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Interventionism and Ignorance Revisited

Kevin Quealy reports [1] on the results of an experiment that tested geographical knowledge and related it to foreign policy preferences:

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 [bold mine-DL]. 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.

This finding is consistent with a past study [2] that showed a strong correlation between geographical ignorance and a preference for military options. As Quealy notes, three political scientists ran a similar experiment in 2014 and found [3] much the same thing regarding U.S. policy in Ukraine:

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 [bold mine-DL]; 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.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that less knowledge about a foreign country corresponds with a preference for more destructive and irresponsible policies in relation to that country. If someone doesn’t even know where a given country is, it is unlikely that he knows much about the surrounding region or the probable consequences of military action. He is also probably more likely to accept simplistic portrayals of the other country that cast it in the worst possible light, which will make more coercive measures seem more appealing.

An ignorant public is bound to be much easier to mislead when it comes to talking about foreign threats, since they will tend to rely on what they are told about another country and threat-inflating elites are always there to exaggerate the danger from abroad while minimizing the risks of “action.” These findings also suggest that we shouldn’t want foreign policy novices in positions of authority, since they will be easy to manipulate into supporting more aggressive measures in the same way. Too little knowledge about the world makes a president or a member of Congress an easy mark for ideological hard-liners that offer the illusion of simple and cheap solutions to difficult foreign problems.


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6 Comments To "Interventionism and Ignorance Revisited"

#1 Comment By Viriato On May 15, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

This reminds me of Americans and Europeans back in the 1930s who wanted U.S. aid to the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, without knowing, caring to know, anything about why the Spanish Civil War broke out in the first place or who exactly the “Republicans” were. The Spanish Republic was very far from the idyllic democracy it is often portrayed as, and the Nationalist rebels did not come out of nowhere… indeed, by the time they rebelled in July 1936, the Spanish Republic had effectively ceased to exist in all but name. The “Republicans” were mostly a motley bunch of Communists, revolutionary socialists, anarchists, regional separatists, and anti-Catholic extremists. Neither side of the war wanted democracy. Democracy was simply not at stake. What was at stake was private property, the unity of Spain, and the future of Spain’s Catholic culture. But you would never know any of this from reading U.S. and other Western pro-Republican propaganda of the period.

The problem, then as now, is that the mainstream media is focused more on sensational, sentimental propaganda rather than on properly informing citizens so as to encourage them to form educated opinions.

#2 Comment By Guy_from_Iran On May 15, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

I just wanted to point out that economic sanctions (primary or secondary) or cyber-attacks do not constitute diplomatic actions.

#3 Comment By collin On May 15, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

Instead of an ID, can we give voters a map of the world? This finding ALWAYS happens that the slower, more diplomatic voters are more likely to find the nation on the map. (Although my world map memory still looks like its in 1988 but I suspect that is a problem for a lot people.)

#4 Comment By victory over eurasia On May 15, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

I guess that explains a lot about the orange buffoon………

#5 Comment By Nelson On May 15, 2017 @ 7:15 pm

Guy_from_Iran says:
I just wanted to point out that economic sanctions (primary or secondary) or cyber-attacks do not constitute diplomatic actions.

Agreed. Sanctions are an agressive act. Preferable to a shooting war obviously, but not productive when open ended.

#6 Comment By Cynthia McLean On May 15, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

For a donation, medicins sans frontiers will send you a world map entitled “The World is our Emergency Room.”
I reach for it every night while watching the news and give copies away at Christmas. Even my well-educated and prosperous friends and family are geographically challenged except when looking for their next vacation destination.