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.