Mixed results on Americans’ knowledge of international issues

Mixed results on Americans’ knowledge of international issues

Mixed results on Americans’ knowledge of international issues
Limited knowledge and interest among average Americans tend to leave US foreign policy in the hands of elites. (Reuters)
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Americans often receive criticism for their alleged ignorance of the world, but such criticism often lacks data to support its assumptions. A recent survey asked Americans 12 questions about international issues and found that they tended to answer slightly more than half correctly, but some groups have significantly higher levels of knowledge than others.
On May 25, the Pew Research Center published findings from a recent survey that asked Americans a dozen questions about foreign affairs; examples included identifying a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, determining whether Ukraine is a member of NATO and selecting which religion has the most adherents in Latin America. Pew found that the “mean number of correct answers is 6.3.” With only 12 questions, the survey provides limited insight into the nuances of Americans’ knowledge, but it is a useful snapshot of their familiarity with basic facts of global politics.
The survey found that Americans with higher levels of education, interest in international issues and personal exposure outside of the US have increased levels of knowledge. The poll found some demographic differences, with older Americans and men more likely to score higher.
Unsurprisingly, education matters. Survey respondents with postgraduate degrees answered a mean number of 8.2 correctly, while those with a high school degree or less answered a mean of 5 correctly.
It is also predictable that Americans who express an interest in foreign affairs have higher levels of knowledge, with those expressing a lot or some interest earning a mean score of 7.4, compared to 4.6 for respondents with little interest. Importantly, Americans with exposure to the wider world also score higher; for example, the survey found that those who have traveled abroad scored a mean of 7.1 compared to 4.3 for those who have not left the US.
Another notable finding was that there is no significant partisan gap — Democrats and Republicans are almost equally knowledgeable. However, within the parties, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are more likely to score higher than moderates, which likely reflects that people on the more ideological extremes tend to be more engaged in following news and politics.
The Pew survey also found that higher levels of knowledge tend to correspond with some specific political perspectives. For example, respondents who scored higher on the quiz tended to have a more favorable view of the EU and NATO and a more negative view of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those who scored higher are also likely to have a more negative view of China. Americans who can identify the capital of Afghanistan are more likely to be critical of America’s withdrawal from the country.
Many people outside of the US feel annoyance and frustration with the reality that the country plays a huge role in world affairs while many Americans seem uninformed or uninterested. The survey indicated that Americans on average may be less ignorant than they are perceived.
At the same time, some factors tend to limit many Americans’ exposure to the world, with the consequence of less interest and knowledge. The US is a very large and diverse country and Americans can easily travel within their own country for extensive tourism, cultural, educational and business opportunities. With the exceptions of Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, the rest of the world is a long and expensive flight away. According to polls, 37 percent to 42 percent of Americans hold an unexpired passport; some foreign critics compare this unfavorably with Europe, where higher percentages of people tend to have passports. However, Americans can travel far further within their own country without a passport than anyone from a European state could do within their country.

The Pew survey indicated that Americans on average may be less ignorant than they are perceived.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Americans’ relative lack of international exposure is understandable and it can make global affairs feel far away. However, there are significant downsides. Limited knowledge and interest among average Americans tend to leave US foreign policy in the hands of elites whose interests might not serve the broader public or in the hands of people with more extreme political views. The pandemic and global supply chain problems clearly demonstrate that Americans are not insulated from the rest of the world. Given the extent of US global power and its interconnectedness with the rest of the world, Americans would benefit from greater knowledge of international issues.
Expanding education on world history and global affairs at all levels of learning is one essential step, and there are organizations and schools working toward that end. Studying abroad and international exchanges are other essential tools for increasing Americans’ immersion in foreign countries and people-to-people relationships; the US has organizations and universities that help promote these programs, but the pandemic undermined many opportunities.
Some of the most innovative work is in online media. Just as CNN once played a groundbreaking role in bringing international experience straight to Americans’ TV sets, so online media today offers access to a far broader range of perspectives and experiences. For Americans with an interest in world affairs, there are new and exciting opportunities to engage with the broader world.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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