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John Hughes: U.S. a superpower in decline? That's up to us

Published: Friday, July 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Is America now the world's No. 2 in the superpower lineup?

Not yet, but a lot of non-Americans think it is heading that way, according to a new global opinion survey by the Pew Research Center.

Frankly, the Mickey Mouse way in which our politicians in Washington have been handling their dysfunctional approach to the debt and budget crisis is hardly reassuring to those questioning the efficiency of our government or the efficacy of the democratic system we commend to others.

The Pew survey finds that in 15 of 22 nations polled, the balance of opinion is that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world's leading superpower. Foreign affairs guru Fareed Zakaria has been talking to his sources in China and says they are agog with amazement at the way the White House, Republican, and Democratic congressmen have caterwauled until D-day on a debt-ceiling decision of immense global significance.

It is not that the nations the Pew organization polled relish the prospect of America's economic eclipse. The British, French, Germans, Spanish and Japanese, for instance, rue China's potential as the world's leading economic power. But 72 percent of the French, 67 percent of the Spanish, 65 percent of the British and 61 percent of the Germans see China overtaking the U.S. Even 46 percent of Americans think China will eventually overshadow their own country economically. This is up from 33 percent in 2009.

Populations in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America are less convinced that China is the world's leading economic power.

However, the prospect of China matching the U.S. in military power is much more disturbing. In Japan and India, the prevailing view is that it would not be in their interest if China were to equal the U.S. militarily. Majorities in Western and Eastern Europe, and in Turkey and Israel, share this view.

The embarrassing political imbroglio that has been taking place in Washington over the debt ceiling and budget cuts hardly projects an image abroad of responsibility and stability. As Nicholas Kristof correctly asserts in the New York Times, "The biggest threat to America's national security this summer doesn't come from China, Iran or any other foreign power. It comes from the budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home."

Where are the Ronald Reagans, even the Bill Clintons, in the present political mix in Washington today? They surely had agendas to defend, but understood the need for timely compromise, statesmanship, and deal-making rather than procrastination, posturing and pusillanimous politicking that bemuses and unnerves the world.

Meanwhile a new Zogby poll shows U.S. standing in the Arab world has declined sharply since an earlier Zogby poll in 2009, conducted after President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office. Then Arabs were hopeful that the new president would bring positive change to the U.S.-Arab relationship. Early speeches and steps reinforced this view. Favorable attitudes toward the U.S. climbed significantly from Bush-era lows. But expectations have been dashed. In this year's Zogby survey of more than 4,000 Arabs in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, favorable attitudes are now lower than in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration.

Zogby's Arab American Institute finds that Israel's "continuing occupation of Palestinian lands" is seen by most Arabs as the "main obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East," even within the context of the "Arab Spring."

Great nations rise and fall. They are not necessarily loved, especially at their zenith. Polls are snapshots of their public standing, not necessarily accurate predictions of the future. Politicians can learn from the error of their ways and rise to new greatness. All may not be lost. As Alexis De Tocqueville, that perceptive early observer of the U.S., declared: "The greatness of America lies in her ability to repair her faults."

John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.

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