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Ignorance and Foreign Policy

Americans tend to be notoriously ignorant about the goings on in the rest of the world, which is why this article by several social scientists who did a clever survey about the situation in the Ukraine is not the least bit surprising. It found that the less people know about where the Ukraine is, the more likely they are to support American military action.

About one in six (16 percent) Americans correctly located Ukraine, clicking somewhere within its borders. Most thought that Ukraine was located somewhere in Europe or Asia, but the median respondent was about 1,800 miles off — roughly the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles — locating Ukraine somewhere in an area bordered by Portugal on the west, Sudan on the south, Kazakhstan on the east, and Finland on the north…

Does it really matter whether Americans can put Ukraine on a map? Previous research would suggest yes: Information, or the absence thereof, can influence Americans’ attitudes about the kind of policies they want their government to carry out and the ability of elites to shape that agenda. Accordingly, we also asked our respondents a variety of questions about what they thought about the current situation on the ground, and what they wanted the United States to do. Similarly to other recent polls, we found that although Americans are undecided on what to do with Ukraine, they are more likely to oppose action in Ukraine the costlier it is — 45 percent of Americans supported boycotting the G8 summit, for example, while only 13 percent of Americans supported using force.

However, the further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily. Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level. Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.

The old saying is that ignorance is bliss. I might suggest a different phrase: ignorance is useful. It’s useful for powerful interests because it allows them to manipulate the public through fear and other emotions.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    Americans tend to be notoriously ignorant about the goings on in the rest of the world….

    lol

    Americans tend to be notoriously ignorant about the goings on in their own country. No disrespect to the rest of the world, but if we Americans didn’t invent “low information voters” we certainly developed it into its full potential.

    -

    The old saying is that ignorance is bliss. I might suggest a different phrase: ignorance is useful. It’s useful for powerful interests because it allows them to manipulate the public through fear and other emotions.

    Yeah, it’s sometimes hard to tease apart the cause and effect. Another possibility is that the people who have a greater belief in “American exceptionalism” and a greater tendency to think violence is the solution to international problems might also be more likely to avoid sources of information that contradict their preferred myths.

  2. eric says

    Sadly, I think the two most likely outcomes at this point are Russia gains the Ukrainian territories it currently occupies, or military conflict. I don’t see how its likely that Putin would back down from anything less. I think the best the western powers can do at this point is follow Kiev’s lead. If they fight for their self-determination and call for UN or NATO help, we should give it to them. If they choose not to, we should not go in. I am not 100% opposed to military conflict in this case (and yet, I know where it is on the map).

  3. raven says

    I will admit, I didn’t know much about Ukraine. Although thanks to Chernoble, I could find it on a map. That was the all time record nuclear meltdown.

    I have been doing some reading though.

    1. Ukraine is toast. It’s going the way of Greece.

    2. To be more specific, the country has almost no functioning government, their economy is seriously floundering, they owe money to everyone, and it’s highly fractionalized. It’s a failed nation.

    Estimates are that it might take a few decades to get things fixed. If they are ever fixed.

    3. We like simple stories of brave young people standing up to the evil Russians. Ukraine is more complex than that. A lot of the anti-Russian Ukrainians are fascists and neo-Nazis. They aren’t nice people.

    It’s more one group of thugs versus another.

    4. Whoever gets Ukraine just gets a huge economic sinkhole with a lot of social problems. Much like Afghanistan.

    5. Russia and Putin IMO, are making the same mistake they, and we made in Afghanistan. The difference is that Russia isn’t doing so well itself and has huge problems and not a lot of money to throw around.

    After they liberated South Ossetia, what happened was…nothing. The Russians were supposed to fix the place but that never happened. It’s a poverty stricken place going nowhere and they can’t even trade and shop with their natural geographic partner, Georgia.

  4. Alverant says

    I’m reminded of the saying, “God invented war so Americans would learn geography.”

    The problem is that there is so much knowledge out there and being informed is hard work. Yes, someone who learned more about the Ukraine area (even as much as watching a few reliable videos on YouTube) will be able to make a better decision than someone who doesn’t. But who has time for that?

    This is a big problem in our society and is going to become worse as time passes. People vote for those who will be in charge and if the voters are ill-informed then their leaders will make choices based on false notions because if they don’t the voters will elect someone else. We have no problem accepting the word of experts when it comes to things like plumbing or home decoration. What we need are good reliable experts on foreign policy who can say “This is a good/bad idea because…” and people will believe them.

  5. dingojack says

    Alverant – nice to see you’re reading the thread carefully. Ambrose Bierce in case you’re interested.
    Dingo

  6. Alverant says

    Sorry, Dingo, there’s so much sarcasm on the internet I’ve lost my ability to tell if someone is being serious or snarky.

  7. Alverant says

    Greeeeat, as if I didn’t have enough trouble with this massive charlie horse in my thigh that struck at 4am.

