Good Reads: Is the US actually in decline, or just taking a breather?

A roundup of some of the week's most insightful articles from around the Internet. 

Saurabh Das/AP
BRICS leaders,left to right, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South African President Jacob Zuma, raise their arms together during the group picture at the BRICS 2012 Summit in New Delhi, India.

● Its economy has taken a beating, its politicians are calling for cost-cutting and a reassessing of priorities, and polls show the American people are tired of all its wars. Call it what you will – decline or maybe just a breather – but American attitudes toward the world are increasingly tinged with exhaustion. So, time now to write the Great Zeitgeist Book that explains why Americans are so exhausted and what it will mean for, you know, all of humankind. Fortunately, there are plenty of academics who have just finished writing such books, and even better, London’s The Economist magazine has read and compared all these books and judged which ones are essential reading and which ones are pass-up-able.

The Economist, of course, views everything through a political perspective that is pro-democracy and pro-free markets, and so it clearly sees any talk of American decline as something to be mourned, not celebrated. And while it genuinely sees the United States retreating on a number of fronts – from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and more recently from Afghanistan – it sees this retreat as creating a kind of vacuum that nature will fill. The big question of the next decade will be what fills that vacuum: China or India alone? The BRICS, as a group? Or, even worse, nothing?

As the Economist’s reviewer puts it, “America is irrepressible. Even authors fixated on its decline are optimists in disguise. Times may be hard and the world order is changing, but America has what it takes to bounce back, according to five new books on foreign policy. Indeed, it has to bounce back, because no successor stands ready to shoulder these responsibilities.”

Up-and-comer nations diverge

● No successor? There are a few up-and-coming nations that would dispute that, most notably the group of nations composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa that now calls itself BRICS. The BRICS group met on March 29 in New Delhi to see where their common national interests lie, and to coordinate those interests into a coherent common policy that counterbalances the dominance of the US and Europe.

To date, the BRICS don’t have much to show for their relationship. But unlike the Non-Aligned Movement, which some of these nations were members of during the cold war, the BRICS have the potential to be defined positively, for what they stand for, rather than for what they stand against. BRICS are among the fastest-growing developing countries in the world, with potential to continue growing even if the rest of the global economy stalls. Each has substantial hunger for raw materials, strong manufacturing capabilities, cheap labor, and the challenge of raising its standard of living. But getting these nations to coordinate common interests into a coherent policy is, as the saying goes, like herding cats.

In New Delhi, The New York Times’s Jim Yardley does a stellar job of explaining why it’s so hard for these folks to get along. Perhaps the fatal flaw, he writes, is that BRICS includes both democracies and authoritarian regimes. India, Brazil, and South Africa are democracies that already agree on many economic and political issues and even have a trilateral group called IBSA to put across this developing-world perspective at the United Nations and elsewhere.

Mr. Yardley writes, “Russia, however, has drifted away from democracy toward strongman rule under Vladimir V. Putin. China is the world’s largest authoritarian state and has by far the largest and most powerful economy in BRICS, which creates a complicated dynamic. China is the heavyweight, and thus the natural leader of the group, except that it is the political outlier.”

Piracy fight shows enduring Western power

● For all this talk about the decline of the West, however, it should be noted that the West is not dead yet. On March 23, European Union leaders met to discuss the EU’s ongoing naval operations against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somalia coast. The EU’s naval protection force has created a corridor that protects commercial shipping coming from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal. Proponents point to the number of pirates captured and ships protected. Critics say the operation has pushed the pirates farther out to sea and accelerated attacks.

Everyone agrees that piracy is a global problem with a strong impact on everything from oil prices to the availability of food in Africa, and that it won’t stop as long as pirates are given haven on Somalia’s shores. As such, the EU recently decided to extend operations onto Somali soil itself, giving itself permission to launch land raids up to two kilometers (1.2 miles) inland.

Der Spiegel’s Matthias Gebauer has the best story covering this development, and he notes that the EU has specifically ruled out ground troops. Instead, the shore operations would rely on precision bombing. If carried out, the attacks could pose an existential threat to pirate gangs that live openly in Somali society, but they could also have a dramatic impact on Somali public opinion toward the war, similar to how many Afghans feel about the NATO war.

Mr. Gebauer says there are significant misgivings about expanding the EU naval operation. “In a recent closed-doors discussion, experts from Germany’s foreign intelligence agency ... argued that the pirates’ small bases could hardly be distinguished from fishermen’s facilities from the air. Such air attacks, they said, carried a high risk of so-called collateral damage – in other words, civilian casualties.” 

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