Global Public Opinion: Declining U.S., Rising China

Janos Bako /

According to a recent global survey, opinion of the United States continues to be generally favorable in most regions of the world, but it appears that America may be on its way to lose its status as the dominant global superpower.

The American image now faces several new and worrisome challenges: doubts about its superpower status, a decline in favorability among some of the closest allies, and giving more and more consideration to the People’s Republic of China as superpower.

It seems that the hope and change represented by President Obama has disappeared by now, not only on the domestic but also on the international level. Besides the growing skepticism among American citizens, survey results show that the British, Germans, Turkish, and Indonesians are also becoming less favorable towards the U.S. than two years ago. The initial expectations of the international community and U.S. allies (backed by Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize) may prove to have been exaggerated, as nations around the world begin to have doubts about the American leadership role.

In 15 out of the 22 countries participating in the survey, public opinion is that China either will replace or has already replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower. In Western Europe the percentage of those naming China as the number one economic power in the world has increased by double digits (18 percent on average) since 2009. Though this is a false perception for now, as the U.S. still outmatches China economically by a significant margin, European public opinion comes as no surprise, if we look at Chinese Prime Minister’s Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to Europe.

During the last decade the European Union (EU) became China’s most important trading partner; therefore, China has a strong interest in supporting the stability of the region. The People’s Republic of China has invested substantially in government bonds of EU member states (such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain) and announced huge investment projects in Central Eastern Europe, Germany, and the U.K. Though the transnational presence of Chinese companies is still not as strong as American companies’, it is rising fast.

Besides this rapid growth in economic relationships, there has also been a sharp increase worldwide in the number of Chinese cultural centers, the Confucius Institutes, aimed at expanding and improving China’s image abroad. While the reaction to China’s economic rise is optimistic, global opinion is more consistently negative when it comes to the prospect of China equaling the U.S. in terms of military power.

The most shocking data in the survey reveals that among American citizens, the percentage saying that China will eventually overshadow or has already overshadowed the U.S. increased from 33 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2011. The data clearly reflects that during the last two years, a growing number of American citizens started to view the future with skepticism and have lost faith in America as a superpower.

After the Cold War, building on the results of the Reagan era, there was no doubt about American leadership—its superpower status was indisputable and China was still considered only a rising regional power. Seeing today’s trends, the U.S. needs leadership as we have seen in President Reagan. The U.S. needs a firm foreign policy based on American national interests, not one influenced by China’s sensitivities. While China has launched a worldwide economic, public diplomacy and media and PR campaign, the United States is looking at a greatly reduced international media presence due to cuts in the budget of Voice of America.

The United States should strengthen its public diplomacy, reverse the current trends, and send a firm message of strong American leadership again. Without this, neither U.S. allies nor American citizens may see “the city on the hill” as the Founding Fathers imagined the United States 235 years ago.