By Devon Haynie | Staff Writer,
Jan. 20, 2016, at 8:00 a.m.
WASHINGTON — On an unseasonably warm December day, Tom Schwalbach and a few friends and family from Milwaukee gathered on Washington's National Mall. They had traveled there for a shift inside David's Tent, a gathering place for Christians determined to keep the tent buzzing with worship 24/7 until the 2016 presidential election.
Schwalbach, a home improvement contractor, waited for his turn to pray in the shadow of the Washington Monument, a towering symbol of American might that no longer seemed reassuring.
"The country needs a lot more prayers," Schwalbach said. "The people in power – I don't know if they know it, but the way they govern is causing us to have a lot less power and influence. We are not admired. This county is losing its moral compass."
Schwalbach and millions of other Americans have grown increasingly worried about how the United States is perceived in the world. In 2013, for the first time in surveys dating back nearly 40 years, a majority, or 53 percent, of Americans believed the U.S. played a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade earlier, according to research conducted by Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations. Even more Americans – 70 percent – said the U.S. was less respected than in the past.
That could very well be the case, but even if so, the decline in U.S. power and influence is not likely as precipitous as many in the country imagine. While America's global influence is scientifically impossible to measure and track over time, several perception-based studies suggest that U.S. global leverage is still strong.
The United States in Photos
"Americans are widely of the view that our country has lost respect and influence in the world," says Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center. "We think that the combination of events, leadership and the growth of other powers in the world have weakened our positions. But when you ask around the world, you find that loss of respect is probably not anywhere near as steep – and certainly not as uniform – as I think Americans suspect it is. In general America is viewed positively in more parts of the world than negatively."
The United States is still the world's superpower, at least for now, experts say. And that's reflected in the 2016 Best Countries rankings. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in power and No. 1 in terms of leadership – two powerful indicators of its global standing. But there is evidence that other nations are nipping at its heels. The country ranks No. 2 in terms of political influence, following Russia, and No. 2 in terms of economic influence, after China.
In fact, according to Pew surveys, most people in the world believe China is on track to replace the U.S. as the world's superpower. China ranks No. 17 overall in the Best Countries rankings.
"There was much talk during the 20th century that that was the American century," says Philip Seib, a professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. "I would call the 21st century everybody's century. There has been a considerable leveling of the playing field. The U.S. is still by far the most powerful nation – certainly militarily there is no comparison. But I think if there was a unipolar moment that has passed."
It's not the power of the U.S. that many people worldwide doubt, but rather its willingness to use it, says Xenia Wickett, director of the United States program at the British think tank Chatham House.
"The greater concern is that America might not be reliable," she says. "There is a lot of conversation, for example, about whether America can be trusted to protect islands in the South China Sea. That's a reflection of America's domestic politics, that's a reflection of its will. Is Washington so dysfunctional that Republicans and Democrats can't come together to agree to act?"
While most of the world sees the United States, China and Russia as the top three leaders when it comes to hard power, with soft power – the ability of a country to exert influence through culture, political values or foreign policy – it's another story. According to the Best Countries data, the U.S. outshines its major competitors in terms of variables such as human rights, trustworthiness, government transparency and being a place people would want to live in. While the U.S. is in the top 20 in those categories, China and Russia are in the middle or toward the end of the pack.
"Soft power matters," says Steven W. Hook, professor and past chairman of political science at Kent State University. "The appeal that your country has overseas – freedoms of speech, freedom of religion, civil society – that matters. There is still that foundation of respect for the U.S. In terms of freedoms, personal freedoms, the U.S. is viewed quite positively overseas, and even in terms of leadership Obama is quite popular in most of the world."
It's impossible to know for sure how the U.S. is perceived today versus 35 or 50 years ago, says Pew's Dimock. Reliable data don't stretch back that far. But if one considers America's global image in the recent past, he says, the U.S. is actually experiencing a public relations upswing.
"From a foreign perspective, there was a real nadir of perceptions of the U.S. in 2006, 2007 and 2008," says Dimock, pointing to America's unilateralism and failure to achieve positive results in Iraq and Afghanistan, the negative fallout from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other missteps. "It's hard to find a moment when America's image in the world was lower than at that point. So if that's your reference point, then America is doing much better."
Among the 39 nations surveyed in Pew's Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey, a median of 69 percent held a favorable opinion of the U.S. Most NATO allies gave the U.S. positive reviews, with the exception of Germany, where only 50 percent of people rate the U.S. positively. The majority of Middle Eastern countries have unfavorable views of the U.S. In Russia, only 15 percent of the population sees America in a positive light.
The country's image is largely favorable in Asia, Latin America and Africa, with the notable exceptions of China and Argentina.
The U.S. may enjoy a positive global image overall, but that's not to say it doesn't have room for improvement. The country is the fourth best country overall, according to the 2016 Best Countries rankings. America would have scored higher had it ranked better in terms of citizenship, a measure of how a country fares in terms of gender equality, progressiveness, human rights and some of the other metrics mentioned above. The United States ranks only No. 11 in the category – well above China and Russia – but behind Canada, the U.K. and northern European countries like Sweden and Denmark.
How can the U.S. become a better global citizen, garnering even more respect worldwide? Hook, with Kent State, has some ideas: continue to work multilaterally with allies, rethink the drone program, take a stronger leadership role in issues like climate change and global health issues and stop condemning human rights abuses while partnering with leaders who commit them.
Another way the U.S. could improve its image is by getting its own house in order, says Wickett at Chatham House. That means tackling issues like gun control, racial tensions and soaring health care and education costs – headline-grabbing topics that make Europeans in particular worry about the direction of the country.
And then there's Donald Trump and the handful of other Republican presidential candidates whose aggressive, go-it-alone rhetoric makes many people nervous.
"Do these GOP candidates realize that the rest of the world is listening?" asks Ben O'Loughlin, a professor of international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, through email. He believes some of what the candidates have said, particularly in relation to Syria, reinforces stereotypes of the U.S. as a violent nation that lacks respect for international law. "Looking in from the outside, these candidates seem utterly irresponsible," he says.
If polls are any indication, however, the tough talk is resonating with many Americans. Why, if the U.S. image abroad is still strong, are so many U.S. citizens worried about the country's decline?
"There's an anxiety that is based on a lot of economic anxiety and internal tensions," says Dimock. Add to that the unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the perceived rise of China as a superpower, plus the ISIS threat, and the public feels the country can no long project positively on the world.
Schwalbach, from Milwaukee, believes the country needs more moral leadership to regain its stature.
"You look at Putin," Schwalbach said, referring to the Russian president. "He has moral values. He's acting on what he believes. We are all over the map. We need less policy, less government intervention and more freedom."
And with that, he and his friends were off to pray for a brighter future.