The Intellectual Conformity of International-Relations Faculty

A professor and university students in a lecture hall (Clerkenwell/Reuters)
A dearth of conservative professors deprives students of crucial perspectives.

Americans may be repulsed by the fiasco in Afghanistan — a recent poll suggests only 25 percent approve of President Biden’s handling of the situation — but there is one constituency that fully supports his decision: the ivory tower. International-relations professors have been near-unanimous in their calls for American retreat from Afghanistan (and elsewhere.) When surveyed, fewer than 3 percent believed the war in Afghanistan is a top-three foreign-policy issue for the United States. In a May poll, nearly three quarters of international-relations faculty endorsed President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Similarly, 85 percent of professors approved of Biden’s handling of national security and 81 percent approved his approach to international human-rights issues. When the Trump administration temporarily called off peace talks with the Taliban in January 2020, a stunning majority of academics said the decision would have a negative effect on U.S. credibility with our allies, whereas today many argue the debacle will likely not damage U.S. credibility elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the academic debate about Afghanistan is the norm, not the exception. As survey after survey demonstrates, university faculty — particularly international-relations faculty — harbor worldviews that are wildly out of step with the American people and leaders of both political parties. Their worldview informs the courses they teach and the syllabi they assign. Absent greater exposure to more sensible and realistic points of view, we risk producing a generation that is out of touch and out of depth with the challenges at hand. From a totalitarian and expansionist Chinese Communist Party to a revisionist Russia to a murderously ideological Iran and North Korea, challenges to American leadership cannot be overstated. Given the generational nature of these challenges, one would think that our faculty’s priority would be to educate college students on these threats and equip them with the skills to emerge victorious, however defined.

It would surprise no one to know how extremely unbalanced faculty political views are, but sometimes data can help paint a picture of the gravity of the divergence. In 2020, social scientists Mitchell Langbert and Sean Stevens found that, out of the four top schools in each state, only five of the two hundred had more registered Republicans than Democrats. A similar survey in 2016 found that most schools have at least one department with zero Republicans, and five had no registered Republicans at all. This has created a single-minded culture that actively stifles debate on campus. In March, National Review reported that a professor at the University of San Diego was accused of racism and subject to investigation simply for criticizing the Chinese government. A January 2020 poll of international-relations faculty showed that only 6 percent of them were likely to vote in the GOP primary, the majority of whom preferred a candidate other than President Trump (The vast majority of survey data and poll results cited in this article can be found here and here.) Put differently, you are far more likely to meet someone who believes in Bigfoot, that the Moon landing was fake, or that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was secretly replaced than to meet a Trump-supporting international-relations professor.

College faculty overwhelmingly share a dim view of American leadership in the world. Rather than hailing American successes around the world, the vast majority of international-relations faculty want to constrain U.S. power and leadership, put American priorities behind those of the international community, and see climate change as the primary national-security threat to the United States. Many even believe that the United States itself is a threat to the world: In a landmark 2006 study, researchers found that a startling 29 percent of international-relations faculty believed the United States was the greatest threat to international security, second only to North Korea. Their skepticism of American leadership in foreign affairs extends across the typical partisan divide. Under Barack Obama in 2014, a stunning 73 percent of international-relations faculty still believed that the United States was spending too much on national defense. Likewise, 72 percent of international-relations faculty opposed Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, even as they saw definitive evidence of Russian noncompliance. And finally, during Joe Biden’s presidency, more than 70 percent of international-relations faculty believed that greater United States leadership in Ukraine and beyond was unnecessary to reassure allies and warn rivals.

International-relations faculty aren’t even in step with the average Democrat. Eighty-eight percent of international-relations faculty categorize climate change as a major threat, whereas only 44 percent of Democrats characterized it as a top priority. The public’s priorities are more in line with the viewpoints of a conservative international-relations professor who believes that the top priorities for the United States ought to be China (68 percent) and Russia (49 percent). While the liberal professoriate’s worldview remains far to the left of even the median Democratic voter, it expresses itself directly through the views of self-proclaimed “restrainers.” Embodied by a new think tank called the Quincy Institute, they argue that a handcuffed America will likely prevent it from committing self-harm, manslaughter, and, as some of its affiliates contend, murder.

