Hint: it’s north of South Korea

The Times reports that Americans who know where North Korea is on a map are more likely to favor diplomacy over military responses. Makes sense. If you don’t know where North Korea is on a map you probably don’t know much of anything, and if you don’t know much of anything, violence can seem like a good solution to problems and also an awesome afternoon out.

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.

If you know where it is you might have some idea of how bad it would be to send troops there.

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.

Then again there is such a thing as rational ignorance.

In “Why Geography Matters,” Harm de Blij wrote that geography is “a superb antidote to isolationism and provincialism,” and argued that “the American public is the geographically most illiterate society of consequence on the planet, at a time when United States power can affect countries and peoples around the world.”

This spatial illiteracy, geographers say, can leave citizens without a framework to think about foreign policy questions more substantively. “The paucity of geographical knowledge means there is no check on misleading public representations about international matters,” said Alec Murphy, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.

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.

That system breaks down when you have a complete fool and ignoramus running the show.

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