IR Theory After Trump: A First Image Renaissance? Part I

17 January 2019, 1723 EST

This is a guest post, the first of two, by Eric Parajon, Richard Jordan, and Marcus Holmes. Eric Parajon is a recent graduate of William & Mary and currently a Project Manager for the Teaching, Research, and International Policy Project. Richard Jordan is an assistant professor at Baylor University. He researches game theory, security, and leadership. Marcus Holmes is an associate professor of Government at William & Mary. He recently published Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations.

Among IR scholars, research on the role of individuals in world politics, or the “first image,” has languished for three decades. With the dominance of structural and rationalist approaches in the late 20th century, combined with skepticism individuals can be studied in a systematic, rather than idiosyncratic way, the first image has largely been neglected. Data out of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project at William & Mary illustrate the point. Over the last thirty-five years or so, only 12.5% of the articles analyzed, in a wide-swath of IR journals, featured any engagement with the first image:

Figure 1: Proportion of scholarly journal articles utilizing each image approach (Grouped by year)

The same neglect extends to scholars and analysts writing for foreign policy journals :

Figure 2: Proportion of articles in Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs utilizing each image approach (Grouped by year)

According to the results of an October, 2018 survey of IR scholars at U.S. colleges and universities conducted by TRIP Project, the Donald J. Trump presidency may be changing that. 

TRIP asked IR scholars a series of questions regarding contemporary foreign policy, including how respected abroad the United States is compared with the past.  By large margins, scholars believed the U.S. is less respected today. To those who answered “less respected,” the survey asked a follow-up, free-response question where scholars could provide what they saw as the primary reason for this decline. The results (Figure 3) suggest an overwhelming majority of scholars blame Donald Trump himself.

Figure 3: Most commonly used words in free response

That IR scholars are unimpressed by Donald Trump will likely not surprise anyone. What should be surprising, though, is the weight they attach to a single individual. To put it bluntly: the way scholars talk about foreign policy during the Trump administration does not mirror the way they study it.

One explanation for this inconsistency might be that Trump is an unusually powerful president and so enjoys an unusual degree of influence on foreign policy. Yet, 68% of respondents said the powers of the president were either the same or reduced under Trump. Scholars seem to think Trump’s importance to foreign policy comes from the man, not what he has done to the office itself.

What then explains this divergence between what scholars study and what they think is important? One answer might be that Trump has caused scholars to set aside their objectivity in evaluating Trump’s importance: their judgment is colored by bias rather than a careful analysis of the facts. If this is the case, then once anger over Trump subsides we would expect IR scholars to return to their ambivalence toward the role of individuals. Second, and conversely, one might argue that scholars have assessed Trump’s importance accurately, but that how they study the world does not accurately reflect how they view the world. If this is the case, then Trump is a challenge to the discipline, reminding us that our scholarship is out of sync with how we think the world works. If this is the case, then IR theory after Trump may come to look quite different from what came before[1] .