Geographical Illiteracy and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment

As I have tried to show over the course of many years of writing and teaching, the standard world political map is a misleading and seductive document, depicting global political organization as far more straightforward than it actually is. But the real problem is far more basic: as simplistic as the world map is, students are seldom asked to learn anything about it. The pedagogical consensus seems to be that world geography is unworthy of focused instruction. All that most students learn is that the globe is divided into fundamental units called either countries or nation-states, few of which have much significance. Beyond that, geographical knowledge is considered worthwhile mostly for game shows or trivia nights at local pubs. The result is not merely widespread gaps in public knowledge but rather pervasive geographical illiteracy that has damaging real-world consequences

The evidence of ubiquitous geo-illiteracy in the United States is overwhelming, attested by multiple studies. Suffice it here to provide one telling example. In 2014, just after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a Washington Post survey found that only 16 percent of the 2,066 Americans queried could locate Ukraine on a world map.[1]Several dozen respondents placed it in Greenland, around 40 favored Canada, and 15 opted for some part of the United States. The median response was off by about 1,800 miles. Many could not even tell the difference between land and water, putting Ukraine somewhere at sea. Most distressing, the Post discovered in 2014 that the “the less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want the U.S. to intervene.” As is so often the case, ignorance and arrogance go together.

The extent of our collective geo-witlessness is well understood. Periodic news articles demonstrating its depth gather brief notice and elicit some cringing mirth, yet they never generate any momentum for educational reform. In academia, merely drawing attention to the problem can bring retribution. David Helgren, an assistant professor at the University of Miami, lost his job and was threatened with a lawsuit after he revealed the geographical ignorance of his students, thereby embarrassing school officials.[2] For some educators, the problem is evidently not geographical illiteracy but rather regarding geographical illiteracy a problem worth acknowledging.

Those engaged in high-level international pursuits are of course professionally obligated to learn something about how the world is put together. Many know the political map quite well, and more than a few delve below its surface to discover how power actually plays out on the ground. But to the extent that they gain such knowledge, it is through their own efforts, guided by their personal appreciation of what is important. Unfortunately, not everyone in such positions has such an understanding. As a result, geographical illiteracy extends into the uppermost levels of governmental service.

The dearth of knowledge at the pinnacle of America power is abundantly evident in recent presidential pronouncements. George W. Bush’s geopolitical miscues were legendary, ranging from confusing Slovenia with Slovakia to a gobsmacking characterization of Africa as a nation.[3] Donald Trump’s cluelessness is so extensive that it took a sizable portion of a recent book to document it. As Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig recount in A Very Stable Genius,[4] Trump flabbergasted Indian prime minister Narendra Modi by dismissively telling him that “It’s not like you’ve got China on your border.” (The India-China border stretches over two thousand miles.) Barack Obama’s geographical errors merited an entire article, memorably entitled (with a hat-tip to Sam Cooke) “Don’t Know Much About Geography.”[5] I could go on, but the point has been made.

It might be objected that the global awareness of any American president is of no great importance, as staffers can be expected to carry the weight. But presidential gaffes are deeply embarrassing and can have damaging diplomatic consequences. According to one State Department aide, “the Indians took a step back” in their relations with the United States after Trump denied the existence of their border with China.[6] More to the point, even State Department officials cannot be assumed to have mastered the map, and as a result they sometimes lead their superiors astray. As telling instance comes from the Nixon administration. The president had been prepared for a meeting with the prime minister of Mauretania in northwestern Africa but spoke instead with the leader of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean. As Ken Jennings recounts:[7]

President Nixon led off the discussion by suggesting that the Prime Minister of a valued American ally restore diplomatic relations with the United States! That way, he said, he could offer American expertise in dry farming. The flummoxed Mauritian, hailing as he did from a lush jungle nation, had little interest in desert farming, so he tried to change the subject, asking Nixon about a space tracking station that the United States operated in his country. The bewildered Nixon scrawled something down on a yellow legal pad and handed it to [Henry] Kissinger. The note read, “Why the hell do we have a space tracking station in a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations?”

It is not as if State Department officials are poorly educated. Almost all are graduates of fine universities, and many have been through demanding post-graduate programs in International Relations (IR), International Policy, or related fields. The coursework in these programs is generally multidisciplinary but anchored in political science and economics. Valuable knowledge of international issues and institutions is acquired, as are powerful analytical skills. Graduates of the top-tier IR programs tend to be highly intelligent, hard-working, and adept at networking. Most aim high in the career choices, and, unsurprisingly, many go far.

But for all of that, major knowledge gaps go unaddressed. Although political history is a component of most IR programs, it is seldom required and never emphasized, whereas political geography hardly figures at all. Instead, the received map and model of the world provide the essential framework, conveying a clear-cut geopolitical system that can be taken as given and then by-passed. The system’s knotted history is typically reduced to a few key events, most notably the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Instruction in the actual architecture of political power across the world and its historical development is sidelined if not ignored.

