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Erik Brattberg Headshot

The Shutdown Hurts America's Softpower in the World

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The government shutdown, which kicked into effect at midnight as there was no last-minute deal between Democrats and Republicans, is not just a political fiasco worthy of mockery by the world beyond the Beltway, but beyond America's borders. It carries real life consequences for Americans. One aspect, however -- sadly and unfortunately ignored -- is the damaging consequences it will have for America's standing in the world. The U.S. has just, barely, survived the Syria ordeal and has reestablished itself as the leader of the free world, taking the initiative with Iran. The shutdown (and the looming debate on the debt limit) have chipped away much of its regained image as responsible leader of the free world.

The shutdown -- by bringing "non-essential" parts of the federal government to temporary halt until the budget issue is resolved -- is impeding Washington's ability to carry out an effective foreign policy. Phone calls to the Department of State from London, Paris, Stockholm or the Hague will be unanswered, at best met with a friendly voice of an answering machine. They will not understand why some 400,000 civilian employees within the Defense Department are forced to stay home from their jobs.

The shutdown is stealing attention from other, much more critical issues. Calling the shutdown "disruptive and stupid," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently noted that his department is "spending thousands of hours on complex planning for a shutdown instead of spending this time more wisely and efficiently on addressing our national security challenges." With ongoing crises in places like Syria, this is a dangerous situation.

The shutdown might be short-lived, but it will still have a damaging effect on how America is perceived, undermining its ability to exert influence in the world. The Washington elite needs to realize that its current dysfunction is a source of ridicule overseas. Europeans or for that matter, Asians and Africans, friends and foes alike, are joking about America. There will be no distinction: the president, Congress, America as a whole will be targets of cynical comments by the world media -- and don't blame them.

Europeans in particular are following the current debacle on Capitol Hill with a combination of intrigue and disgust. For a country that has traditionally led by example -- and that still depends heavily on its global 'soft power' -- this is unacceptable. For America to be able speak with authority about democracy at the international stage it must first have its own political house in order.

How American politics is perceived abroad is an important, strategic issue. More than ever, authoritarian models of governance are posing a real challenge to Western-style democracy. The "China model" of combining economic freedoms with non-democratic institutions is an increasingly attractive model for other emerging powers. Leaders, some of them in our midst, who look at the present debacle as the inability of a democracy to govern effectively, will rejoice. They will use this as a strong argument in praise of their own authoritarian way of governance. America must keep this in mind. It must provide proof, its government must demonstrate that democracy, our liberal way of organizing society, is not only right in principle, but that it is also able to bring the results expected by the majority of the population. The U.S.' ability to make this case is now being seriously undermined.

Of course, government dysfunction is not an all-American concept. Other countries too have had their fair share. The Euro crisis was in large extent engineered by European politicians. Indeed, democracy is inherently a messy process. That does not take away the edge of the damage to American soft power in the wake of the shutdown, and god forbid, the debt ceiling issue, that is the next drama to unfold.

The buzzword used to be bipartisanship. The buzzword of today is political brinkmanship, an expression most Europeans had never heard of before in the context of the United States. Having a vocal opposition is not only a healthy sign in a democracy, but it is indeed one of the key ingredients. The current political landscape in Washington, however, is distinguished by the complete inability to get things done in cooperation, whatsoever. America's political system is designed to be consensus-driven, traditionally the two parties have been able to get together to accomplish great things.

America's politicians -- agreeing that they disagree -- must come together and do what is best for the country; namely, ensuring that the government stays open, find agreements for the debt ceiling. Doing this is not only common sense; it is also in America's strategic interest!

American leadership in the world is crucial. America must find its way back to be the example others look to. We urge our friends in Congress, Republicans and Democrats and Independents alike to keep in mind the responsibility they carry for the values that made America great.

We, European friends of America are holding our breath.