A lamentable ignorance about ignorance

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
3 June, 2022

Pew’s latest survey is not cause for despair – if you know a little bit about the state of public knowledge.

Pew finds that only 56% of Americans know that Ukraine is not part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO.

Just what is going on with the other 44%?

NATO is a defence alliance. If Ukraine had been a NATO member, Russia’s invasion would have triggered NATO’s collective security provisions.

There wouldn't have been wondering about, "Oh, can we really set a no-fly zone? Wouldn't that mean confrontation between allied and Russian forces that would trigger a broader war?" That cost would have been sunk. American, Canadian, and other European boots and kit would be on the ground in Ukraine, with air support. We'd probably have already seen nukes flying around rather than far-too-limited arms shipments to Ukraine.

But far more to the point, Russia would not have invaded if Ukraine were part of NATO. Avoiding being invaded by Russia is a big part of the point of being in NATO. That’s why Finland and Sweden are now joining.

Your baseline model of the world has to be completely out of whack to even consider that Ukraine might be part of NATO.

It seems unfathomable.

Well, unfathomable except to those of us who are not ignorant of the ignorance regularly revealed in public opinion surveys of this sort.

Two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis that had NATO on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union over the Soviets’ attempted placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba, only 38% of Americans surveyed knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO.

It takes a screwed-up model of the world to be able to believe that Ukraine could currently be part of NATO. But in 1964, 62% of Americans did not know that the Soviet Union was pretty unlikely to be part of the military alliance set to defend against Soviet aggression. And that’s even worse.

I suppose what I’m saying is that, if anything, this latest survey is weak evidence of improvement over the past 60 years.

It should be celebrated by those of us with appropriately low expectations of overall civic knowledge.

Despairing that 44% in the recent Pew survey seem to know nothing about foreign affairs is a bit of a tell about your own knowledge about the state of public knowledge.

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