At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, an inscription reads: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
It eloquently reflects the fact that few ordinary Americans — and probably not many members of Congress — could have found Korea on a map as of June 25, 1950, when Kim Il Sung’s forces crossed the 38th parallel, bent on conquest with the support of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
But soon enough, the Truman administration understood that this was an attempt to redraw that map through military aggression — one that had to be resisted, despite Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s remark that Korea was outside the U.S. “defense perimeter.” The Korean War was awful, and not terribly popular; yet subsequent history, especially the differing fates of the two Koreas, has richly vindicated the American sacrifices there.
I cite this history for perspective on the finding, published by a trio of Ivy League professors Tuesday on The Post’s Monkey Cage political science blog, that only 16 percent of Americans can point out Ukraine on a map — and that “[t]he farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force.”
In some quarters, this factoid has been received as proof that Americans are not only ignorant of geography — which we already knew — but also that hawkishness is a function of ignorance.
My reaction was: Since when is precise, granulated geographical knowledge some sort of prerequisite for deciding what’s right in foreign policy generally or for Ukraine specifically?
Of course information is relevant: If you didn’t know that Ukraine is a foreign country, it would be hard for you to say intelligibly whether the United States should “take military action” there, as this survey somewhat vaguely framed the issue.
Equally obviously, the U.S. interest in any particular foreign policy issue, and the best way to secure it, varies from place to place.
My point is that Russia’s assault on Ukraine poses a stark issue of cross-border aggression and territorial seizure. And wherever it occurs, in Crimea today or Kuwait 20-plus years ago, such conduct violates international law and threatens international order. A reasonable person could and probably should at least consider U.S. or multilateral military action, of varying degrees, on that basis alone. (Even if it’s pretty clearly not called for in Ukraine now.)
True confession: I had never heard of the Falkland Islands before the Argentine junta seized them in 1982. But even before I found those specks on the globe, I believed that Britain might be justified in retaking them by force, if necessary.
The case for U.S. intervention, military or otherwise, is naturally strongest in regions of greater geostrategic interest, such as Europe. Given the history of the past century, any attempt at forcible territorial acquisition in that continent, especially one premised on an aggrandizing nationalism — as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s is — would be worrisome not only strategically but also morally.
In that regard, the Ivy Leaguers’ survey is reassuring: Although only one in six Americans placed Ukraine exactly, most put it somewhere between the Urals and the Atlantic. They understand, broadly, what’s going on.
As for the ballyhooed finding that the most hawkish responses came from those who were most off the mark geographically, its significance fades when you consider that only 13 percent of survey respondents favored military action at all, while 87 percent did not. In other words, the vast majority of those who opposed intervention in Ukraine don’t know exactly where it is, either.
Foreign policy is not only about knowledge but also judgment; not only smarts but also wisdom.
I am resisting the impulse to brand the Ivy Leaguers’ study a snarky manifestation of the current quantitative vogue in political science, or of a much older faculty-lounge disdain for the masses, rather than a good-faith attempt to correlate foreign policy knowledge with policy attitudes, as Kyle Dropp of Dartmouth, one of its authors, assured me.
Still, isn’t this ignorance-is-next-to-hawkishness meme getting old? It was Yan Wang, a former Beijing democracy activist now living in New York, who directed me to the Korean War memorial’s inscription.
Regarding the Monkey Cage post, he noted via e-mail: “In China, party hard liners mock western people who sympathize with Tibetans the same way — they don’t know where Tibet is.” To which I would add: Wherever it is, it should be free.