What is reasonably required in most International Relations programs is a deep dive into IR theory. Classes on this topic seek to provide an understanding of how polities interact, usually by contrasting the views of several distinct schools of thought. Simplifying greatly, here one finds “realism,” which emphasizes competition among states, vying against softer-edged “liberalism,” which foregrounds institutional arrangements and non-state actors, as well as “constructivism,” which puts more stress on ideas, values, and cultural conditions. Adherents of critical IR theory, in contrast, critique both the geopolitical status quo and the above-mentioned modes of analyzing it, generally from a leftist perspective. These schools, along with several others, provide useful perspectives and need to be tackled by anyone seeking a deep understanding of the international arena.[8]

But insightful though they may be, none of these schools of thought has been able to generate accurate predictions or even falsifiable explanations of geopolitical change, and thus fail to reach scientific standing. Such theories also fall short because they tend to reflect the political hopes and leanings of those who advocate them. More important, none acknowledges the need for comprehensive global knowledge.

Most top-tier programs in international relations and related fields also require deep grounding in quantitative methods, usually through extensive coursework in economics and statistics. At Stanford University, the Ford Dorsey Master’s program in International Policy – “designed to produce leaders”[9] – stresses the quantitatively rigorous nature of its core curriculum.[10] Its mandatory methodologies, such as “logit and problt regression analysis,”[11] are important for doctoral work in some social-science fields and can yield significant findings. But it is questionable whether they should be required for foreign-policy experts. Professionals in the field seldom use them, and their mastery confers few practical advantages. Supporters sometimes claim that advanced statistics classes must be mandatory so that policy makers can fully understand cutting-edge articles in economics and political science journals that might influence their decisions.[12] I have seen little evidence, however, of that actually happening.

World history and geography, on the other hand, are essentially bypassed in this prestigious program. No coursework in political history is required, and no classes on political geography are offered. When one weights the curriculum’s requirements against its omissions, it is difficult to avoid seeing an insinuation that knowledge of the world is essentially extraneous, whereas complex mathematics holds the key for understanding and effective action. These are dubious ideas, especially when taken together.

History and geography are slighted in IR circles in part because they are regarded as simple subjects that students can easily pick up on their own. This assertion is far from true. For almost all students, prolonged instruction is necessary. And if a few self-motivated and intellectually gifted learners can acquire adequate geo-historical comprehension through their own efforts, the same is true of IR theory, economics, and even advanced statistics.

What the completion of required classes in advanced statistics and econometrics do is signal the quantitative abilities and diligence of those who have mastered them. Anyone who can get through the necessary mathematics must be smart and hardworking, important qualities for any high-level position. But as the iconoclastic economist Bryan Caplan more generally argues,[13] university coursework is an inefficient means of confirming such attributes, much less of ensuring competence on the job. Unfortunately, similarly inefficient means of selecting high-level civil servants have been common in global comparative terms. As David Graeber and David Wengrow note, “qualifications to enter bureaucracies are typically based on some form of knowledge that has virtually nothing to do with actual administration. It’s only important because it is obscure.”[14] This may not be the best way to educate our leaders.

While intelligence and assiduousness may be necessary traits for foreign-policy experts, they are not sufficient. Knowledge of the world is also essential. Yet for some reason it seldom considered important. To be sure, the Foreign Service Officer Test, employed to winnow candidates for diplomatic employment, formerly emphasized general and global knowledge. In 2006, however, most of the pertinent material was eliminated. The New York Times celebrated the change by noting that one no longer needs to be good at “Trivial Pursuits” to pursue a diplomatic career.[15] When knowledge of the world is casually dismissed by America’s “newspaper of record” as mere trivia, it is hardly surprising that global ignorance has become the national norm.

None of this is to suggest that the accumulation of empirical knowledge is of a higher intellectual order than theorization, or that advanced statistical techniques are not necessary in many fields of inquiry. But when it comes to multifaceted issues of human history and social organization, productive theory must rest a massive and constantly changing empirical foundation. These domains are too involved to be pared down to any simple, reductive models, such the one that is reflected in the standard political map of the world. Doing so generates a conceptual straightjacket, often leading to unrealistic expectations and wildly off-target predictions.

[1] “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene,” by Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff. Washington Post, April 7, 2014.

[2] Cited in Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.

  1. Scribner.

[3] “The Case of Bush II,” by Ira Kay. Counterpunch. November 2, 2004.

[4] Rucker, Philip, and Carol Leonnig. A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America. 2020. Penguin Press.


[5] “Don’t Know Much About Geography,” By Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, August 15, 2013.

[6] Rucker and Leonnig, 2020.

[7] Jennings 2012, p. 37.

[8] As Jack Snyder aptly summarizes, “The study of international relations is supposed to tell us how the world works. It’s a tall order, and even the best theories fall short. But they can puncture illusions. … Even in a radically changing world, the classic theories have a lot to say. “One World, Rival Theories” by Jack Snyder. Foreign Policy, October 26, 2009.

[9] This is from the program’s website:

[10] This is from the description of the program in the Stanford University Bulletin:

[11] Its core sequence, “Research Methods and Policy Applications I and II” considers the “statistical formulation and practical applications of linear regression analysis, the assumptions of OLS models, and how to check and address violations of these assumptions,” while also looking at “models for dichotomous and categorical dependent variables including logit and problt regression.” From the Stanford Bulletin “Explore Courses” website:

[12] I often heard this argument while serving as interim director of Stanford’s program in International Policy Studies in the early 2000s

[13] Caplan, Bryan. The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. 2019. Princeton University Press. Caplan’s radical arguments entail a significant amount of hyperbole, but nonetheless must be taken seriously.

[14] Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. 2021. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Page 474..

[15] “Rarely Win at Trivial Pursuit? An Embassy Door Opens,” by Tamar Lewis. New York Times, December 17, 2006.