Foreign political leaders and commentators are watching with amazement as a small band of Republican radicals seems determined to lead their country, and the global economy, over the cliff.
As the U.S. government remains shut down, and the country slides toward debt default, the legislators who precipitated the crisis seem oblivious to the damage this will cause to the U.S. economy and to America’s standing in the world.
Traditional conservatives get it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have warned that a failure to raise the debt ceiling will disrupt our economy and have a negative ripple effect worldwide. But even if the tea-party faithful are listening (there’s little sign they are), and a default is avoided, the stature of the United States has already taken a big hit.
Our “exceptional nation” — a phrase used by both Republicans and Democrats — was once viewed as a model by nascent democracies. No longer. One sad example: While visiting Philadelphia this week, a courageous and well-known Egyptian civic activist was discussing her country’s struggle to write a new constitution. The drafters, she said, were leaning toward a system that gave the legislature more power than the president. “But after what is happening now in the United States,” said Dalia Ziadeh, “people will be rethinking that.”
How far we have come since the heady days of the 1990s, when eager civic activists from ex-communist and third-world countries looked to U.S. experts to show them how a multiparty system worked.
Indeed, America’s longtime allies are bewildered by a system where a small minority of legislators can hijack Congress. They also can’t understand why Congress has to vote separately to authorize the borrowing of funds to pay for expenses it has already approved. Perhaps because no other modern democracy except Denmark has such a system.
The commentary in friendly countries has been scathing.
“For a country that fancies itself the greatest democracy on Earth, the fact that a small band of outliers in one party can essentially shut down the federal government over a petty political brawl seems woefully undemocratic,” Lee-Anne Goodman of Canadian Press told the Talking Points Memo blog. Le Monde columnist Alain Frachon told the New York Times that “Washington is looking more like the Italian political system, with its permanent crises.”
David Usborne wrote in the British newspaper The Independent: “America is indeed exceptional, at least in terms of its place in the global financial system,” but “in almost every other respect right now it is starting to look exceptionally silly.” Even if a budget and debt-ceiling deal is completed in the next two weeks, he added, “that is a long time for the rest of the world to wait.” The markets may start to get spooked before then.
Which brings us to the larger point. As a superpower whose currency and Treasury bills are the bedrock of the global financial system, the United States must act reliably. Otherwise the international economic system will tremble. To quote Usborne again, “If one country really aspires to be the grown-up in the room it needs to behave as such.”
Instead, the current U.S. dysfunction is unsettling countries on every continent. President Obama — who has long made clear his desire to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy attention toward Asia — had to cancel a critical trip to that region last week because of the government shutdown. This put the spotlight on Chinese President Xi Jinping as he traversed the region, offering trade and aid deals. As America’s biggest creditor, China sternly warned Congress to resolve the debt-ceiling issue soon.
Obama’s canceled trip also fed concerns of Asian allies about whether they can rely on Washington as a counterbalance against an assertive China. “Obviously we prefer a U.S. government which is working to one which is not,” complained Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Of course, allies’ concerns about America’s dysfunctional politics are dwarfed by fears of global economic calamity if the United States actually defaults on even a portion of its debt. Until now, no one thought Congress would actually go that far.
They may be correct. If Republican Speaker John Boehner finally delinks a vote on the debt limit from the extraneous issue of gutting the president’s health-care program, it will pass the House with Democratic and many Republican votes.
But Congress may actually be more dysfunctional than the outside world realizes. It may be in thrall to a small minority who, like Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., believe that “the greatest threat right now is Obamacare,” which is going to “destroy America.” To this ideological minority, a default is no problem.
If their vision carries the day, the world will soon get a lesson in just how “exceptional” our country has become.