Since Russian troops entered the Crimean peninsula in early March, a series of media polling outlets have asked Americans how they want the United States 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.
From March 28 to 31, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded by Survey Sampling International Inc.) what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: 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 found that only 1 out of 6 Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and 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. Most thought 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.
Members of military households were no more likely to correctly locate Ukraine (16.1 percent correct) than members of nonmilitary households (16 percent correct), but self-identified independents (29 percent correct) outperformed 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 Barack Obama was Muslim in August 2010.
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 believe Russia poses to U.S. interests; and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests.
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.