A new Gallup poll on how Americans perceive their country’s position in the world economy can be summed up with the classic “good news/bad news” formula, but encouragingly, the former outweighed the latter. At the same time, for anyone believing that major changes are needed in the nation’s approach to the world, the results are much more mixed.
First, the encouraging data – the latest survey showed the highest share of Americans believing “that it’s important for the United States to be No. 1 in the world economically” since the firm started studying the matter in 1993. This year’s 50 percent level easily beat the low point of 39 percent recorded in 2007 – when the last such poll was taken. Recall that 2007 was a year when major housing market problems had become apparent, but that the last recession officially began only at its very end. In 1993, 46 percent of the public considered global economic leadership important.
At the same time, 49 percent regarded “being No. 1” as “not that important, as long as the U.S. is among the leading economic powers.” The share of respondents offering that answer not surprisingly peaked in 2007 (at 60 percent). In 1993, 53 percent of respondents downplayed the importance of unquestioned number one world economic status.
The Gallup results also reveal a wide recent political gap on this question, with Republicans this year much more likely (64 percent) to emphasize top dog status economically than independents (48 percent) or Democrats (41 percent). Yet the changes over time are at least as interesting. Back in 1993, majorities of none of these groups prized their country being the world’s top economy. Views began diverging notably right around 2000, with the biggest changes being the steady surge starting that year of Republicans valuing America as number one economically. Independents grew less likely to value this status through 2007, but since then, their valuation of global leadership has jumped from 29 percent to 48 percent. Democrats’ views on the issue have changed least, varying between 49 percent viewing such leadership as important in 1993, and 38 percent agreeing with the proposition in 2007. Since 2000, the Democratic numbers have remained virtually unchanged.
Less encouraging – in part because it’s simply not tracking with the facts – is how Americans have viewed their economy’s actual standing in the world. Since 2010, only 17 percent of total Gallup respondents have considered the United States as the world’s leading economy, and since the firm began asking this question, the share believing that the nation held this status has peaked at only 40 percent, around 2000. During the 1990s – or at least starting in 1993 – popular belief in America as the world economic leader grew steadily from the 21 percent level.
In other words, according to Gallup, Americans don’t recognize that, in the last few years, the U.S. economy has outperformed most major competitors by most measures. Indeed, in separate results, China has been credited with world economic leadership. Because there’s no question that China has narrowed the gap with America dramatically since its economic reforms began roughly three decades ago, it seems clear that changes in global rankings – especially related to China – have made powerful impressions on U.S. public opinion. Going forward, I’ll be interested to see whether and how greatly American awareness of China’s mounting list of economic troubles grows – and how it compares with judgments about America’s own fortunes.
Overall, it’s heartening to see Americans increasingly appreciating the importance of world economic leadership – especially given their leaders’ continuing determination to define the nation’s security interests in practically limitless, and indeed utopian, terms. There’s no one-to-one correlation between a country’s economic performance and its foreign policy record. But there’s no doubt that, especially over time, a country losing ground in not only growth but in innovation and productivity will be harder pressed to achieve ambitious security goals, especially in a world of strengthening rivals.
In fact, economic out-performance is especially important for a country with broadly representative government like the United States. In the absence of dire and prolonged national security threats and other emergencies, the public is unlikely to support needed defense budget levels unless domestic spending programs remain generously funded as well. A robustly growing economic pie, in other words, greatly eases the competition between guns and butter.
I’m less happy, however, with Americans’ apparent belief in their country’s current economic weakness, or at least ordinariness. Although the recovery’s future is far from guaranteed, the United States recently has been the best looking house on a block of shabby properties, and in national security terms, relative economic growth and performance is at least as important as absolute growth and performance. And despite new evidence that it will keep military spending levels strong, China’s economic momentum has unmistakably flagged, and it depends heavily on debt for growth. So the Gallup results indicate that Americans are significantly underestimating their country’s power and influence globally, or at least its potential, and overestimating the degree to which its prosperity depends on (or to use the fashionable lingo, is “coupled to”) prosperity abroad.
This seeming misjudgment could be troubling for reasons that, strangely, are diametrically opposed. First, a nation that shortchanges its capacities could falter unnecessarily in the face of security challenges or opportunities. And on the economic front, by wrongly viewing itself in a weak bargaining position, it could settle for needlessly adverse trade deals and other policy outcomes.
Just as important, the Gallup results indicate that Americans don’t even remotely recognize their country’s enormous potential for achieving security and prosperity at much lower levels of risk and vulnerability than those created by regnant strategies of deep global engagement in both spheres. Nor, as a result, do they understand the possibilities of economic and foreign policy approaches that simply seek to reduce risks and vulnerabilities, as opposed to the radical step of seeking substantial autarky.
Gallup speculates that until the financial crisis struck, “Having been the world’s largest economy since the 1870s, Americans — at least in recent decades — may have taken their country’s leading economic stature for granted.” Gallup adds that, as other powers have risen, notably in the developing world, “Americans have begun to value being the world’s dominant economic power more highly.”
That sounds positive, because although Gallup provides no insights as to why economic preeminence is prized, its numbers suggest that the public is focused on its tangible benefits, not intangibles like bragging rights. At the same time, the poll also indicates that, since the admittedly subpar American recovery began, the public’s views of their country’s strengths and its policy implications have swung too far toward the opposite extreme.