Americans Lack Knowledge of International Issues Yet Consider Them Important, Finds New Survey 

Last updated December 5, 2019

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A new survey commissioned from Gallup by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Geographic Society (NGS) finds that adult Americans exhibit gaps in their knowledge about geography and world affairs. Respondents answered just over half of the knowledge questions correctly, and only 6 percent got at least 80 percent of the questions right.
 
Although adult Americans show limited knowledge about geography and world affairs, seven in ten respondents consider international issues to be relevant to their daily lives and express a desire to promote education in these areas. 
 
“Given our increasingly interconnected world, geographic literacy and geopolitical understanding are more important than ever to U.S. education,” said CFR President Richard N. Haass. “The good news is that Americans want to know more about the world. That’s why organizations like CFR and NGS are stepping up their efforts to reach broader groups of Americans, such as through CFR’s new suite of products for students and educators, including World101 and Model Diplomacy.” 
 
More than two thousand U.S. adults participated in the survey, which tested knowledge about geography, foreign policy, and world demographics. Respondents were asked about their interest in those topics and how much they learned about each in school. The survey also inquired about policy preferences toward several international issues, including the role of the United States in the world, climate change, trade, and government spending.

How much do Americans know about foreign policy and geography? 

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  • “Less than half of the respondents were able to identify Afghanistan as the country that provided al-Qaeda with safe haven prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, despite America having waged a war in Afghanistan due to this fact for nearly two decades.”
     
  • “Just over half could identify Iraq on a map, even though one hundred thousand American soldiers were in the country just a decade ago.”
     
  • “While Americans get most of their information on international issues from the internet and television, those who say they use books, magazines, or radio to keep on top of these issues and those who get their information from a wide range of sources scored better than their peers.” 
     
  • “Less than 30 percent say they learned about foreign policy while in school, and on average they answered just over half of the knowledge questions correctly.”

How important do Americans think understanding the world is? 

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  • “More than 80 percent agree it is important to teach foreign policy in high school and nearly 90 percent agree it is important to do so in college.” 
     
  • “In addition, 70 percent of those polled agree that international issues affect their daily lives.” 
     
  • “Majorities of Americans think it is extremely or very important to teach geography in elementary and middle school, high school, and college.”

What do Americans consider to be the most important international issues? 

  • “Over three-fourths of Americans believe international trade benefits the United States.” 
     
  • “The majority of Americans view climate change as a serious threat to U.S. prosperity and national security.” 
     
  • Respondents tend to believe “the U.S. spends too little on domestic programs like health care and education, and too much on the military and foreign aid.” 
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“Americans divide evenly as to whether the United States should reduce or not reduce its role in the world,” notes the report. “However, U.S. adults overwhelmingly believe it is better for the United States to act multilaterally (88 percent) rather than unilaterally (6 percent) in the world.” 

Take the quiz and see how you do. 

Read the report, “U.S. Adults’ Knowledge About the World.” 

Methodology: Results are based on web surveys with a random sample of 2,486 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older. The sample was drawn to be demographically representative of the U.S. population on age, race, and other demographics. The report details views broken down by political party, gender, age, education, and region.

To learn more, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at 212.434.9888 or communications@cfr.org.

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