From hyperpower to declining power
September 8th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

From hyperpower to declining power

Editor's Note: Richard Wike is the  Associate Director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

By Richard Wike, Pew Global

In the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks, America’s global image has followed a remarkable, if now familiar, trajectory. Initially, there was a global outpouring of sympathy for the United States, but it was short-lived. As the Bush Administration pivoted from Afghanistan to Iraq, and as American anti-terrorism efforts expanded, many around the world turned against the U.S. Widespread anti-Americanism remained a key feature of international public opinion throughout the Bush years, before fading significantly following the election of Barack Obama.

However, at the same time as ratings for the U.S. were waning and waxing, other changes in perceptions of America and its role in the world were also evident. In particular, views about American power have changed over the course of the decade, as economic issues have trumped security concerns. Early in the post-Sept. 11 era, the projection of American military strength led to pervasive fears of an unleashed and unchecked hyperpower. More recently, however, the global financial crisis has turned the spotlight to America’s declining economic prowess. Once the fearsome colossus, many now see the financially-strapped U.S. as a great power in decline.

The Bush Era and fears of U.S. power

Nearly a decade ago, as the U.S. began utilizing its considerable military and intelligence resources in the wake of Sept. 11, global publics began to register their concerns about the reach of American power. The first Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in 2002, found that less than a year after the attacks, goodwill toward the U.S. was already beginning to ebb in many nations, including some of America’s closest allies. For instance, the percentage of Germans with a favorable view of the U.S. fell from 78% in 2000 to 60% in 2002, and in Britain it dropped from 83% to 75%.

With the onset of the Iraq war in 2003, anti-Americanism surged across much of the globe. Ratings plummeted further in Western Europe, and negative attitudes toward the U.S. became common in parts of the Muslim world where previously America had been relatively well-regarded, such as Turkey and Indonesia.

Opinions about the U.S. remained largely negative throughout the Bush years, as publics around the world expressed serious concerns about American policies and the use of American power. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were consistently unpopular, and more broadly, U.S. anti-terrorism efforts were viewed with skepticism and fear.

Immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, the “war on terror” received strong support in Western Europe, but as U.S. anti-terrorism efforts increasingly became associated with Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other unpopular aspects of American foreign policy, support plummeted. By 2007, only about four-in-ten in France, Germany and Britain favored U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism, and just 21% held this view in Spain.

In most predominantly Muslim nations, the war on terror was viewed negatively from the outset. For instance, a 2004 Global Attitudes poll found majorities in Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, and Jordan saying they opposed U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and that the U.S. was overreacting to the threat of international terrorism. Moreover, most of those surveyed in these four nations did not think the war on terrorism was a sincere effort. Combating violent extremism may have been the stated goal of U.S. policy, but many respondents felt this was a smokescreen to hide the real objectives, such as gaining control of Middle Eastern oil, targeting unfriendly Muslim governments, protecting Israel and dominating the world.

And many in predominantly Muslim nations worried that American power could be used against their country. Since the Global Attitudes Project first asked this question in 2003, majorities in most Muslim nations surveyed have consistently said they are worried that the U.S. could pose a military threat to their country someday.

2008: A pivotal year

For America’s global image, 2008 was a pivotal year for two reasons. First, the election of Barack Obama led to dramatically higher ratings for the U.S. in many nations. This was especially true in Western Europe, where the new president received astronomical ratings – in 2009 for example, 93% of Germans expressed confidence in Obama’s leadership, as did 91% in France.

But the improvement was not limited to Western Europe. Obama was seen much more positively than his predecessor in the Americas, Africa, and Asia as well, and ratings for the U.S. rose significantly in nations such as Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Nigeria and Japan.

The 2010 and 2011 Pew surveys showed that the Obama bounce had staying power, as views toward the U.S. and Obama remained mostly positive across much of the world. Sill, reservations about American foreign policy did not disappear. For instance, Obama received fairly low marks for the way he has handled specific issues such as Iran, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moreover, while America’s image has rebounded in much of the world, there has been no Obama bounce in several predominantly Muslim nations that are central to U.S. strategic interests. Fewer than one-in-five Turks, Pakistanis, Jordanians or Palestinians offered a favorable opinion of the U.S. in the 2011 Global Attitudes poll. In these nations, many of the contentious issues from the Bush era – Afghanistan, anti-terrorism efforts, U.S. policy toward Israel – continue to drive anti-American sentiments.

