A bumpy 2013 erodes America's 'superpower' status
To many around the world, it made little sense: The world's most powerful government, so mired in dysfunction that it couldn't operate. The world's defender of individual freedoms, accused of spying on its citizens and friends. The world's military giant planning, then balking at, an armed response to the suspected use of deadly chemical weapons.
Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright once dubbed the United States "the indispensable nation." But as the world watched America shamble through a string of crises in 2013, the notion of the U.S. as an unflappable leader began to seem ever more quaint.
Instead, to hear some around the world tell it, the United States came off looking uncertain, unmoored and even untrustworthy. Unsettling, to say the least, for a global audience of people who understand that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.
The National Security Agency spying scandal and the government shutdown created, for some, a contradictory image of the United States: a bully when dealing with others, a weakling when dealing with itself. "They are," in the words of Denmark university student Julie Simonsen, "like a colossus with feet of clay."
"When I was a child, America was a dream country. It was a country we admired as a role model," says Chieko Kotani, a 51-year-old tourism worker in Tokyo. "Over the past year, however, I think America's status in the international community has declined. It seems to have lost its leadership quite a bit."
It's not that the world hates America. Many still want to go there. Across the globe, people praise the nation's technological achievements, charity and democratic ideals. South Koreans, for example, were delighted last month when President Barack Obama asked a young Korean heckler who had interrupted his speech on immigration reforms in San Francisco to stay, rather than ordering him removed. "I wish we had that kind of president who listens to the opinions of the minority," says Kim Jin-hwan, a 32-year-old baker from Seoul. "I was very jealous."
The debate over global dominance is nothing new. China has been catching up to the U.S. for awhile. And the balance of power often shifts naturally with time. After all, America was once an isolationist nation: In his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson argued that U.S. involvement was critical to global harmony. But not until World War II, and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, did American opinion shift in favor of global engagement. The United States emerged from the war a dominant economic and military force, led the creation of the United Nations and helped rebuild Japan and Germany. A superpower was born.
Lately, though, there are signs that America is again turning inward. In a survey released this month by the Pew Research Center, most Americans said they think the nation's influence in global affairs is declining. The survey, conducted with the Council on Foreign Relations, also found that just 17 percent of Americans believe the country plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today than it did 10 years ago; more than half said it's less important and powerful now.
The question of America's role came into sharp focus when the U.S. government shut down for 16 days during a standoff over Obama's health care law. His Republican opponents demanded changes be made to the law in return for essential federal funding. Democrats said no. The result: Some 800,000 federal workers were furloughed temporarily, and other parts of the world expressed wonder.
"Jefferson, wake up, they've gone crazy!" screamed a headline in France's Le Monde. "A superpower has paralyzed itself," proclaimed German magazine Der Spiegel. In the Philippines, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima dubbed the shutdown "highly unfortunate for the rest of the world."
In Australia, which has universal health care, the drama was viewed with marked confusion. Why was an argument over access to health care, which most Australians view as a basic right, causing an entire nation's government to grind to a halt?
"I was just absolutely gobsmacked that the Tea Party -- a party of such extremes in America -- could shut down government on a point of principle at the cost of universal health care for Americans," says Rachael Vincent, a Sydney nonprofit worker.
On the other hand, some saw the fact that the U.S. didn't implode as an example of American endurance.
In Spain, for instance, the U.S. avoided an image hit over the past year largely because most Spaniards were more focused on their country's miserable economy and 26 percent unemployment than America's foibles. Many Spaniards gave the U.S. credit for recovering from the financial crisis faster than Spain, and found it interesting that despite the shutdown, "the United States more or less kept functioning," says Miguel Bermejo, 25, of Madrid.
But though commended by some for its resilience, the American government was reviled by others when documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed the United States was monitoring the phone conversations of at least 35 global leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel called it a "grave breach of trust." French President Francois Hollande told Obama such practices were unacceptable between allies. And Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said it sent a shiver down her spine. Thousands of Germans marched in protest, some wearing tinfoil hats to symbolically ward off eavesdroppers.
For critics, it called into question the whole notion of American democracy.
"Everyone used to mock China and joke about their levels of Internet security and that there was no freedom at all. But now, the moment you use the words `National Security' in the U.S., everyone keeps quiet and looks the other way," says Kunal Sharma, a business executive from New Delhi. "The Snowden revelations have made me change my opinion about the U.S. -- the land of the brave and home of the free -- quite a bit."
And though Obama remains relatively popular in much of the world, faith is slipping. According to Pew, confidence in the president and approval of his foreign policy have dropped in most countries surveyed over the past four years.
In Indonesia, where Obama attended school as a child, the events of 2013 sapped away some of the nation's fondness for the president. Of particular irritation: Allegations that the U.S. and Australia carried out a joint surveillance operation on Indonesia, and Obama's decision to cancel a high-profile trip to Asia so he could deal with the shutdown.
Outside the president's old elementary school in Jakarta, teacher Edi Kusyanto pondered his changing feelings toward the president as he stroked the head of a statue depicting Obama as a smiling young schoolboy. Though Kusyanto still considers Obama a great leader, he also now sees him as indecisive.
"There is always a sense of pride when I look at this statue," Kusyanto says. "But at this moment, there is a feeling of confusion when following the developments in the U.S. and the world under his leadership. The government shutdown, the NSA spying scandal and the chaos in Syria all showed the weakness of Obama."
One of the most dramatic tests of Obama's resolve was his handling of the Syrian conflict and the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad's government. Obama initially readied military strikes, then abruptly backed off in favor of working with Russia and the U.N. to destroy the weapons. The turnabout left many confused.
Obama's tactical change was greeted with skepticism and borderline disappointment in Israel, where America's evolving image has been especially apparent. Though the nation considers the U.S. its most important ally, Israelis from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down have been uncharacteristically outspoken about their frustration over the limits of American influence.
Yehonathan Gottlieb, a 38-year-old Jerusalem lawyer, says the U.S.'s reaction to the crisis created the perception of a weaker America. "Its status in the Middle East has been undermined," Gottlieb says.
Before Obama's change of direction on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the United States for casting itself as exceptional. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," Putin wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece.
To some, the long-standing ideal of American exceptionalism -- in the morally superior sense, at least -- falls flat.
Student activist Juan Sebastian Lopez, 26, of Bogota, Colombia, said his young countrymen no longer view Washington -- a strong ally in counterdrug and counterinsurgency efforts -- as a powerful moral leader. Lopez was especially disappointed that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama could push for military action in Syria and allow spying on his own people.
So where do the events of 2013 leave the United States in the eyes of the world? Chris Capitis, a 28-year-old supervisor at T.G.I. Friday's in Manila, Philippines, a former American colony, believes that though the United States might be weaker, the nation's omnipresence and widely emulated culture will keep it relevant.
"When you turn on the TV, you'll see an American. When you log onto the Internet, you'll land on U.S.-built websites. You hear their music, watch their movies and even eat their food. These are long-lasting," Capitis said at a branch of the U.S. restaurant chain, where NBA basketball games play on the TVs and a cornucopia of American emblems -- a colored poster of Marilyn Monroe, American road signs -- adorn a brick wall. "The U.S. is here. It'll be difficult to dislodge it."
For Paul Bailey, an Australian writer and musician, the world will always need an America -- perhaps not in its current, chaotic form but a powerful, inspiring leader that is far from dispensable. "I don't see much hope for the U.S. today," he says, "but I see much less hope for the world without it."
• Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen; Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; Ashok Sharma and Nirmala George in New Delhi; Youkyung Lee in Seoul, South Korea; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; Alan Clendenning and Harold Heckle in Madrid and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.