A world policeman needs geographic literacy

If the US wants to be the world policeman, it should at least know where it intends to walk the beat.

Geographic illiteracy is a problem in the US. Geography matters today more than ever because students are growing up in a globalized world, yet American students are comparatively less literate about geography than students in other countries.

One year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, a National Geographic article revealed that only 17% of young Americans could find Afghanistan on a map although the US military was at war there. In 2003, a US Strategic Task Force of Education Abroad report concluded that the United States has a “serious deficit in global competence” and geographic ignorance is so deep and widespread that it may constitute a national-security threat.

Six years later, research findings from a 2009 survey of the US and Europe revealed that only 58% of Americans could describe the Taliban, compared with 75% of Britons, and overall Americans scored more poorly than citizens of Denmark, Finland and Britain. In 2016, the Council on Foreign Relations conducted a survey with geography questions that have relevance for US policy, such as where American troops are stationed in the world and what countries the US is bound to protect, and only 29% of participants scored 66% or higher on the test.

Unfortunately, geographic illiteracy is not only endemic to US schools, but also appears to be widespread among the US policymaking establishment. This ignorance of the rest of the world, coupled with Washington’s drive for the US to be a world policeman, is a dangerous recipe for costly entanglements and threats to international stability.

For example, recently the US assassinated one of Iran’s top military leaders, General Qasem Soleimani, and brought the two countries to the brink of war, yet 77% of Americans surveyed had problems identifying Iran on the world map.

Back in June 2017, the US Senate failed to pass a bipartisan bill to halt a new arms package for Saudi Arabia to wage its near-genocidal war in Yemen, following deliberations the previous September wherein some senators seemed ignorant about what they were rubber-stamping or knew which country was the target of a US military-supported bombing campaign.

When asked why they voted against blocking the deal, some senators cited concern that the Strait of Hormuz would be threatened if Houthi rebels took over Yemen, apparently confusing Oman with Yemen. The Strait of Hormuz actually separates Iran and the Omani Peninsula, whereas Yemen is hundreds of kilometers to the southwest and borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

US officials and their staff also exhibit similar ignorance when receiving foreign dignitaries. This past week President Donald Trump met with Nechirvan Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and appears to have confused him as the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

This is not an isolated event, and misidentifying foreign leaders with the wrong countries has occurred in the past. In 1995, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, mistakenly introduced Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto as the leader of India – her country’s neighbor and rival. After the introduction, Helms mentioned he had just completed “a delightful hour-and-a-half conversation” talking mostly about India, and surprisingly none of his staff intervened to correct the error.

Aside from the government, geographic illiteracy also appears in another part of the US establishment in mainstream media.

In coverage of the recent coronavirus outbreak, on January 20, NBC News mislocated China’s capital Beijing and other cities when showing a map of China. Shanghai is depicted in the north of China with Wuhan next to Beijing further south, when in actuality Beijing is up north and Shanghai further south, with Wuhan west of Shanghai.

Likewise with CNN, in a 2019 coverage of Hurricane Dorian it mislabeled Alabama as Mississippi on a US map.

For a country that professes exceptionalism and wants to continue being a global policeman, ignorance of geographic regions is a national liability in a globalized world. If the US wants to continue being a world leader, it needs to exercise responsible statecraft in geopolitics and, as Derek Alderman of the American Association of Geographers has argued, instill geographic literacy in the US.

As the 2003 congressional task force report on education abroad recommended, Congress can set aside budgets to fund fellowships and allow students to earn college and university credits overseas, as well as install geography courses in schools and also instill the notion of “human geography” in the study of culture, economy and politics. Such literacy is necessary for being sensitive to and standing in solidarity with the differences and legitimacies of other countries, Alderman argues, and to examine critically and challenge inequalities that include dehumanizing portrayals of countries and regions.

Finally, given that crises ranging from climate change to migration to pandemics are increasingly globalized – as witnessed by the latest outbreak of the coronavirus – geographic literacy indeed seems to matter now more than ever.

First published in Asia Times on 1/26/20.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a California-based academic and consultant specializing in China-Middle East relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security and economic policy planning, including at DoD, State, and NSC where she also managed CFIUS cases.
Comments