The Shutdown Is No Longer Only a Domestic Issue

10/16/2013 08:56 am ET | Updated Dec 16, 2013

The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis in Washington have begun to draw attention from the rest of the world. The failure of the U.S. to be able to perform some of the most basic tasks of governance was not likely to escape the notice of American allies, rivals and enemies. More troublingly, the possibility that the U.S. will default on its debt has caused more serious concern as that could lead to dramatic economic problems across the globe.

The crisis arises out of several different causes. The unique and quirky structure of American government, and extremist views of the radical right wing of the Republican Party are the most significant of these causes. However, to the rest of the world it simply looks like the American system is broken and the American leadership is held captive by the most extreme faction of the minority party. Every day it seems more apparent that the rest of the world is right about this.

For the U.S., this raises a major existential dilemma. The notion that the U.S. is free, even obligated, to tell other countries how to structure and run their domestic politics, is a deeply held belief among the American political elite. However, the view that no country or international organization has any right to even care about what goes on inside the U.S. a conviction that is held just as deeply.

The current crisis in Washington challenges both of these beliefs because in a world where the U.S. has assumed global leadership, the real possibility that the U.S. can no longer govern itself, or honor its debts, changes everything. The likely outcome is still that a deal will be cut, and that that the U.S. continues to govern itself and pay its debts, but the possibility that may not occur is enough to give concern to people all over the world. Even if a deal is made, the memory of the shutdown will not recede easily, especially as the solution will probably not bring a meaningful resolution to the problem, but more likely just ensure another reckoning at a future date. A solution like this will do little to instill confidence in the U.S.

In this scenario the shutdown will not end but will transform into an enduring crisis of governance, one that has been brewing for several years. Should this happen, the quirks of the American political structure, a separation of powers which gives each branch of government and both houses of congress de facto vetoes over policy, an outsized role played by moneyed and corporate interests and outsized influence enjoyed by a minority that can charitably be described as backward looking, will be understood to contain the roots of the failure of American governance. This will dramatically undercut any attempts by the US to model, or even influence, domestic political developments elsewhere. This might be so dramatic that even policy makers will not be able to avoid recognizing the problem.

For countries like China to whom the U.S. owes a great deal of money, or to the European Union, whose financial stability is strongly tied to the U.S., the incentive to intervene is strong. If any other major economy, already facing so much debt, had partially shutdown its government and was threatening not to honor its financial obligations, the crisis would rightly be seen as global, not specific to one country or one capital. What is happening in Washington is a global event in which the rest of the world has a major stake, but the American political class, as well as the media, is unable to see it that way.

Ultimately, the crisis in Washington is a stark reminder that the U.S. can try to be a global leader, seeking to influence political outcomes around the world, lead the global economy and be a stable political and economic actor, or it can get caught up in ideological fights and fear mongering. It cannot do both. The government shutdown and debt ceiling petulance by the Republicans has damaged U.S. standing in ways that many had, foolishly, not anticipated. American soft power, for example, which has long been a delicate commodity, will be substantially reduced by these events, particularly if, as is likely, they drag on in one form or another for a while longer.

In the very big picture, the shutdown is a reminder that the U.S. is no longer the dominant global hegemon to whom the rules and limitations facing other countries do not apply. It turns out the U.S. also can be hamstrung by institutions and structures and that ideological fanaticism can damage the country's economy and global standing. The irony, or perhaps tragedy is a better word, is that the same faction who is crippling our government today, will be screaming about American exceptionalism tomorrow.