advanced in that advertisement are reflected in the views of the field as a whole. In short, they are, and overwhelmingly so.

Indeed, our results show that IR experts view the postwar multilateral order as beneficial to the United States and strongly disagree with efforts to dismantle it. Figure 1 below illustrates a striking consensus among this large and representative sample of IR scholars.

In the survey, we lifted language from the advertisement and asked: “Some scholars have argued that the multilateral institutions that were constructed after the Second World War—including the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and other postwar institutions—provided important benefits to the United States. Do you believe that this statement holds true today?” Of the scholars asked, 95.7 percent answered “Yes,” indicating that the views of the signatories to the Times statement are nearly universally shared among IR scholars. These results held regardless of demographic characteristics. Whether respondents were women or men, older or younger, constructivist or realist in their theoretical orientation, quantitatively or qualitatively oriented in their research methodologies, IPE or international security in their issue area, or conservative or liberal in their ideology —large majorities in all groups agreed that multilateral institutions provide important benefits to the United States.

This last demographic characteristic, a scholar’s political ideology, may be particularly relevant in this context. It might be that political ideology, rather than expertise, drives the consensus among IR academics. After all, the proportion of the academy that is ideologically liberal is higher than the general population. However, in our results we find limited variation in support of multilateralism across the ideological spectrum. While 96.7 percent of scholars who are very or somewhat liberal on economic policy believe multilateral institutions benefit the U.S., 90.5 percent of scholars who are very or somewhat conservative on those policies believe the same thing. While there is slightly more variation when subsetting by social ideology, the takeaway is the same: IR scholars are united in supporting multilateral institutions in spite of their ideological differences.

We also asked several questions about President Trump’s stated desire to pull the United States out of particular multilateral agreements, including NATO and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The consensus among experts in favor of existing multilateral institutions is evidenced here as well. Scholars overwhelmingly oppose the idea that the United States should withdraw from these agreements, with 93.9 percent contesting withdrawal from NATO and 83.2 percent opposing withdrawal from the INF agreement. In the short run, the future of both NATO and the INF are in question. In what may be an attempt to strengthen the INF agreement, NATO allies have now backed US claims that Russia is in violation of the treaty and declared that “it is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.” Despite this supportive rhetoric from NATO, President Trump renewed his complaints about what he sees as low defense spending levels of other NATO members in recent weeks.

Some readers still may be tempted to dismiss our results as the product of anti-Trump bias within the academy. But the consensus is striking, in part, because our respondents are also willing to reserve judgement or even endorse Trump’s foreign policy decisions in certain cases. For example, we asked scholars their opinion regarding the recently negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which has been advanced by the administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. In this case, 38 percent of scholars said the agreement would be good for the U.S., 18 percent said it would be bad for the U.S., and 43.9 percent said that they did not know. Scholars are likely aware that the agreement makes relatively few changes to the original NAFTA agreement, suggesting that the overall economic implications of USMCA are likely to be quite small. Much of the uncertainty, as a result, may stem from the potential political implications of the United States threatening to walk away from such an important multilateral agreement. Many experts therefore appear to be reserving judgement until they can see the effects of the Trump administration’s agreement.

But for our purposes, this lack of consensus on USMCA is important because it shows that scholars’ assessments of Trump’s foreign policy decisions are not dominated by a knee-jerk anti-Trump bias. Indeed, when we restrict our analysis to those who might be most predisposed to oppose Trump’s actions, scholars who are very or somewhat liberal on economic issues, we find similar results: 34.0 percent believe the USCMA will be a good thing for the U.S., 19.5 percent think it will be bad, and 46.5 percent don't know. Our analysis indicates even the most liberal scholars in our sample are willing to withhold judgement or even endorse one of President Trump’s signature foreign policy initiatives when conditions merit.

Donald Trump has disparaged multilateral institutions, frequently describing them as antiquated. In a 2017 interview Trump reflected on his past comments noting “I took such heat, when I said NATO was obsolete. It’s obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror. I took a lot of heat for two days. And then they started saying Trump is right.” Some may be saying Trump is right, but those who study international relations for a living agree (nearly universally) that President Trump is wrong—both about NATO in particular and, as our previous research shows, about multilateralism in general. For these experts, the multilateral institutions that help to support the liberal world order remain relevant to U.S. interests and helpful in fostering U.S.-led efforts at international cooperation.