Americans have a bad reputation for their grasp of world geography. According to a new survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the New York Times, it’s well deserved, at least when it comes to the Korean crisis. Only a little over a third of Americans could identify the Korean peninsula on a map, and some of the guesses ranged all the way over to the Arabian peninsula. And as it turns out, the lack of knowledge has some impact on support for policies dealing with North Korea:
An experiment led by Kyle Dropp of Morning Consult from April 27-29, conducted at the request of The New York Times, shows that respondents who could correctly identify North Korea tended to view diplomatic and nonmilitary strategies more favorably than those who could not. These strategies included imposing further economic sanctions, increasing pressure on China to influence North Korea and conducting cyberattacks against military targets in North Korea.
They also viewed direct military engagement – in particular, sending ground troops – much less favorably than those who failed to locate North Korea.
The largest difference between the groups was the simplest: Those who could find North Korea were much more likely to disagree with the proposition that the United States should do nothing about North Korea.
The demographics on this question produced some interesting results, although the analysis provided at The Upshot largely focuses on the impact on policy support. For instance, guess which party turns out to be worse at geography? Hint: It’s not the one the media might suggest:
We can chuckle over this, but statistically these numbers are more or less even … and all of them are embarrassingly low. The question “where is North Korea on a map” is hardly arcane. We fought a war on the peninsula sixty-plus years ago that technically never ended, and for the last twenty-five years, the threat of nuclear weapons from Pyongyang has been a top issue in foreign policy. In the age demos, only seniors get anywhere close to half (48%), and in the educational demos it takes post-grads to get past the halfway mark (53%). The most dramatic contrast, though, is in gender demos, where 45% of men can correctly identify North Korea, but only 27% of women.
Why is geographic knowledge important? That may sound like a dumb question, but it impacts policy decisions and, theoretically at least, election outcomes as a result:
Geographic knowledge itself may contribute to an increased appreciation of the complexity of geopolitical events. This finding is consistent with – though not identical to – a similar experiment Mr. Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff conducted in 2014. They asked Americans to identify Ukraine on a map and asked them whether they supported military intervention. The farther a respondent’s guess was from Ukraine, the researchers found, the more likely he or she was to favor military intervention.
In this case, however, the impact is more nuanced. The do-nothing option had a difference of 23 points depending on the ability to locate North Korea on a map, but it wasn’t a popular choice in either column (-45/-22 in the gap for opposing the position). Both sets of respondents disfavored sending ground troops, with the geographically adept more likely to oppose it (-34/-19), and both sides favor cyberwarfare against North Korea’s military (+37/+18). However, the gap on military action — the big policy question — was within the margin of error at relatively low levels of support, +5/+9. If we’re not good at geography, then at the very least we’re not all that far apart on the big questions, regardless.
Besides, as The Upshot notes, our ignorance may be rationally based, but that leaves us at the mercy of … guess who:
While Americans could be better at geography, they cannot be expected to follow every twist and turn of foreign policy. “People don’t invest in policy information, but that’s rational,” said Elizabeth Saunders, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies foreign policy and international relations. Instead of exhaustively researching foreign policy options for a host of nations, Americans are “rationally ignorant,” effectively outsourcing their foreign policy views to elites and the news media.
In other words, we ignore foreign policy and geography at our own risk. To paraphrase another joke (I assume readers got the joke in the headline): In the era of Kim Jong-un, you may not know geography, but geography knows you.