The second watershed event of 2008 was the onset of the global financial crisis. The economic downturn did not necessarily lead people to have a more or less positive opinion of the U.S., but it did lead many to reassess their view of American power – especially American power relative to China’s. As the U.S. economy has struggled over the last few years, China has continued its historic growth, and increasingly Beijing has taken a more assertive approach to international affairs. These shifting dynamics are clearly reflected in global public opinion, and there is a widespread perception that China will supplant the U.S. as the dominant global superpower.

Across the 18 countries surveyed by Pew in both 2009 and 2011, the median percentage saying China will replace or already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower increased from 40% in 2009 to 47% two years later. Meanwhile, the median percentage saying China will never replace the U.S. fell from 44% to 36%.

Looking specifically at economic power, many believe China has already assumed the top spot. In the 2011 poll, pluralities in Britain, France, Germany and Spain named China – not the U.S. – as the world’s leading economic power. Remarkably, a 43% plurality of Americans also named China; just 38% said the U.S.

Views about the impact of China’s growing economy are mixed. In Western Europe, the British and Spanish tend to see it positively, while the French and Germans see it in a negative light. Among China’s neighbors, Pakistanis and Japanese think China’s economic growth is good for their countries, while Indians tend to say it is not good for India.

Few, however, see China’s growing military strength as a positive development, and there is little enthusiasm for China becoming as militarily powerful as the U.S. There are a few exceptions – most Pakistanis, Jordanians and Palestinians would like China to rival the U.S. – but majorities in most of the nations surveyed in 2011 said it would be bad if China were to reach military parity with the U.S.

This view is especially common among many of America’s longtime allies, including overwhelming majorities in Germany, France, Spain, Britain and Japan. Even in Turkey – a longtime NATO ally, but also a nation where anti-Americanism has been rampant in recent years – only 20% want to see the Chinese military on a par with the U.S.

Thus in many nations where fears of American power have been so pervasive in the decade since Sept. 11, there are now concerns about the relative decline of American power. Initially, the exercise of U.S. military strength in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the perception that the U.S. disregards the interests of other countries, led to a backlash against American power. But today, the rise of China and the uncertainty surrounding global economic leadership are creating new anxieties about a world where, many believe, American power is weakening.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Richard Wike.

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Topics: Global • Perspectives • Politics • Poll • President Obama • United States

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Vadim

    China is not rising – it's America that is falling. One way to stop that fall is to stop worrying about what other people think about America.

    September 8, 2011 at 1:07 am | Reply
    • Tomtom

      wrong vadim, China is rising or better yet, it is regaining its rightful place as world superpower. Its not just that the US is declining. China's economy is a powerhouse and its military is growing very strong now too. Get used to it Vadim, otherwise hell will break loose for you for every single day of the rest of your miserable life. That is what happens when you deny reality you buffoon.

      September 8, 2011 at 4:54 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Economically China has risen and the U.S. fallen, while China is rich in the aggregate, but still poor in income per capita compared to the U.S. When it comes to political power – hard and soft, China has yet to catch up.
      Indeed 2009 was a pivotal year for the U.S. in the eyes of the international community, as Obama conducted a different path of foreign policy than his predecessors had done. It doesn’t seem to help ameliorate his image at home, where many of his hawkish fellow citizens are disappointed as they see his subdued tone as a sign of America's weakness. In addition came the double dip recession, with low growth and high unemployment.

      September 8, 2011 at 6:50 am | Reply
    • Optimus Chill

      Well said. Difficult reality but true none the less.

      September 8, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Quite true Vadim. The way to get America to stop falling is to do away with our agressive foreign policies, get out of all these useless and unnecessary wars, quit lavishing tax dollars needlessly on the military and make the rich pay their share of the taxes. With the current field of Presidential candidates we now have, none of the above is likely to be done, unfortunately!!!

      September 8, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • Croi Orga

      As much as China has progressed in the past decade alone, I believe that China's growth is being manipulated by the Communist Party... Two of my classmates can vouch for me on that. One friend has been to China on vacation and told me that the coastal cities are spectacular, but if you go into the interior of China (where 80% of the population is) you will find nothing but several feudal cultures that have little to no experience with modern conveiniences. My other friend's family is actually FROM China and when he came back to school this year, I asked him how China was faring. He told me that although they have made many strides to prove themselves economically, they are actually faring much worse than we are and that the government has tried to cover up those facts.

      Now this may not be accurate and I'm sorry if you don't agree with these testamonies, but I think that there is a lot of manipulation going on: China being communist and all. We need to remember that fact... The Soviet Union did the same thing for decades...