    I’m going to say you’re being sincere and nice.

  8. cjcolucci says

    There is a strange logic behind the correlation between ignorance of where Ukraine is and favoring a military response. If you wrongly think Ukraine is far from Russia, like, say, France, it is not silly to perceive what Russia is doing as very threatening to world peace. But if you know that Ukraine is right next door to Russia and used to be a part of the former Soviet Union, Russia’s actions, though deplorable, seem far less threatening to the rest of the world, or to us. I don’t know whether that is the thought process of the people being polled, but it makes a kind of sense.

  9. laurentweppe says

    It’s more one group of thugs versus another.

    Wrong

    The protests started when the Putin’s satrap decided to ignore the large chunk of the ukrainian public opinion which wanted closer ties between their country and the EU.

    The local far-right, like all other european far-right, is opposed to european integration: they never were the driving force behind the protests and only joined by sheer opportunism, hoping to ride the coattails of the protesters in order to increase their clout.

    ***

    Whoever gets Ukraine just gets a huge economic sinkhole with a lot of social problems. Much like Afghanistan.

    Whoever gets Ukraine gets large deposits of Irons, manganese, titanium, coal and some of the most fertile lands on the planet. Do you really believe that jingoism is the only reason why Putin & co are trying to put the country back inside their parasitic empire?

  10. Synfandel says

    Americans, in my experience, tend to be quite competent at domestic geography, but woefully ignorant of geography outside their national borders.

    I’ve never been inside an American school classroom, but I’ve seen many in movies, television, and news reports and it has long struck me that there is always a map of the United States on the wall. Beyond the borders of the US is void—not even sea monsters—just nothing, except for Alaska and Hawaii wierdly floating just off the coast of California in insets. North of Montana? Nothing. South of Arizona? Nothing. East of Maine? Nothing.

    If the media depictions are accurate and real classrooms actually do feature these maps, maybe they are a clue to the cause of extranational geographic illiteracy.

  11. raven says

    Whoever gets Ukraine gets large deposits of Irons, manganese, titanium, coal and some of the most fertile lands on the planet.

    So what has all that natural wealth gotten them? It hasn’t done them any good at all. They are broke and owe money to everyone.

    Do you really believe that jingoism is the only reason why Putin & co are trying to put the country back inside their parasitic empire?

    Yes.

    Iron, manganese, titanium, coal, and corn are commodities. If Ukraine wants to sell them for money, who is going to buy them? Russia is their neighbor and natural trading partner.

    Russia can get those anywhere without supporting tens of milions of Ukrainians.

  12. raven says

    Wrong

    The protests started when the Putin’s satrap decided to ignore the large chunk of the ukrainian public opinion which wanted closer ties between their country and the EU.

    The local far-right, like all other european far-right, is opposed to european integration: they never were the driving force behind the protests and only joined by sheer opportunism, hoping to ride the coattails of the protesters in order to increase their clout.

    Which has worked out well for the fascists.

    We’ve seen this movie before and not too long ago. Iran long ago now. Egypt a few years ago. There were pro democracy demonstrators out for months. The Moslem Brotherhood ended up taking over and didn’t do a great job. Libya. We saved them from Gaddafi, by all accounts not a nice man. So today, they barely have a functioning government and the country is controlled by warlords.

    Quite often after these popular uprisings, which Ukraine was due to the incompetence and kleptocracy of Yanukovych, the people who end up on top aren’t the ones getting killed but the most organized, most well armed, and ugliest.

    We’ve seen how these disasters play out everywhere and have our own problems with our trophies of Iraq and Afghanistan. These days, some countries aren’t worth conquering.

  13. sawells says

    Part of the issue is talking about “Ukraine” is if it were one thing. The west of Ukraine borders Poland and is quite pro-european. The east of Ukraine is majority Russian ethnic. Crimea was Russian until the 1950s; I think Kruschev put it in Ukraine partly to make sure that Ukraine would always be weak, divided and under Russian influence. Additional historical problem: during both world wars, major fronts went through Ukraine, and different Ukrainians were fighting on both sides. Frankly, a partition with minimum shooting is probably the best possible outcome. Putin is a megalomaniac war criminal; that doesn’t mean that the Ukraine story is noble pro-Western popular uprising versus evil Russian scheming.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    raven @ # 4: Whoever gets Ukraine just gets a huge economic sinkhole with a lot of social problems….

    They also get a big piece of the world’s best farmland, a strategic location, a literate and semi-westernized population… – the comparison with Afghanistan applies mostly at the feuding-factions level, but otherwise misleads.

  15. raven says

    They also get a big piece of the world’s best farmland, a strategic location, a literate and semi-westernized population…

    1. None of which has done the Ukrainians themselves any good.

    I’m not seeing why all these advantages work for the Russians but not the Ukrainians themselves.

