Where’s Ukraine? Each dot depicts the location where a U.S. survey respondent situated Ukraine; the dots are colored based on how far removed they are from the actual country, with the most accurate responses in red and the least accurate ones in blue. (Data: Survey Sampling International; Figure: Thomas Zeitzoff/The Monkey Cage)
Since Russian troops first entered the Crimean peninsula in early March, a series of media polling outlets have asked Americans how they want the U.S. to respond to the ongoing situation. Although two-thirds of Americans have reported following the situation at least “somewhat closely,” most Americans actually know very little about events on the ground — or even where the ground is.
On March 28-31, 2014, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded via Survey Sampling International Inc. (SSI), what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: In addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, we also asked our survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. We wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force.
Survey respondents identified Ukraine by clicking on a high-resolution world map, shown above. We then created a distance metric by comparing the coordinates they provided with the actual location of Ukraine on the map. Other scholars, such as Markus Prior, have used pictures to measure visual knowledge, but unlike many of the traditional open-ended items political scientists use to measure knowledge, distance enables us to measure accuracy continuously: People who believe Ukraine is in Eastern Europe clearly are more informed than those who believe it is in Brazil or in the Indian Ocean.
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.
Accuracy varies across demographic groups. In general, younger Americans tended to provide more accurate responses than their older counterparts: 27 percent of 18-24 year olds correctly identified Ukraine, compared with 14 percent of 65+ year-olds. Men tended to do better than women, with 20 percent of men correctly identifying Ukraine and 13 percent of women. Interestingly, members of military households were no more likely to correctly locate Ukraine (16.1 percent correct) than members of non-military households (16 percent correct), but self-identified independents (29 percent correct) outperformed both Democrats (14 percent correct) and Republicans (15 percent correct). Unsurprisingly, college graduates (21 percent correct) were more likely to know where Ukraine was than non-college graduates (13 percent correct), but even 77 percent of college graduates failed to correctly place Ukraine on a map; the proportion of college grads who could correctly identify Ukraine is only slightly higher than the proportion of Americans who told Pew that President Obama was Muslim in August 2010.
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.