      September 8, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  2. african

    At least china isn't fighting useless wars.As far as they don't do that I will support them!
    china buys and sells and you are free to deal with them .they aren't changing governments and killing hundreds of thousands (Iraq ,Afghanistan,Korea,Vietnam) because of their "superior values".

    September 8, 2011 at 5:16 am | Reply
    • Jay

      Where do you think the rebels/so called freedom fighters are getting their arms from? From china via Pak/Algeria. China is no saint. They want Americans to lose.

      September 8, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
    • CTYank

      You might want to run that by the people of Tibet and the Uighurs, not to mention the Indians.
      China needs supervision of its expansionism.

      September 8, 2011 at 10:40 am | Reply
  3. Total Nonsense

    If America had acted with overwhelimg force and extrem weapons to exterminated the Planet's Islam infestation problem, it whould still be at the top. but your dumb enough to open your doors to your whorst enemy (Muslims) and let them built ENEMY BASES(mosquee) in america's hearthland, then the rest of the planet don't take you seriously any more.

    September 8, 2011 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • CTYank

      Naming makes sense: "Total Nonsense."
      You're paranoid enough to need clinical help. Fox Noise/Rush disciple?

      September 8, 2011 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • blessedgeek

      Your spelling and grammar indicates that the country has made errors admitting you in.

      October 1, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  4. gino

    This decline started with The Village Idiot from Crawford, his warmongering buddies and the off-shoring of millions of American jobs to help the greedy, And there may be more of these mindless maneuverings coming with the GOP Presidential clown show.

    Live with it.

    September 8, 2011 at 10:58 am | Reply
  5. Carla

    Unlike China, America's attention is too scattered and the people are not united but too vicious against each other when other nations are eyeing to tear down USA – too comedy-saturated. It's time to stop laughing. Give up blasphemies and gain some practical wisdom from Israel. Godless nations have no honor.

    September 8, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • Maurice

      Wisdom from Israel? What the hell are you talking about? What like how to use special interests$$$$ to sucker the American government into sending millions of $$$$$ to it everyday. American taxpayers are suckers for Israel, and most don't even know it.

      September 8, 2011 at 11:19 am | Reply
    • samuel

      well the israeli government are suckers for gaza,so i guess it makes them even:)

      September 8, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  6. Carla

    The Chinese NEVER bash their ancestors or their own tradition like Americans do, though no one was better than the American fathers in this world. Americans bash their own too much because they know neither US history or the world history. The West is going down because it stupidly hates its own conscience, namely Christianity. Man without a conscience is a loser.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • Maurice

      There was a time when Christianity ruled the Western World at the time. It was called the DARK AGES.

      September 8, 2011 at 11:21 am | Reply
  7. Onesmallvoice

    Judging by our only too agressive foreign policies abroad, it doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to figure why so many people around the world came to fear and hate us. Our Foreign policies are completely idiotic and agressive and even worse, they're ruining our economy as well. But in Washington D.C., stupidity rules!!!

    September 8, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
    • samuel

      DC's stupid rules of scattering attention around the globe is exactly what makes the USA a superpower: it has a VERY long military arm,great influence in most countries and a lot of people who want to tear it down.

      September 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
      • Onesmallvoice

        I wonder why? If I were a foreigner, I'd resent the arrogant and self-righteous Americans moving in on my country too. But I guess that you must like bullies because I sure as h*ll do not!!! And we are the world's bullies!

        September 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  8. Truth-Bomb Thrower

    I am so sick and tired of hearing and reading about these polls which shows astronomically high support for Obama in other nations. So why is it that so many in foreign countries love Obama so much? It's because most countries (even those who publicly claim to be our allies) secretly despise U.S. power. They want us to have an incompetent, apologetic president like Obama because they know his policies will make America weaker. The fact that a politician scores highly in popularity polls in foreign countries is a good indication that that person should NOT be president. Why so many Americans are not intelligent enough to see this simple logic totally amazes me. WAKE UP, AMERICA!

    September 27, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Reply
    • blessedgeek

      There are two kinds of leaders in your world: Reuben and Joseph.

      You prefer the Reuben type – macho, projecting leadership, lead an attack senselessly (e.g. like GWB) .

      You would hate Joseph.

      You would cheer Reuben – a vile man with "good" heart. Decisive, yeah. Kill first, talk later. Or cook up a conspiracy to protect the clan from the threats of Joseph. Yah, get that dang annoying coat off Joseph.

      October 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Reply

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