Ukraine has dominated the media in recent months as one of the biggest foreign policy stories of the year–the Soviet Union’s invasion of Crimea seemed like a return to Cold War politics, with Russia asserting its powers via “nineteenth-century” land invasions (as desribed by Secretary of State Kerry1). Naturally the United States, as the world’s current only true superpower (with all other nations being questionable as to whether they are a superpower), is alarmed over Russia’s actions. Americans may not respond to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq by much, but Russia invading any country evokes fears of nuclear Armageddon, supposedly long-gone.
Americans probably have not considered Ukraine nearly as much as they have considered Russia. In a Washington Post blog, three political scientists asked Americans what would be considered standard questions about a foreign policy event–in your perspective, what is the best course of action for the United States, and general demographic questions. However, these political scientists also asked respondents to identify where Ukraine was. The link for the blog is located in the following footnote2, and it is interesting to note that while most Americans at least managed to locate Ukraine in Europe, some Americans pinpointed Ukraine as being in North America, South America, Australia, Africa, or even within Asian countries such as China. Quite a few people thought Ukraine was in either India or Mongolia. In other polls, two-thirds of Americans claimed to be following the situation closely, but apparently they could not be bothered to Google where Ukraine was.
Ignorance with regards to Ukraine’s location is universal, ranging from Democrats to Republicans, from college graduates to non-college graduates, from men to women, and military households to non-military households. Interestingly, those who were more “wrong” in their guess on Ukraine’s location were more likely to support military action–they saw Russia as a greater national security threat than those who were more accurate in their guess of Ukraine’s location.
Like members of any country, Americans want to fight the just war. The Civil War and World War II are celebrated as wars of liberation, whereas the Vietnam War and Korea War are wars of regret. The less informed look at Ukraine and see a country that yearns for liberty, as evidenced by anti-government protests. They also look at Russia and see a menacing evil, to which the United States must stand up. The more informed looked at Ukraine and fear a Vietnam or Korea. They look at Russia and do not see a Communist menace, but instead a country that is acting, like the United States, on its own national interests. Involvement in Ukraine is less justifiable when it is not a war of liberation.
As members of Congress are responsible for deciding what to do in Crimea, they must keep in mind their constituents, who are woefully uninformed about foreign policy. Thus, they have to keep both their reelection chances and the problem of fundamental ignorance of Americans with regards to foreign policy.
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