Americans’ Liberty Matters More than Washington’s Credibility

For two weeks most Americans didn’t notice that the federal government had closed.  Other nations complained that the shutdown undercut America’s position as a great power, but Americans must debate fundamental issues despite the criticism of foreign governments.

Some analysts worried that the partisan budget deadlock would ruin America’s international reputation.  For instance, Sina Toossi of Foreign Policy in Focus argued:  “It is clear that politicking in Washington is reaching the point where consequential damage is being done to the broader and longer term national interests of the United States.”

Secretary of State John Kerry joined the America-bashing.  He warned that if the partial shutdown was “prolonged or repeated,” people might question America’s ability to “stay the course” and whether the U.S. can “be counted on.” 

The shutdown may have been a foolish political tactic, but such hand-wringing was silly.  For all of the drang und sturm in Washington, people elsewhere barely noticed.  American politicians looked stupid, but that’s nothing new.  International policies, treaties, and alliances remained unchanged.

Moreover, as I pointed out in my latest Forbes online column:

Even more important, nothing changed outside of government.  The U.S. economy remained the world’s largest and most productive.  American entrepreneurs continued to circle the globe looking for business opportunities.  U.S. culture continued to hold sway most everywhere people travel and electromagnetic waves reach.  American people continued to visit other nations as tourists, athletes, missionaries, educators, and humanitarians.  The world didn’t wait on the U.S. since the American people didn’t wait on their government.

President Obama did cancel a trip to Asia.  Aleksius Jemadu of Indonesia’s Pelita Harapan University opined that the “Obama administration has to convince again partners in Asia that the United States is really serious about the plan to focus on Asia.”  Shihoko Goto of the Woodrow Wilson International Center similarly contended that even a friend like Japan is “beginning to regard Washington’s political impasse as the beginning of the end of U.S. influence in the region.” 

Yet Washington’s Asia policy remained the same.  U.S. military forces continued to provide what amounts to defense welfare to prosperous and populous allies throughout the Asia-Pacific.  (Unfortunately!) 

Of course, the president missed some meetings.  But most of the work at international gatherings is done by staff, and none of the president’s planned trips were particularly important.  The Secretaries of State and Commerce—officials more influential than the heads of state and government of most other nations—attended the largest gathering.  Moreover, political leaders the world over routinely forgo foreign travel in response to domestic political crises. 

Still, Secretary Kerry was worried:  “The question no longer is whether our politics stops at the water’s edge, but whether our politics stops us from providing the leadership that the world needs.”

Yet a world so utterly dependent on the U.S. is not good for the U.S., let alone the rest of the world.  In fact, American and foreign leaders alike hype Washington’s importance for their own ends.  U.S. officials enjoy their supposed indispensability and bask in lavish attention accorded by other states.  Foreign governments enjoy foisting their most difficult problems on America while benefiting from all manner of financial and military subsidies. 

American Security Project’s August Cole complained that “America is losing its ability to lead globally on the strength of its actions and ideas, to support a vibrant free-market system, to nurture a responsive democratic political system and to uphold a social contract that honors economic and social progress.” 

The nation’s vibrant free-market system and responsive democratic system are under serious threat, but not from the recent political battle.  The danger comes from ever more expansive government. 

For instance, Washington’s take over of American health care is bending the cost curve up.  By inflating health insurance expenses government is threatening economic growth and job creation.  By raising government costs the Obama program is weakening federal finances.  Finally, by imposing unpopular legislation amid a cascade of lies—such as that everyone could keep their own insurance if they wanted—the administration is undercutting American democracy.

While the shutdown was counterproductive, only political vigilance and concerted action can preserve a vibrant market economy and responsive political democracy.  That battle must be fought even if other nations look askance at the result.  What other think matters far less than preserving liberty at home.