As you are reading this, I am flying to China for three weeks. China has now passed the United States as the world’s leading economic power.
That’s true at least for a bare majority of Americans surveyed this spring, 41%, with 40% rating the US as the top economic power. As the Chinese economy has boomed while ours has stagnated, these ratings have continued to shift away from the US. In Western Europe, home of our strongest allies and some of our largest trading partners, the great majority pick China. The Japanese rate us about equal. One of the few places where the majority of people surveyed think the US is still the world’s leading economic power is in China itself.
Such ratings are not the same as actual economic power. But much of politics and economics depends on favorable perceptions, which are inexorably shifting toward China.
This is one example of how the Pew Research Center’s international surveys offer much to think about in today’s interconnected world. For example, the current use of drone aircraft to target our enemies is very unpopular across the world. While Americans support this tactic 62% to 28%, majorities everywhere else disapprove, especially in the Middle East. I don’t think we should put our foreign policy up to a global vote, but we need to pay attention if killing a few Al Qaeda leaders alienates millions of people, Muslims and non-Muslims.
The global survey offers useful evidence about the success of President Obama’s foreign policies. Compared with President George Bush in 2008, many more people across the globe have confidence in Obama “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”: five times as many in Western Europe, three times as many in Japan and Mexico, more in Russia and China.
The conservative criticism that Obama ignores our allies and favors countries who oppose us is contradicted by perceptions across the world. Obama’s reelection is favored by over 70% of western Europeans, but rejected 3 to 1 in Arab countries and in Pakistan.
Although the United States remains popular in most parts of the world, very few people believe that we care about what they think. In most countries, fewer than 10% say that the US takes their interests into account “a great deal”, while in nearly every country surveyed a majority, mostly a very large majority, answer “not too much” or “not at all”. Except China, again. This markedly contrasts with our own perceptions: 77% of Americans said we take the interests of other countries into account “a great deal” or “a fair amount”.
The results of these surveys should influence how we vote in November. While solving our domestic economic problems is the number one issue for voters, foreign policy is also important to our future. For example, had we not started wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, our national budget would look very different. The research project “Costs of War” at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies estimates that the total cost of these wars will reach at least $3.7 trillion. That is a sizable chunk of our current $15 trillion national debt.
Those political leaders who talk openly about attacking Iran, mostly Republicans, would be committing more trillions to another unnecessary war.
Many politicians today, especially conservatives, appear to disdain the opinions of people outside of the US. Their attacks on the United Nations, disparaging comments about our allies in Europe, and generally go-it-alone attitudes toward international problems could hurt American economic prospects. Republican attacks on President Obama often call his policies “European” as a way of disparaging his American patriotism.
Mitt Romney constantly attacks European governments as failed socialists, when in fact rightward leaning parties have been in power in Germany, England, and France. In January, Romney purposely put a wedge among NATO allies by saying, “I don't believe in Europe. I believe in America.” European newspapers have noted that Republicans portray Europe not as a kindred continent, but as the kind of dystopian society the US might become should the wrong person win.
It appears that China is the biggest target for Republican politicians trying to win votes by criticizing foreigners. In the October Republican debate, Romney said, “And on day one, I have indicated, day one, I will issue an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator. We'll bring an action against them in front of the WTO for manipulating their currency, and we will go after them.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher from California compared the Chinese government to Adolf Hitler during Congressional debate last week.
I would not make a good Chinese citizen, because I value political freedoms and human rights. But thoughtless attacks on the nation which holds much of our debt demonstrates the same kind of failed foreign policy which got us into unnecessary wars.
I won’t be sending columns back from China, but when I return I will write about what I see there.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, 19 June 2012