The world's choice: super, soft, or herbivorous power?

Ivan Krastev Mark Leonard
26 October 2007

An ambitious survey of public opinion around the world contains valuable findings of great interest to the world's citizens and policymakers alike. The project, conducted by Voice of the People for the European Council on Foreign Relations and released on 25 October 2007, has discovered:

openDemocracy writers track the European Union in a decisive year:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe" (30 May 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Olaf Cramme, "Europe: politics or die" (17 September 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

* There is widespread support for a more multipolar world and a greater role for "herbivorous powers" - countries not widely perceived as military superpowers

* There is mistrust of the cold-war powers as well as Islamist-inspired Iranian autocracy. More people want to see a decline rather than an increase in the power of Russia (29% decline, 23% increase), of China (32% decline, 24% increase), of the United States (37% decline, 26% increase), and of Iran (39% decline, 14% increase). On the other hand, there is strong support for an increase in the power of fast-developing powers such as South Africa, India and Brazil (the "IBSA" countries)

* The European Union is the most popular great power. Uniquely among great powers, more people across all continents want to see its power increase than decrease. This demand for more European power extends to many former European colonies

* Whilst American soft power has declined, the rise of China has led to a resurgence in support for American power in Asia. Increasing Russian influence in eastern Europe is paralleled by a demand for a greater American role

* Outside Europe, "the west" is still seen to some extent as a single actor: countries suspicious of American power tend also to be against EU power.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Mary Robinson called global public opinion the "second superpower". She may have exaggerated its ability to sway the decision to invade Iraq, but she was right to point to its importance as a source of legitimacy in world politics. Even in the many places where citizens cannot vote in free and fair elections, governments constantly poll the public to understand their aspirations and pre-empt them. Their findings can have an impact on decisions about war and peace and can even affect the positions they defend in institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organisation.

Unipolar vs multipolar

Who will gain and who will lose from the emergence of global public opinion as a superpower? Which of the current great powers will succeed in capturing the global imagination?

The results of the 2007 edition of "Voice of the People" - the world's largest survey of public opinion in 2007, based on interviews with 57,000 people from fifty-two countries - show that more world citizens want to see an increase in the power of the European Union than any other great power. In the survey, which asked people if the global influence of various major international powers (Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Iran, Russia, South Africa and the United States) should increase or decrease to make the world a better place, the EU received the highest number of positive answers. More than a third of respondents (35%) said they wanted to see an increase in EU power while only 20% want it to decline.

Just over one in four respondents believe that India and South Africa should have greater influence (27% and 26%, respectively), whereas two in ten declare the opposite (20% and 18%). Almost a quarter (23%) think Brazil should be more influential while 17% believe the contrary. Russia and China provoke more negative than positive reactions. While 23% and 24% of respondents respectively want to see the power of these countries increase, 29% and 32% believe the world would benefit from a decline in their power.

Mark Leonard is executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His website is here

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato

This article draws on a policy brief co-written by Ivan Krastev & Mark Leonard, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on 24 October 2007 - New World Order: The balance of soft power and the rise of herbivorous powers

Respondents are most hostile to the influence of Iran and the United States. Although 26% of respondents believe an increase in US power would make the world a better place, 37% think the opposite. In the case of Iran, 39% would like to see its power decline, while only 14% want it to have more influence in the world. Approval ratings for each of the eight powers have been inferred on the basis of the balance of respondents who wish to see a power's influence increase or decrease. These are set out in the "love / hate" maps that accompany the survey.

Overall, the results suggest little enthusiasm for a unipolar world; but the multipolar world sought by world citizens appears more complex and unpredictable than some may have thought.

A new balance

The negative perceptions of Russia, China and Iran seem to be linked to the fact that they are perceived not so much as rising economic or political powers, but as military powers with potentially global reach. This suggests that the new world order will be determined not simply by the balance of "hard power" (the ability to use economic or military power to coerce or bribe countries to support you), but by the balance of what the American academic Joseph Nye has called "soft power" - the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion and payment, arising from the appeal of your culture, political ideals, and policies. The survey backs the view that the ability to project military power around the globe can substantially damage soft power.

This theory seems to be borne out by the relatively positive view of the "herbivorous powers" - South Africa, India and Brazil - whose rise is not connected in the global imagination with military might on a worldwide scale. The public does not yearn for a world order where America's hegemony is simply replaced by the rivalry of other military powers such as Russia and China.

