A German newspaper columnist this week asked why people here were shocked by the American government stalemate that led to the recent shutdown.
After all, they’d seen it before: Republican insistence on scaling back the Affordable Care Act and the subsequent shutdown weren’t so very different from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity insistence for Greece, and the subsequent Greek cutback crisis.
While it was only one column in one newspaper, it did nicely sum up how much of the world seemed to be seeing the United States during the budget impasse: as both dysfunctional (Greece) and authoritarian (Germany).
No one was amused, however. The United States, after all, is not a bit player on the international stage like Greece. It is the unquestioned global leader. And while after a decade of controversial war it’s not so unusual for Europeans to express hostility toward the United States, many were shocked to see how hostile Americans seem to be to one another – and disinterested in how their internal fight might affect the rest of the world.
“This is pure domestic politics,” said Xenia Dormandy, an expert on the United States and its place in the world at the London think tank Chatham House. “Nobody cares about any of the international implications. There’s a lack of desire to even think about the repercussions.”
The discord will have long-term consequences, even if the United States is able to see its way through this crisis to yet another battle over spending and the debt ceiling that will come early next year, some predict.
Willem Post, an expert on U.S. politics at The Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, warned that the standoff in the United States and divisions within Europe over what to do about its own economy are causing the two continents to not take steps that would enable them to remain the dominant forces in the world despite all the talk of a rising China and a Pacific pivot.
The United States is still the world’s largest economy and will long remain the world’s most powerful nation, he noted. And Europe, troubled as it may be, remains a substantial economic force.
“This is a window of opportunity now, for two continents with shared goals, to make a partnership under which they will not diminish,” he said. “Of course, they cannot wait 20 years to make this happen. This is a moment, and it must be seized. Instead, we have dysfunctional governments on both sides of the Atlantic.”
And there will be consequences, he said.
“For us, failure to make progress now is an issue, but only one of many,” he said. “For our children and grandchildren, it is a looming disaster.”
Made all the more incomprehensible to Europeans because of the American role in it. For Europeans, their own dysfunctions makes sense; the European Union, after all, is made up of 28 nations with competing interests, while the Eurozone, where the euro is the currency, is composed of 17 nations with differing economic needs and styles.
But the United States is a single nation.
“Europeans really don’t understand,” he said. “The United States is the model democracy, it should be leading by example. Instead, there is no talking, there is no compromise. The lesson to the rest of the world is that the United States these days can’t be relied upon.”
President Barack Obama said as much Thursday in remarks from the White House.
“Probably nothing has done more damage to America’s credibility in the world, our standing with other countries, than the spectacle that we’ve seen these past several weeks,” he said. “It’s encouraged our enemies. It’s emboldened our competitors. And it’s depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership.”
The impact of the standoff came through in a commentary distributed earlier this week by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, in which the writer suggested that given the current crisis “it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”
The piece posited that the time has come for the world to leave the dollar behind as the international standard currency, a move that would be disastrous for American consumers used to low prices on imports.
The piece goes on in even stronger language to denounce the United States for its international policies. “Under what is known as the Pax-Americana, we fail to see a world where the United States is helping to defuse violence and conflicts . . . instead of honoring its duties as a responsible leading power, a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world.”
The language of the piece is harsh, but the thoughts are hardly fresh. And they won’t go away simply because the United States, once again, drove up to the edge of the cliff and dangled the world economy for a while before deciding not to actually drop it.
Earlier this year, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gave a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, encapsulating recent global history and the end of “The American Century.”
“The world was bipolar with the domination of the United States and the USSR,” Fabius said. “It was then, for a short time, uni-polar, dominated by the United States. In the future, we all want it to become multi-polar, with regulated multi-polarity. For the moment, in my view, it is zero-polar.”
As such, the global cost of this government shutdown shouldn’t be measured in dollars as much as in prestige, some analysts say. And in those terms, the losses were steep.
Joerg Wolf, editor in chief and a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Community, a Berlin-based think tank, noted that “it is mind boggling that politicians are so slow to see the costs of their actions.”
Wolf wonders if politicians really need to experience the consequences to appreciate them.
“The perception in the United States Congress does seem to be that if a default causes problems for China, that’s China’s problem,” he said. “The U.S. is playing with fire. There will be blowback.”
Lesley Clark contributed from Washington.