Knowing Geography Makes You More in Favor of Diplomacy

How important do you consider geography to be? Can you name all the states or territories in your country? Do you know much about the geography of your country or the world? Most people can locate a few countries on a map and keep track of a few major capitals, but a lack of geographical knowledge can actually be a detriment to diplomacy around the globe.

For a country that has its influence on many different locations around the world, residents of the United States aren’t always able to pinpoint important countries on a map. Many residents don’t have a passport and some rarely travel- not a rarity in the world, but concerning considered the power of ignorance and rumors in a world full of alternative facts and media fearmongering.

A poll was conducted asking Americans where they thought the Ukraine was [1]. At the time the poll was taken, Russia had invaded part of the Ukraine and tensions in the region were high. There was talk of the United States being involved in the conflict militarily, but most Americans couldn’t point out where the Ukraine was on a map.

The poll of about 2,600 Americans showed that only one in six people knew where the Ukraine was located, and that the further away they thought the country was from its actual location, the more they supported intervention by US military forces.

Each dot on this map represents the guess by a poll respondent on where Ukraine is. Data: Survey Sampling International; Figure: Thomas Zeitzoff/The Monkey Cage

Each dot on this map represents the guess by a poll respondent on where Ukraine is. Data: Survey Sampling International; Figure: Thomas Zeitzoff/The Monkey Cage

The poll was used to track general foreign policy knowledge and opinions, in addition to discovering how accurate peoples’ international knowledge really is. While a significant number of polled individuals knew that the Ukraine was in Eastern Europe, the average response was about 1,800 miles away, ranging from Finland to the Sudan, Portugal to Kazakhstan.

The poll was also able to determine what demographics are more likely to be accurately informed about global politics and geography. The study showed that younger residents of the United States were more likely to be able to locate the Ukraine than were older individuals. About 27% of 18-24 years olds found the Ukraine on a map, while only 14% of people aged 65 years or older were able to. Approximately 20% of men identified the Ukraine, compared to 13% of women who were polled. Individuals who voted Independent were more likely than Democrats or Republicans to find the country on the map, while military members and non-military members had the same rate of correct answers. Finally, college graduates were more likely to find the Ukraine on the map than were people who didn’t go to college.

This research is building on other studies that look at the link between information and governmental policies. A lack of information or an abundance of information can influence what policies Americans support, and which ones they don’t. Ultimately, though, how much military force would cost seems to be the biggest deterrent for Americans voting on policies regarding military intervention.

A similar poll of 1,746 adults was conducted for the NY Times about locating North Korea [2]. North Korea has been antagonistic to other nations, and the United States routinely denounces the country for human rights violations as well as its ballistic missile program. The research found that people who could locate North Korea on a map were more likely to support non-military strategies, economic sanctions, and other diplomatic relations with North Korea.

A zoomed in view of the results of the poll asking 1,746 adults to located North Korea (area highlighted with red dots). Each dot represents one guess. Map: NY Times based on data from Kyle Dropp.

A zoomed in view of the results of the poll asking 1,746 adults to located North Korea (area highlighted with pink dots). Each dot represents one guess. Map: NY Times based on data from Kyle Dropp.

Simply put, an increase in knowledge of global geography helps put into perspective greater events occurring around the world. If you can imagine who lives in a place and where they are located, you are less likely to advocate for military intervention or other costly, violent expenditures. Education, personal experience, and travel habits all influenced peoples’ global geography knowledge.


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References

[1] The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene.  Washington Post.  April 7, 2014

[2] If Americans Can Find North Korea on a Map, They’re More Likely to Prefer Diplomacy.  New York Times.  Updated July 5, 2017.

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