Let’s Talk About Geopolitical Illiteracy

By Sophia Meyer ’24

Sophia Meyer ’24

If there is anything that shows the American public’s lack of education on foreign policy and geopolitical issues, the Pew Research Center’s 2022 survey on citizen knowledge tells it all. The report presents a startlingly grim picture and should alarm anyone who reads it. Only about half of Americans correctly answered questions about our involvement in the global system. Just 48% knew that Ukraine was not part of NATO. Only 51% could answer that Antony Blinken is the current U.S. Secretary of State. A solid 25% of respondents answered Not Sure on eleven different questions. This geopolitical illiteracy was evident among men, women, all education levels, all ages, and all political affiliations. What does that say about our understanding of our place in the world? More importantly, what does it say about our ability to form educated opinions on domestic and international politics?  

The importance of understanding the America’s position in the world cannot be overstated. Many of the decisions we make as a nation hinge on information from abroad: the voting behavior of our citizens, creating policy, and enacting and enforcing laws and policies. Conceptualizing foreign affairs at all levels shapes outcomes in Washington. So a lack of knowledge hinders our ability to make intelligent decisions. As we enter a consequential election season, the Pew Research survey shows that voters from all parties are heading to the polls without the knowledge needed to make critical, informed decisions about how their vote impacts U.S. foreign policy. While it may seem that one vote is irrelevant, it’s significant that half of all Americans are forming undereducated opinions on our actions abroad, other governments, NGOs, and institutions that shape both the global and domestic political landscape. This illiteracy impacts domestic and foreign policy decisions.  


Now that the problem of geopolitical illiteracy is painfully obvious, it’s time for us as Americans to make changes that we have been skirting around for decades, starting with states mandating basic geography in schools. It’s a first step for the youngest generation, given that a majority of students are not proficient in social sciences. For adults, we must provide the tools to be able to understand, learn, and apply geopolitical knowledge in our daily lives. Making facts accessible to the public in an easy-to-digest and visible way is a start. We can do this by streamlining and modernizing official government sources like the Office of the Historian, and disincentiving paywalls on news websites in favor of an ads-based approach. Open access to information about foreign policy based on facts about governments, institutions, events, and issues can drive curiosity about U.S. foreign policy. It’s all about empowering individuals to form educated opinions on U.S. politics by equipping them with factual, unbiased, and understandable information. 


If you are interested in looking at how your own geopolitical literacy stands up to the average American, check out this link.