The road to the future has been set by the Obama administration. According to a recent global survey of more than 38,000 people in 39 countries, more people see China as eventually surpassing or already having surpassed the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower, notwithstanding the fact that many more people hold a favorable view of the U.S. While it is difficult to assess why people embrace a point of view, the declinist psychology during the Obama years has clearly been a factor in shaping global opinion.
This Pew survey indicates that the global impact of China’s economic expansion over the past there decades and the stumbling economic record of the U.S. has reordered perceptions. The data also suggest deepening mutual suspicion. Only 37 percent in the U.S., view China favorably, similar to the 40 percent in China that have a positive view of the U.S.
China does have a positive image in areas of science and technology, soft power influences on the general profile. But these achievements do not offset China’s role as a police state and its violations of human rights. For the U.S. these data represent a dramatic attitudinal shift, one that indicates unquestioning support for the U.S. is on the wane. The U.S. role as the unchallenged global leader since World War II is over; the consequences of this change are perceptible, but not yet entirely discernible.
When nations believe the U.S. cannot be a reliable partner because of an economic downturn, its faith in alliances wavers. The roiling of political forces throughout North Africa and the Middle East is due at least in part, to the diminished role of the United States. Withdrawal of American troops and a president who continually refers to withdrawal of commitments leads inextricably to a political vacuum, a vacuum that has been and will be filled by other parties including our enemies.
For something on the order of seventy years, the U.S. maintained global equilibrium. Although wars were fought without victory the U.S. indicated to those that cared that we were willing to sacrifice blood and fortune for their security. The projection of power was taken for granted by our allies and foes. When China would engage in saber-rattling towards Taiwan, the U.S. would send the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits as a show of our military commitment to an ally. President Obama may not appreciate “hard power,” but at the time of its use Chinese leaders understood it all too well.
In the world of foreign affairs, perception can easily be reality. What you believe to be true becomes true. The implication in the global survey is that the U.S. is in decline and, as a consequence, no longer a reliable military partner. That perception could lead and has led to very dangerous outcomes.
In fact, the U.S. is paralyzed on the North Korean nuclear question; it has been unable to halt the nuclear weapons program in Iran; it does not have the capability of thwarting Chinese adventurism in the Pacific and is increasingly tweaked and chastised by Russia. Clearly the U.S. still possesses military assets and could be a force to contend with, but Obama’s assertion of “leadership from behind” has put the U.S. way behind the international curve.
Most of those who responded to the survey realize the U.S. is a far more agreeable nation than China. Yet they also contend with a reality increasingly evident: the Chinese economic success will translate into political and military power. These respondents may not be inclined to join the bandwagon, but in the end there may not be alternatives.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.