Two poles

Each continent has a different approach to power. Africa and Latin America mark two extreme positions. A majority of Africans would welcome increased influence among all the rival centres of power - there is support for a more powerful United States, European Union and China. In Latin America, by contrast, a majority is at best sceptical, and often hostile, to increases in the global influence of powers outside the region.

Turkey presents a very special case. It demonstrates the instincts of an unrecognised world power. Turkish public opinion resists the influence of any of the rising powers and demonstrates a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the US as a global power. Turkish respondents expressed a strong rejection of both EU and US leadership of world affairs.

The stealthy superpower

The EU is unique among the big four powers (the other three being the US, China and Russia) in that no one wants to balance its rise. It is striking that a continent with a military budget second only to the United States, and the biggest number of serving peacekeeping forces, is perceived as a force for good. This suggests that EU policy-makers' attempts to achieve greater visibility for EU power may well be misguided. The fact that European peacekeepers tend to operate under a Nato or a national flag rather than a European one probably helps to make the EU seem less threatening. The fragmentation of European power among twenty-seven member-states endows the EU with a stealthy quality on the world stage.

It is equally remarkable that the union's increase in power is supported by many former European colonies, demonstrating that the colonial legacy of EU member-states is declining in importance. What is more, unlike the United States, the EU is highly appreciated in its own neighbourhood. However, a closer look at the figures and a comparison with previous surveys, reveals two worrying trends for the EU.

Among Ivan Krastev's articles in openDemocracy:

"'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

"Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo" (21 December 2006)

"Russia: the sovereignty wars" (29 August 2007)

"Sleepless in Sczeczin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

First, it suggests that the EU's soft power is closely related to the prospects of enlargement in the European neighbourhood. It is safe to assume that the stark rise in the attractiveness of Russia in some parts of the former eastern bloc and the ex-Soviet Union - particularly in Ukraine - is linked to European foot-dragging on enlargement, which is having a negative impact on its reputation in the European neighbourhood.

Second, the poll shows a growing resistance to EU influence in places (such as Bosnia) where the union acts as a quasi-colonial power. This makes clear that the EU faces a choice in the Balkans either to press ahead with enlargement so as to normalise relations with these countries, or to face further hostility if it continues behaving like an imperial power.

Does the west still exist?

Has the EU benefited from the collapse in American soft power following the Iraq war? Has the EU gone from being a US ally to constituting an alternative world power?

The findings of the survey demonstrate that, at least in Euroope (both western and eastern), the EU's stress on multilateralism and the rule of law, and its distaste of power politics means that it is perceived as an alternative to American unilateralism. But in other parts of the world, the EU and US are perceived as twins rather than alternatives.

The dynamics differ from region to region, but there seems to be a hardening anti-western block in global public opinion that is particularly strong in Latin America.

The balancing superpower

Foreign-policy debates in recent years have centered on the question of how to deal with the "unipolar moment" - of how to balance US power. But strikingly, this survey reveals that in many parts of the world, a new question is being asked: how can the United States balance the rise of aggressive new emerging global powers? It is no coincidence that there is a great appetite for increased American power in Asia - the site of the contest between the new global powers.

It is also intriguing to see that while the American public is hostile to increased Russian power, the Russian public is much more positive in its view of American power. This poll shows that the multipolar world might lead to a resurgence of American soft power - not necessarily as a model for the world, but as a way of buttressing the power of new regional superpowers.

The paradox of power

The findings of the Voice of the People poll make encouraging reading for European decision-makers. They reveal a world that is neither unipolar nor keen to return to traditional power politics. Furthermore, it is a world that seems to be crying out for greater European leadership. However, there are some warning signs among the good news.

The paradox of the European Union's power is that its strength may be rooted to some extent in the perception of its weakness. The fact that nobody is interested in balancing the EU may stem - at least in part - from a perception that the EU is unlikely to get its act together. Moreover, the decline of the EU's soft power in the ex-Soviet Union, Turkey and the Balkans shows that "softness" in the long run may generate sympathy, but not necessarily respect. Whilst legitimacy is an increasingly important element in global politics, the EU must not make the mistake of confusing popularity with power.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData