OTTO von Bismarck once said that “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”. A century-and-a-half later, Americans are still insular. But before you laugh too hard at our cousins across the Pacific, a pop quiz: who is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono?
No idea? Let’s try another. Who is Xi Jinping? Aung San Suu Kyi? Ban Ki-moon? If you got all of those right (the answers are President of Indonesia, President of China, Burmese democracy leader and Secretary-General of the UN), congratulations.
But if not, don’t feel bad. You’re in plentiful company. On Wednesday the Lowy Institute for International Policy published its annual poll surveying Australians’ opinions about the wider world. And it turns out that, when asked if they admired or did not admire certain world leaders, 35 per cent of us didn’t know or had no view about Indonesia’s President.
For the UN Secretary-General the figure was 46 per cent and it was 50 per cent for Burmese democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi. As for China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, 64 per cent of Australians either hadn’t heard of Xi Jinping or had no view about him.
But here’s a consolation: if you don’t know who these people are, you’re probably just practising rational ignorance.
That means you have subconsciously decided it’s more trouble than it’s worth to learn the names of foreign leaders, which is probably sensible. Yes, as voters we have a duty to know what goes on in the world, but as voters we also know instinctively that no single vote is terribly important in swaying governments.
And since we’re talking about foreign governments, that adds another degree of separation. So, other than helping you win a trivia contest, there may not be much to gain from knowing the names of foreign leaders. It doesn’t mean you don’t care; it just means that you have many things in life you care about but only a few you can directly influence and you are apportioning your attention to suit.
But if a degree of rational ignorance makes sense for busy people, then why aren’t we rationally ignorant of another world leader, Barack Obama? The Lowy Institute found that all but 1 per cent of us had an opinion about the US President. The figure is 3 per cent for Hillary Clinton, and she’s not president of anything (at least, not yet).
That result points to another factor influencing Australians’ knowledge of world leaders and world politics: the media. If this poll is any guide, then the Australian media’s overseas coverage is weighted heavily in favour of the US at the expense of our region. No wonder most of us don’t know who Xi Jinping is when we see him so rarely on the news.
One final message to those who flunked the quiz at the beginning of this article: the smart alecs who passed are no better.
Maybe, as you scanned those unfamiliar names, you felt a pang of guilt: “Why do I not know people, yet I can recite the names of all the minor characters on Game of Thrones?”
But those of us who pay close attention to world politics shouldn’t feel superior. All of us yearn to hear stories and whether those stories involve real political leaders or elaborate fantasy worlds, our reasons for consuming them overlap.
It is no accident that the articles and reports journalists produce every day are called “stories”. And it is no accident that the nightly news (even the ABC) is usually dominated by crime, corruption and politics rather than policy. Nor is it an accident that the nightly news is mostly shots of people talking. It would be more efficient to convey information graphically, yet we only see maps during the weather and we only see a chart in the 30 seconds of finance. That’s because the news isn’t principally about conveying information. It’s about conveying stories.
So don’t let your news-junkie mates get away with being superior. Those of us who feast on reports, blogs and tweets about world politics do it for many of the same reasons you binge-watch season 5 of Breaking Bad.
Sam Roggeveen is a Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and edits web magazine The Interpreter. The 2014 Lowy Institute Poll can be downloaded at lowyinstitute.org