The gap between professors and the American public is even more glaring on the ultimate question of the use of military force. International-relations faculty believe that the use of force is ineffective, that the U.S. should not wield it alone, and that we should massively slash our defense spending. While 38 percent of Democrats believe in maintaining U.S. military support to achieve foreign-policy goals, only 27 percent of international-relations faculty think it is very effective. Similarly, Democrats are almost 30 times more likely than international-relations faculty to see U.S. military intervention as useful or effective. Whereas the majority of Americans believe we should fight terrorism unilaterally if other nations did not join, only 34 percent of all faculty, and 13 percent of liberal faculty, agreed. Not only do 75 percent of faculty overwhelmingly oppose the deployment of American troops to combat terrorist threats, a majority of American college faculty also believe that American policy in the Middle East is partially responsible for the growth in Islamic militancy. Even when ISIS was at the height of its power during the Obama administration, international-relations scholars denounced the efficacy of an American-led military response.

Crucially, the vast majority of international-relations scholars want to slash the U.S. defense budget, regardless of size. They are more than twice as likely than the average American to believe that the U.S. spent too much on national defense. Whereas support for growing the defense budget has increased among Democratic voters since 2014 (from 12 percent in 2014 to 26 percent in 2019), not much has changed with faculty. During the most recent cuts to defense spending under Obama in 2014, not only did 53 percent of faculty respondents think that defense cuts would have no impact on U.S. national security, but 27 percent even argued that decreased defense spending would make America safer.

The Iranian nuclear challenge is another interesting crucible. After repeatedly and overwhelmingly opposing American military action against Iran, even under the hypothetical circumstance that Iran was close to producing a nuclear weapon, more than three-quarters of faculty responded that military intervention wouldn’t solve the problem, and nearly half stated it would be against U.S. national interests. Public opinion is almost the exact opposite: Sixty-nine percent of Americans support a U.S. military response to a nuclear Iran. Even 65 percent of Democrats support a U.S. military response to Iranian nuclearization. In the national body politic, the 2015 nuclear deal was hotly contested. The deal was opposed by a large bipartisan majority in Congress. In terms of the general public, only 21 percent approved of the deal in September 2015, including 42 percent of Democrats and only 6 percent of Republicans. Yet a college student would find it uncontroversial in a faculty lounge.

Finally, faculty are much more idealistic than the American public about multilateralism. Voters repeatedly cite terrorism, China, and nuclear proliferation as the most significant threats to the United States and are quite comfortable with American unilateralism and a strong American military. On the other hand, a stunning 69 percent of faculty believe that multilateral institutions such as the United Nations offer important benefits to the United States, while 77 percent of today’s Democrats and only 36 percent of Republicans view the U.N. favorably. These favorability ratings pale in comparison with the trust that international-relations faculty have in multilateralism.

The worldviews of faculty in our elite educational institutions put academia largely at odds with the views of the American people and the vast majority of Congress: Faculty believe in slashing the defense budget, oppose the use of American ground troops for counterterrorism, and strongly oppose the use of force, even if facing a nuclear Iran. While numerous studies have found that college faculty members lean left on the political spectrum, faculty appear to fall even farther left than the typical Democrat.

If our educators are out of step with both the challenges facing American leadership and the American people, what can we do to help ensure that our college students are exposed to more realistic and representative points of view? First, we should encourage our professors to engage in civil and constructive debate with their peers outside of academia, especially those who have worked in or with the U.S. government. There are many programs that do this, including those launched by academics themselves. For one, the organization that I lead, the Alexander Hamilton Society, operates with a foot both in academia and in practice and encourages leading thinkers from both worlds to engage thoughtfully in front of students. By exposing students to a diversity of opinion and perspectives, these debates teach students how — not what — to think.

Second, we should provide alternative educational options and experiences for college students to complement what they are learning at universities. Campus affiliates such the Buckley Program at Yale and the Hoover Institution at Stanford bring new perspectives to the university. Summer programs such the American Enterprise Institute’s Summer Honors Program and the Hertog Foundation’s Political Studies courses engage students in ideologically unique and challenging academic environments. Through initiatives like these, students learn from practitioners and public intellectuals who reflect public opinion more broadly, not just the niche views of our most elite ivory towers. We must expose our students to, rather than shelter them from, the ideas and people that will be tackling some of our nation’s greatest challenges.

Third, we must ask students to challenge their own professors on how the United States should prepare for the great tasks before them. Relevant questions include not only how we can slow or reverse rising global temperatures but also: How should we contain or rollback the expansionist agenda of a totalitarian regime like the CCP? How can we prevent the world’s most dangerous weapons from being in the hands of the world’s most oppressive regimes, such as Iran and North Korea? How can we break the scourge of Islamic radicalism, an extremist illiberal ideology? Our universities are our intellectual arsenals. We desperately need them to suit up for the challenging era ahead.


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