I Asked People To Label 9 Countries Where American Troops Are Currently Serving. Here's Why.

Why does a familiarity with geography correlate strongly with an interest in diplomacy?

Thomas Zeitzoff set off to answer an important question: how do politicians sell war to the public? 

In 2014, when he and a team of researchers got to work, American politicians and politicos were debating whether U.S. armed forces should intervene in Ukraine after Russia had invaded the Crimean peninsula. So Zeitzoff and two other political scientists conducted a study: they asked Americans how they thought the government should handle Russia's aggressive military action, and then they asked those same Americans to identify Ukraine on a map.

What they found was striking. Americans who were unable to identify Ukraine on a map were more likely to choose military intervention over diplomacy. 

"I think the knee jerk reaction is to say ignorant people support the use of force," Zeitzoff told A Plus. "I think the other story you could tell, that actually makes a bit more sense, is people who are engaged in international affairs, foreign policy, they tend to also believe in diplomacy, so those two things tend to be positively correlated." 

That idea was, in many ways, backed up by a recent study involving North Korea. That study, conducted by Morning Consult and Kyle Dropp — who worked with Zeitzoff in 2014 — was published in The New York Times. It found that Americans who could identify North Korea on a map were more like to favor diplomacy and nonmilitary options than those who couldn't. More specifically, the net favorability of sending ground troops to North Korea came out to -34 for those who could identify the country on a map, and -19 for those who couldn't.

A North Korean soldier standards guard at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.  Lee von Gynz-Guethle / Shutterstock.com.
A North Korean soldier standards guard at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.  Lee von Gynz-Guethle / Shutterstock.com.

Inspired by Zeitzoff's work, I approached people from my office building, including A Plus employees and non-A Plus employees who work down the hall from us, to participate with my own map experiment.

Using a printed version of a world map, I laid out sticky notes with the names of the nine countries where there 5,000 or more troops deployed, according to the Department of Defense. Then I approached people and asked them if they could properly pin the names of the countries onto the blank map.

Isaac Saul / A Plus.
Isaac Saul / A Plus.

The countries — Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, and Japan — are not American adversaries. In fact, they are our partners in various operations and conflicts. But it was interesting to see how a not-so-random group of New Yorkers fared: one 29-year-old woman, who wasn't American but Lithuanian, scored the highest: she properly identified seven of the nine countries. Of the six people I tested, nobody else got more than five right, and two properly identified less than three.

That a non-American fared the best wouldn't surprise Zeitzoff, who said he suspects part of American ignorance is that we are separated by an enormous ocean from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where most of our troops are deployed.

"Especially during World War II and even during the Cold War, a lot of the really hot spots in eastern Europe or southeast Asia didn't directly come to bear on U.S. borders, so to speak," Zeitzoff said. "[Americans] don't have to be aware of international geography like other countries such as Europe... because it's part of their history."

Zietzoff also said that he wished his study looked more at how people's attitudes changed once they were told they were wrong (or right) in identifying a country. At his suggestion, we asked a few participants in our experiment — after they finished identifying the countries on our map — if their attitudes changed now that they knew they had incorrectly identified the country they were discussing. 

Alex's map, where he incorrectly identifies Iran, highlighted in blue, as Afghanistan, highlighted in green.
Alex's map, where he incorrectly identifies Iran, highlighted in blue, as Afghanistan, highlighted in green. Isaac Saul / A Plus

Alex, a 30-year-old from Long Island, said he'd support more troops in Afghanistan to finally end the war and would support intervention in North Korea if South Korea asked for help. In his response, he referenced quite a number of recent news stories and seemed more dialed into foreign politics than any of the other five respondents I spoke with.

But he also struggled with the map, only identifying five of nine countries correctly and missing both South Korea and Afghanistan. After showing him that he incorrectly identified two countries he had just espoused pro-intervention views on, we asked him if that would change his previous answer. 

Alex laughed, and said that his own mistakes "shouldn't change the fact that the actual people that know what they're doing have a better grip on the situation than I do. I consider myself someone that is very observant and very well-read as far as foreign politics... I don't think my inability to locate things on a map necessarily correlates to a shift in my answers."

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Sarah Baker speaks with children in Qalat City, Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Sarah Baker speaks with children in Qalat City, Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras.

When both of these studies became available to the public, Zeitzoff saw how they were "being sold" to people. An argument was being made, he thought, that if someone doesn't know where a country is on a map, they'll want to invade it. 

"I think you can try to spin it that way, but I think there's another story," he said. "If you do favor multilateralism and all these other things then you are going to be more interested in other countries, you're going to care a lot more about geography." 

He also noted that these studies are being done on the American public, whose odds of traveling to a place like North Korea or Afghanistan are incredibly low. He hypothesized that if you were to do the same study with elite foreign diplomats, who may still have trouble with the map but would also have a wealth of foreign policy knowledge, there'd be almost no correlation. In other words: it's not the geography skills that make people more diplomatic and less prone to war, it's their intimate knowledge or penchant to care about an outcome with another country.

Zeitzoff's work sheds light on how the public might become more prone to resolving current and future conflicts with diplomacy. The key, apparently, is as simple as encouraging an interest in what is happening an ocean away.

Cover image via Shutterstock / U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dustin D. March/Released.

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