The U.S. performance on the global stage has looked a little rocky in the last few weeks.
The Obama administration had to let Russia take a lead in managing the security challenge in Syria. The United States was also embarrassed when allies like Germany, France and Brazil reacted angrily to the news that the National Security Agency had monitored their leaders’ communications.
Finally, the government shutdown and the congressional fight over the debt ceiling prompted critical comments about U.S. political dysfunction.
“There is no doubt the reputation, prestige, and allure of the United States has taken a hit,” says Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the past, the United States has been accustomed to lecturing other countries on how to be more democratic or run their economies more efficiently.
But when the International Monetary Fund met in Washington earlier this month, it was the U.S. on the hot seat. The prevailing view among the finance officials in attendance was that Washington was threatening the whole global economy by flirting with default on its debts. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in the midst of the debt crisis, IMF Director Christine Lagarde took a scolding tone.
“If there is that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the U.S. signature,” she said, “it would mean massive disruption the world over.”
Even after the debt ceiling fight was resolved, concerns about U.S. global leadership lingered. Perhaps the U.S. government from here on will be unable to deliver on treaty and trade commitments. Global rivals like China might pull ahead.
Some commentators suggested that by engaging in brinkmanship, the Tea Party Republicans in Congress had weakened the U.S. position in the world.
Conservative columnist Marc Thiessen has criticized some elements of the Tea Party movement for their “isolationist” views and their willingness to disengage the United States from its global responsibilities.
Thiessen, however, sympathizes with those Republicans who were willing to use the debt ceiling fight to extract political concessions from the White House, and he downplays its effect on U.S. global standing.
“I don’t think quite frankly that there’s been any lasting damage from this standoff,” he says. Thiessen thinks a more serious challenge to U.S. prestige came when Syria used chemical weapons and President Obama did not respond militarily, as he had threatened to.
“Every adversary we have — from al-Qaida to Hamas, potentially China, to North Korea, to Iran — looked at Syria and said, ‘This president drew a line in the sand and didn’t enforce it. Why do we have to worry about him?'” Thiessen argues. “They’re not making those calculations because of the budget standoff.”
Of course, a big reason Obama seemed to back down on his Syria “red line” was that he didn’t have support from Congress to follow through on his threat of taking military action. It was another instance of a divided government making it more difficult for a president to take a bold stand in the world.
Such cases hurt the United States, says Naim, but political dysfunction hurts other countries, as well.
“Democracies around the world have become Italian,” says Naim. “World political systems are becoming more and more like that of Italy. [They have] gridlock and inaction and very small groups that have the ability to block initiatives of the majority. That’s becoming a common pattern around the world.”
Naim, a former minister of industry and trade in Venezuela, lays out numerous examples of that pattern in his book The End of Power.
A similar argument comes from Thomas Wright, a fellow in the Managing Global Order project at the Brookings Institution.
“All countries have problems,” Wright says. “The question is, How do those problems stack up relative to each other? I think America’s problems are more solvable than [those of] many other countries.”
China is dealing with major environmental contamination and high-level political infighting. Russia is struggling with corruption and crime. Economic recovery is proceeding far more slowly in Europe than in the United States. America is hardly alone in being embarrassed on the global stage.
In some areas, like energy, the United States is actually a rising power.
“The underlying trend lines are very good for the United States,” says Wright. “There is lots of positive news on the horizon. The U.S. should not think of itself as a declining power, because that will just lead to a counterproductive foreign policy and a counterproductive economic policy.”
Still, even if it is true that other countries are just as hamstrung as the United States is, the news is disturbing. Naim sees a general trend of governments not taking politically difficult steps for the sake of the broader world. Trade agreements and global treaties may get harder to negotiate.
“We have a lot of problems that require countries to collaborate,” Naim says. “At the same time, the capacity of countries to work together has become either stagnant or is declining. And the reason is, because they don’t have a lot of power at home, there are compromises that they simply cannot make. “
So the United States finds itself in a weaker position globally. But what’s worse is that everyone else may be in that position as well, meaning the world has become less manageable.