Threat to Credibility: 2013 U.S. Government Shutdown

Many Americans will remember the 16-day government shutdown of 2013 as a frenzy of cable news dramatizations and political finger pointing.  During the shutdown, more than 800,000 federal workers were indefinitely furloughed and an additional 1.3 million came to work not knowing when they would receive their next paycheck.  Washington D.C. came to a grinding halt.  Usually packed public transportation was eerily vacant of federal workers.  The world watched and waited in confusion at the looming cloud over Washington D.C.

News outlets and political leaders worldwide took stabs at America’s dysfunction.  London’s Daily Telegraph said, “The U.S. is recklessly throwing away its future.”  Even after the shutdown, articles and editorials have not lost any of the harshness of the ones written in the heat of the crisis.  An article published by the German news magazine Der Spiegel spared no courtesy, saying “Is this how a superpower behaves?”

Image courtesy of Senate Democrats, ©2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Senate Democrats, ©2013, some rights reserved.

These international voices did not take stabs at the supposed counter-productivity of House Republicans’ rigid ideology or at Senate Democrats’ alleged unwillingness to compromise elements of a doomed piece of social legislation.  Many American politicians and pundits on the other hand, employed these misleading and politically simplified talking points.  Global reaction placed blame entirely on the United States, without a specific mention of faction or ideology.  American policy makers, business people, and citizens alike will need to grapple with this affront to American credibility, possibly even to American dominance.

The world is more economically, politically, and socially interdependent then it has ever been.  The increase of globalization means that what would have been a domestic nuisance generations ago in now an affront to the system of trust between nations.  Trust, the amorphous but powerful force of foreign politics, is a fragile beast.

US Secretary of State John Kerry made comments in Washington about the dangerous shift in global trust precipitated by the shutdown.  He warned, “Make no mistake, the greatest danger to America does not come from a rising rival.  It comes from the damage that we’re capable of doing by our own dysfunction and the risks that will arise in a world that may see restrained or limited American leadership as a result.”

The nature of this political partisanship and gridlock in the American legislative branch can unfortunately be easily brushed off as nothing new.  Nevertheless, Kerry asserts that the current political climate could be a literal enemy to American prosperity.  His warning may make dismissiveness less viable.  Dr. Steven Bucci of the Heritage Foundation commented, “Most other countries recognize that we are different.  When we don’t live up to our expectation it is putting us on the same level [as all of the other countries].”  He went on to comment that such dysfunction “will cause allies to lose confidence.”  He pointed out that the American approach to the Syrian conflict combined with the government shutdown might signal a trend of global uncertainty.

To those who do not see the global impact of a 16-day legislative embarrassment, Kerry warns that, “in an integrated world…we have lost the luxury of looking only inward.  Today, isolationism is the enemy of economic prosperity and security at the same time.”

Fewer regions provide a growing economic interest for the United States than Asia.  The President’s choice to stay in the United States instead of going to the 2013 Asia-Pacific Cooperation in Bali provided a tangible example of the government shutdown’s global implications.  The President was scheduled to visit Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  An article in Der Spiegel suggested, “Obama promised the Asian diplomats that he would be the ‘Pacific president,’ but he just cancelled his trip to the continent because the budget debate was more important to him.”

He was also scheduled to advance talks with the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, a free trade agreement among Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore.  Since 2010, talks have proposed the expansion of TPSEP.  Needless to stay, a trade agreement that aims at creating more open trade flow in the Asia-Pacific is of great importance for American economic viability.  Secretary Kerry went in the President’s place and assured world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that “none of what is happening in Washington diminishes one iota our commitment to our partners in Asia…This is an example, really, of the robustness of our democracy.”  Dr. Bucci agreed that many of the Asian leaders understand the “politic theatre” of the meeting.  Nevertheless, an American president that has to spend his time fighting domestic fires will be less able to shape global trends and form stronger international relationships.

In an article for Xinhua New Agency, the official media outlet of the People’s Republic of China, writer Liu Chang wrote about the beginning of a “de-Americanized” world.  This startling and alarmist rhetoric was backed up with a pseudo-historical narrative of the “Pax Americana” whereby Liu Chang claimed that, “With its seemingly unrivaled economic and military might, the United States has declared that it has vital national interests to protect in nearly every corner of the globe, and been habituated to meddling in the business of other countries and regions far away from its shores.”

Beyond China, the frustration over US economic and politic hegemony has existed before the shutdown and will continue to exist now that it is over.  But frustration is a far cry from mistrust.  Although many world leaders may resent US dominance, the shutdown may signal that that dominance could be misplaced or waning.  Liu Chang, although an extreme voice, agrees that this misplacement is dangerous and deserves a stark reevaluation.  He writes, “Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place, according to which all nations, big or small, poor or rich, can have their key interests respected and protected on an equal footing.  To that end, several corner stones should be laid to underpin a de-Americanized world.”

            It is easy to dismiss the government shutdown of 2013 as a domestic nuisance.  In a deeply interconnected world, is there really any dysfunction that is purely domestic?  The shutdown and the reaction from foreign powers and media is a harsh reminded of both the power and fragility of the US and its place in global interaction.

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