Roving thoughts and provocations

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Shutting Down the World?

Douglas Graham/Getty Images
A tourist leaving the US Capitol, Washington, DC, September 30, 2013

When I was The Guardian‘s Washington correspondent in the 1990s, fellow members of the British press corps would joke about a specific genre of story our news desks back home could not resist. TWA’s I called them: Those Wacky Americans. Typically, these were matters of no national consequence, such as the self-styled “meanest sheriff in America,” humiliating jail inmates by making them wear pink underwear, or the strange world of Utah polygamists. But sometimes national politics fell into the TWA category too: the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns of the US government, for example, which closed the Statue of Liberty to visitors and, improbably, deprived veterans of their benefits.

“We almost watched it as a spectator sport,” recalls Robin Niblett, director of London’s Chatham House (more formally known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs). “It was ‘Bloody hell, what are those Americans up to now?’”

This time around, however, with the US government shutdown again, there is not just bemusement in capitals across Europe and Asia, but a growing sense of angst. If the current deadlock extends to October 17, and a congressional refusal to raise the debt ceiling triggers a US default, the impact will be instant and international. What for the Tea Party caucus will be a gesture about excessive federal spending, will to the rest of the world be an act of sabotage inflicted on the global economic system.

Even before things reach that drastic pass, the current display of self-induced paralysis has many asking, If the United States cannot solve its own problems, how can it help solve the world’s? “Is Uncle Sam ready for assisted suicide?” asked one London columnist, unable to believe that the nation still routinely deemed the world’s sole superpower has to send its own government into hibernation because it cannot agree to pay its bills.

Not that foreign governments are naïve enough to fret that the US military—the hard power that underpins America’s diplomatic muscle—is currently shut down along with the National Parks. Rather, the worry is that US resolve, the country’s ability to act decisively, is dangerously eroding. As Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, puts it, “The government shutdown makes the US look like an unreliable partner. It would be bad enough on its own but when coupled with the vacillations on Syria, it does serious damage to America’s standing as an ally.”

The very fresh memory of the Obama administration’s hesitation on the Syria question—and its willingness to bring the same unpredictable Congress into the decision—has heightened the anxiety. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of a strike on Syria, that a US president did not feel able to act alone, and that Congress appeared on the brink of refusing military action, has had foreign capitals wondering what other critical questions are likely to become victims of similar American deadlock.

European and Asian leaders have not quite reached the stage of harboring nostalgia for George W. Bush, the solitary “decider” and global unilateralist, who felt no need to consult anyone. But they are suddenly finding that the collective decision-making they demanded a decade ago has very definite drawbacks when applied in Washington. The old approach was at least simpler and clearer: it was usually enough to persuade the US president of the need for action; now, foreign governments calculate, they will need the backing of the US Congress too.

Which brings us to the core of international fears about what is happening in Washington. It’s not only the fact of congressional stalemate, but the nature of it—the rise of the Tea Party tendency and what strikes those far away as a surge in US isolationism—that has those countries who need America sweating.

Watching a Republican party that is increasingly more Rand Paul than Richard Lugar, they see a faction within the legislature whose determination is so iron that it’s prepared to shutter America’s own government. The result, they fear, will be a US that will not only be reluctant to use its military clout, but will be less willing and able to advance everything from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a proposed free-trade agreement between the US and eight other Pacific Rim countries—to the planned creation of a free trade area across the Atlantic. President Obama’s much-discussed “Pivot to Asia” strategy—already increasingly taking second place to developments in the Middle East—now seems equally threatened by Congress at home. His cancellation of a planned trip to Asia in order to deal with the budget crisis was seen as an alarming sign of the shape of things to come.

The worry that an agreement like the TPP will end up much watered down in a trade-off by the administration to buy Congressional support. Worse, an internationally-disengaged Republican party could increasingly limit where in the world the administration can be active. Watching the current spasms in Washington, America’s allies in East Asia may conclude that the US is no longer the solid partner of the past and that therefore they should hedge their bets between the US and the coming power, China. “If you’re in Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi or Manila, you’re thinking that ‘If the US gets selective, then we should get hedgy,’” says Chatham House’s Niblett.

Of course, such constraints will not scare everyone. Binyamin Netanyahu, a Capitol Hill favorite, is unlikely to lose sleep over his support in Congress—which may be far stronger than in the administration—even for putative action against Iran. Meanwhile, some longtime US enemies will welcome the new, paralyzed American Goliath. Why should Kim Jong-un fear an America that could not agree to strike Damascus and cannot even agree on its own domestic budget?

Yet all that is mere prelude to the greater panic to come if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, triggering a default. Markets around the world have October 17 circled on their calendars—and the global financial community is holding its breath.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to American voters. They might not realize how closely the rest of the world—their economies as well as their media and popular culture—follow, react to, and are affected by the ups and downs of US political life. But they do. And right now, they look at the stalemate in Washington the same way they look at the periodic gun massacres that afflict the United States: with a bafflement that America, mighty America, for so long the most innovative, creative, energetic society on the planet, cannot solve problems that smaller, poorer, feebler countries cracked long ago. Americans might not realize it, but this shutdown, like the gun epidemic, reduces US influence in the world. It makes nations, and individuals, who still want to regard America as a model see it instead as a basket case.

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