An unmistakable sense of unease has been growing in capitals around the world as the U.S. government from afar looks increasingly befuddled — shirking from a military confrontation in Syria, stymied at home by a gridlocked Congress and in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt, which could plunge the world’s financial system into chaos.
While each of the factors may be unrelated to the direct exercise of U.S. foreign policy, taken together they give some allies the sense that Washington is not as firm as it used to be in its resolve and its financial capacity, providing an opening for China or Russia to fill the void, an Asian foreign minister told a group of journalists in New York this week.
Concerns will only deepen now that President Barack Obama canceled travel this weekend to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei. He pulled out of the gatherings to stay home to deal with the government shutdown and looming fears that Congress will block an increase in U.S. borrowing power, a move that could lead to a U.S. default.
The U.S. is still a pillar of defense for places in Asia such as Taiwan and South Korea, providing a vital security umbrella against China. It also still has strong allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states arrayed against al-Qaida and Iran.
But in interviews with academics, government leaders and diplomats, faith that the U.S. will always be there is fraying more than a little.
“The paralysis of the American government, where a rump in Congress is holding the whole place to ransom, doesn’t really jibe with the notion of the United States as a global leader,” said Michael McKinley, an expert on global relations at the Australian National University.
The political turbulence in Washington and potential economic bombshells still to come over the U.S. government shutdown and a possible debt default this month have sent shivers through Europe. The head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, worried about the continent’s rebound from the 2008 economic downturn.
“We view this recovery as weak, as fragile, as uneven,” Draghi said at a news conference.
Germany’s influential newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung bemoaned the U.S. political chaos.
“At the moment, Washington is fighting over the budget, and nobody knows if the country will still be solvent in three weeks. What is clear, though, is that America is already politically bankrupt,” it said.
Obama finds himself at the nexus of a government in chaos at home and a wave of foreign-policy challenges.
He has been battered by the upheaval in the Middle East from the Arab Spring revolts after managing to extricate the U.S. from its long, brutal and largely failed attempt to establish democracy in Iraq. He is also drawing down U.S. forces from a more than decade-long war in Afghanistan with no real victory in sight. He leads a country whose people have no interest in taking any more military action abroad.
As Europe worries about economics, Asian allies watch in some confusion about what the U.S. is up to with its promise to rebalance military forces and diplomacy in the face of an increasingly robust China.
Global concerns about U.S. policy came to a head with Obama’s handling of the civil war in Syria and the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of President Bashar Assad. But, in fact, the worries go far deeper.
“I think there are a lot of broader concerns about the United States. They aren’t triggered simply by Syria. The reaction the United States had from the start to events in Egypt created a great deal of concern among the Gulf and the Arab states,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military affairs specialist at the Center for International Studies.