View from abroad: US facing woes, but still No. 1

By DAVID CRARY, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - Anyone worried about an erosion of America's global status might consider this modest fact: Facebook is the dominant social network in Mongolia.

Along with its pervasive social media, the United States leads in myriad other ways - from the allure of its movies and music to the reach of its military. It's tough to match a nation that deploys troops to Australia and central Africa, propels Beyonce to global stardom, and produced the Twitter-style technologies that abetted the Arab Spring.

"American entrepreneurs are defining the digital age," said Harald Leibrecht, the German government's coordinator for U.S. relations. "And when looking for the 'next big thing,' we very much expect it to come from over the Atlantic as well."

So what's with all the talk about America in decline? There seems to be a forest's worth of recent books raising that possibility, with gloomy titles such as "That Used to be Us." Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested that President Barack Obama considers the U.S. "just another nation."

Abroad, foreign policy experts are following this discussion with a mix of bemusement and concern. A dozen of them, in nine countries on five continents, shared their thoughts with The Associated Press - agreeing that the U.S. stands alone as a global superpower, yet perceiving an array of weaknesses that could undermine its stature as numerous emerging powers seek a bigger role on the world stage.

Cited most often: the partisan political gridlock in Washington - viewed as hindering efforts to tackle other long-term problems.

"Some U.S. vulnerabilities are quite obvious," said Dmitri Trenin, a Russian expert on diplomatic and security policy, in an e-mail from Moscow. "The issue of debt ... too loose financial regulation, social inequality which is punishing America's middle class."

Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicted the U.S. will nonetheless remain pre-eminent for decades, yet questioned the ability of America's political elite to interpret and respond wisely to global developments.

"This is not always impressive, and some comments made on the election stump are downright depressing," he said.

Narushige Michishita, a professor at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and adviser to Japan's government on security issues, views the debate in the U.S. over its global stature as a sign of insecurity. He says it has prompted to Japan to look to other strategic partners to bolster its position in Asia.

"It is clear in relative terms that the U.S. is starting to decline in comparison with China," said Michishita. "As U.S. commitment and influence starts to decline ... it is inevitable China will expand."

China, for all its size and rapid economic growth, is decades away from any plausible claim to equal stature. The U.S. dollar is still the world reserve currency of choice, and America will have far higher per capita income even when China - with more than four times as many people - eventually claims the world's largest economy.

Nonetheless, the latest global attitudes survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted last year, found that a majority of respondents in 15 of 22 nations believed China either will replace or already has replaced U.S. as the leading superpower. This view was especially prevalent in Western Europe - for example, held by 72 percent of French people.

Among Americans, the percentage saying that China will eventually overshadow or has already overshadowed the U.S. increased from 33 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2011.

What do China's experts say? The Chinese Academy of Social Science's Comprehensive National Power index - which weighs natural resources, population demographics, and military, scientific and economic strength - ranks the U.S. first and China at No. 7.

By some other measures, China fares worse - it places 101st in the United Nations' latest Human Development Index ranking countries according to life expectancy, educational attainment and income. The U.S. placed fourth after Norway, Australia and the Netherlands.

To some in China, the self-doubts in the U.S. seem overblown.

"The U.S. has a strong sense of crisis," said Zhu Feng, an international affairs expert at Peking University who frequently travels to the U.S.

Zhu's advice, when it comes to talk of China surpassing the U.S.: Don't believe the hype. By almost every measure, he notes, China still lags behind. It is investing billions in cutting-edge research, yet innovative spirit may at times be restrained by an oppressive political climate and a culture which values hierarchy and conformity.

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