Partisan Squabbles Raise Questions Over U.S. Global Influence

Oct 23, 2013
Originally published on October 23, 2013 7:39 pm

The U.S. performance on the global stage has looked a little rocky in the past 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 brinksmanship, 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 "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, 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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That's the state of America's relationship with Pakistan, now a broader look at whether America's standing in the world is in jeopardy. Last month, the Obama administration had to let Russia take a lead role on the Syria issue. U.S. prestige took another hit after reports that the NSA monitored the communications of foreign leaders. Then the government shutdown and the fight over the debt ceiling prompted new criticism of U.S. political dysfunction.

With all this in mind, NPR's Tom Gjelten examines whether the U.S. is the global leader it used to be.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The United States has long been accustomed to lecturing other countries - how to be more democratic or how to 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: By flirting with default on its debts, Washington threatened the whole global economy.

IMF director Christine Lagarde made that point on NBC's "Meet the Press" in the midst of the debt crisis.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE: If there is that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the U.S. signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over.

GJELTEN: In the aftermath of the debt fight, the concern was that the U.S. government, from here on, may be unable to deliver on treaty and trade commitments. Global rivals like China might pull ahead.

Columnist Marc Thiessen has often criticized some of his fellow conservatives for being Isolationist. But he doubts the brinksmanship by Tea Party Republicans really hurt U.S. standing in the world.

MARC THIESSEN: I don't think, quite frankly, that there's been any lasting damage from this standoff.

GJELTEN: The budget standoff. But Thiessen does think U.S. leadership in the world was damaged when Syria used chemical weapons and President Obama did not respond militarily, as he had threatened to.

THIESSEN: 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?

GJELTEN: Of course, a big reason President 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 military action. That problem of divided government, again, making it more difficult for a President to take a stand in the world.

That does hurt the United States, says writer Moises Naim, just like political dysfunction hurts other countries.

MOISES NAIM: Democracies around the world have become Italian. World political systems are becoming more and more like that of Italy; 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.

GJELTEN: Naim, a former minister of trade in Venezuela, lays out that thesis in his book "The End of Power." Yes, the United States has lost influence, he says, but so have other countries.

NAIM: In international relations, what matters is not absolute power, is relative power. So instead of just looking at the United States and comparing it to itself a few years ago, one needs to look at others, at their rivals. How is China doing? How is Russia doing? How is Europe doing?

GJELTEN: They all have problems. They've all been embarrassed on the global stage for one reason or another. So, maybe Americans shouldn't be too discouraged by their loss of stature in the world. In some areas like energy, the U.S. is a rising power.

Thomas Wright is a fellow with the Managing Global Order Project at the Brookings Institution.

THOMAS WRIGHT: The underlying trend lines are very good for the United States. There's lots of positive news on the horizon. And 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.

GJELTEN: Still, even if other countries are just as hamstrung as the United States is, the news is disturbing.

Moises Naim, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees a general trend of governments not taking politically difficult steps for the sake of the broader world. Trade agreements and global treaties get harder to negotiate.

NAIM: We have a lot of problems that require countries to collaborate. At the same time, the capacity of countries to work together has become either stagnant or declining. And the reason is that because they don't have a lot of power at home, there are compromises that they simply cannot make.

GJELTEN: So the United States is in a weaker position globally. But even worse, so is everyone else, meaning the world has become less manageable.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.