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Is the U.S. a Declining or Gutsy World Power? News Analysis

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When Mark Twain’s obituary was published prematurely, the great American writer sent a cable from London saying the “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” In a similar spirit, last week two Brookings Institution scholars, in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, made the case that America has been wrongly written off over the past three years.

Brookings fellows Bruce Jones and Thomas Wright’s thesis is that “the financial crisis has created a two-speed West,” with four large countries—Germany, the United States, Turkey and South Korea—actually having increased their international influence. The BRICS of the developing world should make way for a new acronym—the GUTS of the rising West, the authors say.

The authors name South Korea, though an Asian country, part of the West by dint of being “one of America’s oldest and most reliable allies.” They call Turkey a “bridge from the West” to the Arab world.

Bard College professor and foreign policy blogger Walter Russell Mead was among those who enthusiastically embraced Jones and Wright’s gutsy idea. Mead contrasts the GUTS with BRIC linchpins India and China, which “have much more significant internal problems than the GUTS.” (Brazil and Russia make up the first half of the acronym).

And indeed, much of Jones and Wright’s argument is similarly based on the idea that the GUTS countries are not as pathetically weak as the rest of the world. (“The United States has significantly outperformed the eurozone and has better prospects for growth than most other Western states,” they write, which isn’t saying much.)

But they also make some baffling assertions of GUTS countries’ (non-relative) strength that are unconvincing. For example, Jones and Wright say “U.S. influence in Asia has risen at a rapid clip since 2008, driven largely by regional anxiety about Chinese assertiveness.” But U.S. power in that region has always rested on the strength of the U.S. Navy, whose stressed fleet has shrunk by 15% since 1998 even as China builds new warships.

The Brookings analysts crow about U.S. diplomatic triumphs, citing the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, in March, as an example. But that event provided a forum for photo-ops and stern-sounding speeches, while the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran has only gained pace in the past several years.

While America’s obituary is indeed premature, this week has provided fresh evidence that it may also be too early to disconnect the patient from life support. Manufacturing indexes released Thursday show that the heavily stimulated U.S. expansion is slowing again. And a fresh Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday serves as a reminder that the U.S. has little room to maneuver between the short-term need for fiscal support and the long-term damage that continued propping up will do.

Jones and Wright argue in similar fashion about the other GUTS: That “Germany stands apart as a rising power amidst a weakened Europe” is a relative statement. Closer to the mark is their statement that “for better or worse, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has won argument after argument about the future direction of the E.U.,”  which implies that that leadership has not always been to good effect. Might they have in mind Merkel’s austerity prescription, which has made the sick men of Europe even sicker? Germany may enjoy relative strength, but being captain of a sinking ship is not much to brag about.

Of South Korea, the Brookings fellows write that “it has become a powerhouse of high-end manufacturing and is on course to become richer than Japan in per capita terms within the next five years.” Nothing to argue with there. But they overstate its “robust” response to North Korean aggression through its alliance with the U.S., since Pyongyang has only strengthened, and brazenly so, its actual nuclear program while Seoul has engaged in feckless diplomacy.

Regarding Turkey, Jones and Wright say the country’s “economy has more than tripled” under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s watch, without noting that the Islamist leader built that prosperity on a credit binge that is well on its way to cataclysmic collapse. They also praise Turkey for its constructive pro-Western diplomatic role, which would be news to Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

The West needs Greece to develop its maritime economic resources, but Turkey refuses to recognize the exclusive economic zones to which it (and Cyprus) are entitled under international law, and has threatened reprisals against foreign oil companies. Turkey’s sending “peace activists” with metal pipes to Israel’s Gaza coast in 2010 was just the most theatrical of its menacing foreign policy initiatives vis-a-vis Israel.

The Brookings scholars conclude that “the rising West is a force to be reckoned with,” but it more closely resembles a house of cards that cannot withstand a lot more pressure before falling.

With its economy dangerously hanging over a “fiscal cliff,” a military that is taxed to its limit yet faces an additional $600 billion in automatic defense cuts starting in January, and even promising areas of growth (Jones and Wright cite social media as one) seeming to flame out (per Facebook’s disappointing IPO), the U.S. must be nursed back to a more robust state before it can truly rise anew.

If there are any “guts” around, it will be found among those who understand the inherent danger of a “too little, too late” approach to undertaking needed reforms. It is precisely the lack of guts among Western leaders today that has furthered economic decline and fomented geopolitical instability, and that is unworthy of the military heroes whose sacrifices enabled a more vigorous America and whose legacy we must sorely recall this Memorial Day.