    2. That farmland, mines, and location comes with baggage. People live there, 45 million of them. 83% of them are Ukrainian, 17% Russian.

    The country is broke and deep in debt. Someone is going to pick up the bills for them.

    3. There is clearly some animosity between Ukrainians and Russians and growing by the day for obvious reasons. Conquering Ukraine just gives them a hostile but large minority of 38 million to deal with forever.

    Greece might be a better model. Only Ukraine is worse. It is a failed nation whereas Greece is still alive enough to thrash around.

  16. AsqJames says

    I tend to doubt that USians are, on average, all that much more ignorant about the wider world than the populations of most other developed countries. I know I’m often staggered at the breathtaking ignorance of some of my fellow Brits*.

    There does seem to be a rather large excess of elected officials who’ve made incredibly ignorant, or just plain stupid, remarks at little or no political cost. But then you do have a quite staggering number of elected officials to choose from.

    I do think you tend to be considerably more confident and nationalistic though. And there’s the curious preference for leaders “you’d like to have a beer with” over those pointy-headed elitists who read books and know stuff – not that we don’t have that factor too, but not so much (yet) it seems.

    Of course I might be completely wrong, but (even particularly in post-imperial Britain) many seem to be channeling an inferiority complex about America’s superpower status into crude stereotypes of stupid, fat Americans.

    * And, it should be said, in awe of the very many Brits and Yanks who’s breadth & depth of knowledge astounds me.

  17. anbheal says

    Or, ya know, the Ockham’s Razor explanation: Stupid people like the idea of fighting, cuz they don’t talk or think too good. Hello, FoxNews!

  18. JasonTD says

    sawells @15

    Crimea was Russian until the 1950s…

    I think you have things a little backward. At least, if wikipedia’s article on the region is accurate. Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the peninsula was split between Crimean Tatars (Turkic ethnic group) at about a third of the population, a third Russian, and the rest were Ukrainian or other. Then, Soviet policies that led to mass starvation and deportations decimated the Tatar population. Finally, as a ‘punishment’ for some Tatars collaborating with the Nazi occupation of the peninsula during WWII (since they hated the Soviets for their policies that harmed them), the Soviets deported all of them to distant parts of the USSR, with some of the survivors returning with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the ’80s. That is how Crimea ended up majority Russian, which it still is now.

  19. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I wonder if we should encourage local councils in the USA (or everywhere but esp. the States) to put a giant, accurately labelled globe* in every village square? With a set of information plaques showing some for the key features and details for each nation alongside them to help in public awareness?

    Reckon that might help?

    * Of planet Earth specifically although globes of other planets and done to scale as in solar system model “walks” would be durn awesome too! (A few cities /towns already have these.)

  20. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Correction that’s :

    ^

    showing some of the key features and details

    natch.

    Of course which features and facts are “key” is also subjective. Maybe each one could be slightly different?

  21. sugarfrosted says

    If the media depictions are accurate and real classrooms actually do feature these maps, maybe they are a clue to the cause of extranational geographic illiteracy.

    Spoilers: They’re there in addition to other maps. (Your point was so fucking stupid that at first I thought you were claiming they only had maps of the US.) So you’re saying that Americans should be ignorant of their own country’s geography because it somehow interferes with their knowledge of the rest of the world? Or are you saying that having maps focused on regions erases the rest of the world? Seriously, wtf are you getting at? I’m sure no German classrooms have no maps of Germany… oh wait.

    I do not apologize for my tone.

  22. sugarfrosted says

    Is it the inset? I still don’t think that’s accurate. Considering having those makes it so the maps shows less open ocean and less of a giant state with nothing. (Granted some really bad maps show alaska surronded by blue, but I’ve never seen one like that in a classroom. Also including them would make several states basically too small to even make out. Seriously. I still don’t understand your point.

  23. laurentweppe says

    Which has worked out well for the fascists.

    Not so much if the latest polls (where the fascists are credited with 2% of the voting intentions) are to be believed.

    The worst thing that could happen right now would be for the western powers -and most importantly for the EU- to desert Ukraine: as it is often the case, inaction would empower the fascists.

    ***

    Egypt a few years ago. There were pro democracy demonstrators out for months. The Moslem Brotherhood ended up taking over and didn’t do a great job. Libya. We saved them from Gaddafi, by all accounts not a nice man. So today, they barely have a functioning government and the country is controlled by warlords

    In Egypt, the dictatorship was
    1. Subsidized by the US, therefore ripe for anti-western sentiment
    2. Ruled by a clan of pseudo-über-secularists, which allowed fundies to look sincere when they played their “We’re the victims of oppression” tune.
    Using flimsy “realpolitik” excuses, western powers helped (or at least remained complacent) to a despot. As events showed, even with american money and logistical support his clan was fated to fall, and in the end, it’s our complacency to a despot that helped the Muslim Brotherhood takeover.

