The Reluctant Superpower

07/22/2011 11:14 am 11:14:52 | Updated Sep 21, 2011

American business leaders should care about foreign perceptions of the United States -- especially its military, political, diplomatic and economic strength -- because those perceptions influence the purchasing and negotiation strength of American businesses. Until the 1960s, many Americans believed that they had not sought greatness but had it thrust upon them. The United States, since its inception, never went more than three decades without a major military conflict. In recent decades, it maintained military bases throughout the world and had a dominant corporate and financial presence on every continent but Antarctica. Nevertheless, many Americans believed that their country had been invited into every war, every base, and every economy by people longing for our freedoms, our capitalism, our democracy and our protection. Many of America's military actions resulted from the desire to enlighten the world regarding the benefits of free enterprise capitalism so that all people might benefit. Since the 1960s, the Vietnam War through the anti-terror conflicts against Muslim extremists, Americans have been disabused Americans of this naiveté.


Today, as Americans debate the value of the benefits, costs and responsibilities of superpower status, many countries seem to want a strong American presence in military, diplomatic, and economic affairs. From the 1960s through 1991, the year that the Soviet Union disintegrated into many countries, people around the world perceived the geopolitical order as being characterized by two superpowers that espoused antagonistic political and economic doctrines. In those years, many people in non-U.S. countries believed that America followed its own interests rather than serving the general well-being of the world. This perception increased after the Cold War ended. America no longer needed to protect its allies from a "Red Menace;" however, the U.S. maintained many of its bases, continued to be a dominant force in international diplomacy, and continued to spend vast sums of money on its military. Americans enjoyed no "peace benefit", nor did our allies and dependents. Yet, as China gains in international stature and unrest shakes the Middle East, people across the globe are re-thinking America's dominance.

A seismic change in the world's perception of the U.S. and China is occurring. It turns out, according to the Pew Research Center, many people already consider China to be the current or future dominant superpower. The survey of 18 countries was released on July 13, 2011. Forty-seven percent believe China has already or will eventually replace the U.S. as a superpower as compared to only 36% saying this will never happen. This contrasts with the 2009 survey, when 44% of those surveyed said this will never happen. Thus, in two short years, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in attitudes. According to a Wall Street Journal editorial by Andrew Kohut, "Unlike just a few years ago, when the publics of America's oldest allies rued America's power, they are now alarmed by its diminished economic might. Among the pluralities who now see China as more economically powerful than the U.S., most view this as a bad thing -- and by a 2-to-1 margin in France, Germany and Spain, for example." Yet, Europe is not the world. Islamic countries prefer China to the US if there must be a superpower.


The important challenge is that these perceptions can become reality unless informed opinion leaders like you look at the analysis and work to make our government more effective for business and geopolitical ambitions. There is work to be done. According to the survey, "In most countries, there is a perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally in world affairs. Only in seven countries do majorities say the U.S. considers the interests of countries like theirs when making foreign policy decisions." Meanwhile, the majority of countries perceive China positively. "In 16 of 22 nations, majorities or pluralities have a very or somewhat positive opinion of China." What is fascinating is that only four countries -- Japan, Germany, Turkey and Jordan -- have a majority that perceives China negatively. Still, Kohut writes that "Outside the Muslim countries, however, there is a general consensus that it would be bad if China were to rival the U.S. militarily. Eight in 10 Western Europeans subscribe to this view, and even majorities of Russians (57%) and Turks (54%) would disapprove of this development." For the U.S. to capitalize on a new willingness for a strong U.S. foreign presence, that presence must truly serve all people and our ideals, not our interest.