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Experts don’t like Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal — or his foreign policy in general

Iranians prepare to burn American flags during a demonstration outside the former U.S. Embassy headquarters in Tehran on May 9. (Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg News)

Last week, President Trump announced the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA, designed to halt the Iranian nuclear program, emerged from multilateral sanctions and negotiations. Five countries (in addition to Iran and the United States) signed the agreement, which authorized the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and report on Iran’s compliance. Those five other countries are deeply unhappy with the U.S. decision to withdraw.

They’re not the only ones. According to our research, international relations experts in the United States disapprove strongly as well. Numerous experts have written op-eds explaining the folly of withdrawal. The Brookings Institution assembled 13 experts to offer immediate responses — all of which were negative. Those opinions fairly accurately represent most expert views.

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Here’s how we did our research

We regularly survey international relations scholars through our Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey, conducted from the College of William & Mary. In our most recent TRIP survey, fielded last fall, we reached 1,541 international relations scholars at U.S. colleges and universities.

Responding to a question also asked of the public by the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of international relations scholars in the United States said they would disapprove of a unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. By contrast, and consistent with the country’s partisan polarization, the U.S. public at large divides fairly evenly in opinion on the withdrawal issue. The high level of consensus among the scholars suggests that even those experts who might be most inclined to endorse withdrawal — foreign policy hawks and ideological conservatives — also reject Trump’s policy of withdrawal in large numbers. This is precisely what we find.

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International relations scholars across the political spectrum disapprove of Trump’s decision

It’s not surprising that large majorities of liberals and doves told us they would disapprove of a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. An overwhelming 99 percent of self-described liberals and 97 percent of doves did so. But 83 percent of hawks also said they would disapprove of a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, as the figure below shows. (We generated the hawk-dove measure by asking respondents whether military interventions were an effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy. We categorized the 19 percent of our sample that responded that military interventions were “very effective” or “somewhat effective” as hawks.)

Do you approve or disapprove of President Trump’s proposed decision to withdraw U.S. support from the Iran nuclear weapons agreement? 

More surprising was that self-described politically conservative and moderate scholars also oppose unilateral withdrawal at high levels.

We asked respondents about both their social and economic ideology on a left to right scale. Regardless of how we measure ideology, large majorities of moderates and many or most conservatives expressed disapproval of a U.S. withdrawal. Among “economic” moderates, 93 percent disapproved of withdrawal, and 85 percent of “social” moderates did so as well. Likewise, among “economic” conservatives, 63 percent disapproved of withdrawal, and 50 percent of “social” conservatives did so.

Above, by social ideology

Above, by economic ideology

That’s in part because Trump has rejected multilateralism in favor of unilateralism

In this decision and in others — like his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his unilateral imposition of trade sanctions — Trump has rejected multilateralism. But most international relations scholars — hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives — believe that multilateralism works.

We know because we asked. In the 2017 TRIP survey, we followed the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations by asking the scholars about which foreign policy tools they believed to be most effective in helping the United States achieve its foreign policy goals. As you can see in the figure below, these experts overwhelmingly embraced diplomacy and multilateralism. Large majorities of both hawks and doves and liberals and conservatives view such tools as participation in international organizations, maintaining military alliances, and signing free trade agreements as somewhat or very effective tools of U.S. foreign policy.

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As noted above, scholars were more skeptical about the effectiveness of using military force, but both hawks and doves overwhelmingly believe it’s in the U.S.’ foreign policy interest to maintain military superiority.

When asked whether sanctions are effective, respondents were split, but we should note that we did not ask specifically about multilateral sanctions. Recent empirical research suggests sanctions are likely to be more effective if they are coordinated through a multilateral coalition.

Scholars’ opinions of the effectiveness of different tools of statecraft by hawk/dove and social ideology

Scholars believe multilateralism is effective. Trump rejects that.

In the post-World War II era, previous U.S. presidents have embraced multilateralism to pursue a wide variety of foreign policy goals. By contrast, Trump has repeatedly questioned the utility of multilateral agreements and instead regularly emphasizes bilateral diplomacy, dealing with allies and opponents alike one on one. Our survey results suggest that scholars not only disagree with Trump’s foreign policy because of its particular goals, but also because Trump’s foreign policy often rejects the very tools that scholars view as allowing the United States to effectively pursue its interests.

Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves Professor of Government and International Relations and the co-director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at William & Mary.   

Ryan Powers is a postdoctoral associate in the Leitner Program in International and Comparative Political Economy at Yale University.  

Michael J. Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton Professor of Government at William & Mary and is the co-director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.