    In Libya, the fundies lost the elections (earning a little over 10% of the vote) then decided that they’d seize by force what they failed to take through the ballot box.
    Here, it’s insufficient help from western powers that has been a boon to militias leaders eager to play warlord.

    Dictatorships always collapse: the longer they take, the more decades of accumulated injustice and resentment create environments ripe for bloody score-settling and the rise of a brand new tyrannical regime.
    “Let’s not get involved less we unwittingly help fascists” is a fucking sophism: for fascists trying to take advantage of the collapse of one corrupt regime to take over in its place, seeing their country’s rich neighbours pusillanimously twisting their hands is already a blessing.

  24. says

    This “clever survey” is nothing but another desperate attempt to avoid facing the reality of what’s happening to Europe, and what it means. So you’ve shown some correlation between geographical ignorance and advocacy of military force? That doesn’t mean much when you do nothing to correct the ignorance, nor offer a more intelligent take on the subject.

    Seriously, Ed, if you don’t want to talk about this real threat to the freedoms of tens of millions of people, you don’t have to — diversionary bullshit like this is unnecessary and only draws more attention to the fact that you’re trying to avoid the subject.

  25. says

    First raven says:

    Ukraine is more complex than that.

    And then, in the same comment, he says:

    It’s more one group of thugs versus another.

    This is what passes for intelligent discussion here?

  26. says

    @28:

    I can’t speak for raven….

    Ukraine is a country with a very complex ethnic, political and (prolly) religious composition.

    In the current situation in Crimea, the forces of in-country evil (neo-nazis and other radicals) seem to be the opposition to the extra-territorial evil (Vlad & company).

    All of Crimea is/was part of Ukraine. Not all of Ukraine is Crimea.

  27. bobcarroll says

    Dingojack @#3: God does a piss-poor job of teaching us geography, among other things. Try asking a sample of our folks to locate London, or Ottawa on a world map. or just about any state in the US except the one they live in. Maybe better than one in six, but not by much.
    Sorry Raging Bee, that isn’t what this blog is about. ISTM that it’s up to us to suggest rational solutions, not Ed.

  28. says

    In the current situation in Crimea, the forces of in-country evil (neo-nazis and other radicals) seem to be the opposition to the extra-territorial evil (Vlad & company).

    No, demo, they’re PART of the opposition to Russia, not all of it. And as I said before, the best way to neutralize fascist tendencies in the long run — on BOTH sides — is to bring Ukraine as close to the Western democracies as we can.

  29. Synfandel says

    sugarfrosted, take a breath. We can get through this.

    This is mere speculation. What I have seen—and please note the caveat I mentioned above—is one large map prominently displayed. No doubt other maps exist in the school, but one particular map dominates the classroom. It shows emptiness beyond the borders of the United States as if the country existed in a vacuum. This suggests to me a focus on US geography at the expense of world geography. I wondered whether it might go some way to explaining the pattern of fairly solid domestic geographical knowledge with notoriously poor global geographic knowledge.

  30. says

    Synfandel: I haven’t seen any maps of the type you describe. I have, however, seen lots of Mercator maps that put the USA at their center, at the expense of cutting Eurasia in half and having two Kazakhstans, a Greenland bigger than South America, and either a giant distorted Antarctica or no Antarctica at all.

  31. says

    @31:

    Please furnish a link to who is involved BESIDES neo-nazis and the so called, “Jihadist Tatars”–I don’t see anyone else coming up five pages into google. I’ll be happy to see them.

  32. lofgren says

    Synfandel, I think what has sugarfrosted so upset is the sheer vacuousness of your statement. Americans are bad at geography because of how classrooms you saw in movies sometimes are laid out? Holy fuck that is some dumb shit. Are you English? Because as far as I know all British classrooms look like Goodbye Mr. Chips except for Defense Against the Dark Arts and Potions.

  33. Nick Gotts says

    I think the best the western powers can do at this point is follow Kiev’s lead. If they fight for their self-determination and call for UN or NATO help, we should give it to them. If they choose not to, we should not go in. I am not 100% opposed to military conflict in this case (and yet, I know where it is on the map). – eric@2

    If you’re willing to die for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or the interests of the gang of corrupt oligarchs and fascists now in charge, I suggest you go there and fight the Russians in person. I’m not.

    The worst thing that could happen right now would be for the western powers -and most importantly for the EU- to desert Ukraine: as it is often the case, inaction would empower the fascists. – laurentweppe@26

    Well possibly even worse is what is actually happening: the imposition of the usual IMF austerity and privatization package. It’s pretty clear that the west’s favoured candidate, Poroshenko, is going to win the Presidency in May; but we’ll see what the support level for the fascists is like after a couple of years of IMF “medicine”.

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