Even the ambition is gargantuan. Only an American pollster like Pew would contemplate asking 38,000 people in 44 countries (speaking 63 languages and dialects) what they think of America. Only a superpower would try to take the world's temperature thus. The trouble is - when you hold their thermometer up to the light - the reading that comes back says this power isn't so super after all.
Take just a few out of thousands of figures. Nineteen countries with data available for comparison showed antipathy to the US on the rise, and goodwill draining away. Favorable ratings in western Europe, pretty consistently, were down five or six percentage points over the last three years. That turned to 22 points in Turkey and 13 points in Pakistan. Just 6% of the Egyptian public has a favorable view of the United States.
Is the spread of American ideas good or bad? Here in Britain, 50% say bad. But this soars to 67% in Germany, 68% in Russia, 71% in France - and rampant hostility the moment you get near the Middle East. Try Turkey at 78%, Pakistan at 81% and Egypt at 84%.
Does the US "consider others: not much/not at all?" Fifty-two per cent in Britain sign up on this line. But that's 73% in Canada, 73% in South Korea, 74% in Japan, 76% in France.
Do you reckon American policy towards Saddam is driven by getting its hands on Baghdad's oil? Forty-four per cent of Brits agree; 54% of Germans; 75% of French. Would you let the US use your bases to attack Iraq? Eighty-three per cent of Turks say no.
But maybe the most chilling question of the lot was reserved for Muslim respondents only. Did they approve of suicide bombing in defense of Islam? Seventy-three per cent in Lebanon said yes. Well, they would, wouldn't they? But what about the 43% in Jordan, the 44% in Bangladesh, the 47% in Nigeria, the 33% in Pakistan? And in Indonesia (including Bali)? Twenty-seven per cent said yes. Those are hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people with a totally different take on what constitutes terror. This is alienation on the grandest scale.
Now, of course, polls are only polls, a sampling through the autumn which can change with the seasons. And, of course, 44 countries don't represent the whole world. Some places - like Saudi - aren't hot on publics with any opinion. Some places - like Uzbekistan - appear to have gone overboard for smiling Americans bearing suitcases full of dollars. And, as with any survey of this complexity, there are counterflows. We quite like American movies, music and such. We benignly prefer a world where America is the "only superpower" - and 53% of Russians say this "makes the world a safer place".
Yet it would be crazy to airbrush these findings away. They don't show a surge of sympathy and support over the months since 9/11. Precisely the reverse. They don't show trust and identification with American aims or American leadership. Rather the opposite. And the perception gap yawns ever wider. Only 20% of Americans think the US doesn't consider other countries much or at all. Eighty per cent of Americans believe it's good to see US ideas and customs spreading round the globe.
Here - very solemnly, indeed glumly - is the rub. A moment of profound disillusion, waiting to happen. A moment when phrases about the "world's only superpower" turn dusty on the lips.
We tend to talk of American hegemony as though it were established by force of arms. Tanks, planes, marines - and the cash to drive them on. That is the obvious fount of power. It is also the language of the politicians who sit in Washington. They take their physical dominance seriously; they have means of enforcing their policies and their ideologies - with or without outside assistance.
This isn't - before the steaming emails from points west begin flooding in - a matter of criticism. George Bush and Dick Cheney didn't hide their beliefs from the electorate in 2000, or even last month. Their reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center has, in reality, proved pretty measured. They absolutely clearly have most - though not all - of the American public with them, for the time being at least. Dear Alistair Cooke, writing his increasingly blood-curdling letters from Manhattan, hears the sound of the patriot drum.
But there's a terrible limit to all this. The only superpower may, for a while, seek to ignore the rest of the world while it makes its plans and gives its orders. It may deride the distant wimps, wets and fanatics who decline to join the dance. It may enfold itself in a cocoon of grieving and determination. That is understandable.
It is also, though, totally at long-term odds with that bit of the American psyche which needs to be liked and respected, which needs the dream of a shining city on the hill to which peoples around the world aspire. An open society. A society that travels, cares, enjoys the fruits of globalization - and has no long-term means of shucking away unwelcome messages.
Open societies could grow closed in the teeth of the cold war. They could demand obeisance with menaces. But the picture that Pew - an American institution - paints for America comes without menaces attached. It is one of hearts and minds being lost, of allies flaking away, of nations like Japan, Korea and Italy beginning to cross to the other side of the street. Can a "superpower" deal with such distrust and dislike? No: not if it needs to be loved.
· What the World Thinks in 2002 can be found on the Pew Research Center website, www.people-press.org
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002