I was as surprised as everybody when I read on Friday that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, but I was much more surprised a few days earlier when an international poll showed that the United States has suddenly become the most admired country in the world.
Indeed, four days before the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its prize to Obama for his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and promote world peace, an Anholt-GfK Roper poll of more than 20,000 people in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa ranked the United States as the country with the best "nation brand" in the world.
Last year, the poll -- known as the nation brand index -- had placed Germany as the country with the best world image and the United States was ranked No. 7. The survey asks people in 20 countries to rate 50 nations in categories such as the quality of their exports, the friendliness of their people, the beauty of their landscape and their governance.
In a telephone interview from his home base in Britain a day before the announcement of Obama's Peace Prize, the poll's founder, Simon Anholt, told me that Obama's election as the first African-American president in U.S. history has obviously helped change people's image of the United States.
"It's not just the way they see the U.S. government: Most of the other scores in the poll have gone up as well," Anholt said. "The one that has gone up the most is 'people,' which means that the world has forgiven the American people for having elected George W. Bush a second time."
He added, "Now, people think that the American people are nice once again. Even the score of the beauty of the American landscape has gone up this year. People think that the American landscape is beautiful again."
Among Latin American countries, the one with the best international image this year was Brazil, which ranked 20th, followed by Argentina (23), Mexico (28), Chile (38), Peru (39), Cuba (44), Ecuador (46) and Colombia (47). Except for Brazil, all Latin American countries rank below Russia and China, and most are placed behind Egypt, India and Poland.
Experts agree that a country's "brand" is increasingly important in a global economy because people buy products or decide to visit countries according to the image they have of them. People are willing to pay large sums of money for a Mercedes-Benz car in part because it's "Made in Germany," whereas it would be difficult to sell the same car if it were made in a Fourth World country, they say.
The new country brand poll -- and Obama's Nobel prize -- come amid an international consensus that America's days as the world's only superpower are pretty much over.
Just days earlier, the International Olympic Committee's decision to award the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro despite Obama's public personal effort to win that bid for Chicago had led many political analysts to interpret the news as evidence that the United States had lost its previous clout in world affairs.
In addition, last month's decision by the G-20 -- the club of the world's biggest economies -- to give greater clout to countries such as China, India and Brazil in world economic decisions, and World Bank President Robert Zoellick's forecast that the U.S. dollar will gradually lose its former strength to emerging country currencies had led to similar speculation about America's imminent demise.
On top of that, the latest international standardized tests show that Asian students continue to outperform their American counterparts in math and science, and bookstores from New York to Beijing are filled with new releases about China's rapid emergence as a new world superpower.
My opinion: I'm a bit skeptical about the conventional wisdom of America's imminent descent into a has-been superpower.
The U.S. economy is still bigger than that of the three countries that follow it combined. And if you take into account the new nation brand poll, Obama's Peace Prize and -- perhaps most importantly -- the fact that virtually all Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and medicine announced last week were Americans, you may start to take the forecasts about the U.S. demise somewhat more in stride.
All superpowers eventually lose their might, and the United States will certainly be no exception to the rule. I'm just not convinced that it will happen overnight, or anytime in the near future.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.