- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
Everyone seems to be having some fun at the expense of Romney campaign advisor Pierre Prosper, who referred to “Czechoslovakia” when discussing missile defense in a conference call with reporters. Lord knows we’ve done our share of foreign-policy gaffe-spotting around here and it’s fair to expect candidates and their surrogates to understand the global issues they discuss, but this is kind of a cheap shot. I think it’s important to emphasize the difference between slips of the tongue and actual displays of ignorance about the world.
Is it really likely that Prosper, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor, State Department staffer, and ambassador-at-large doesn’t know Czechoslovakia broke up in 1992? Or is it more reasonable to assume that he simply slipped and said the name that had been in use for the first 40 years of his life? (John McCain also got in trouble with “Czechoslovakia” in 2008.) Similarly, is it more likely that President Obama doesn’t know that “Maldives” and “Malvinas” are different places or that he just slipped and mentioned the wrong island chain that starts with Mal-? These errors would get a contestant kicked off “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” but they don’t actually tell us much about a candidates’ knowledge of the world.
The problem with Herman Cain’s Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan moment was not that he can’t immediately recall the name of every head of state, it’s that he mocked the idea that such knowledge would ever be necessary. Sarah Palin would have deserved a lot more slack for the infamous Katie Couric interview if she had merely mixed up whether Putin was president or prime minister or some such slip. The problem was that she was clearly feigning having any sort of knowledge about the vitally important country right next door.
It’s good that we want to test candidates’ knowledge of world affairs, but a geography bee isn’t the best way to do it. In this election cycle, there will be more than enough actual ignorance to go around.