Liberty Is What Matters: Why Americans Should Ignore Scoffing Foreigners

What other think matters far less than preserving liberty at home.
November 4, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes on November 4, 2013.

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.

For years Congress has failed to approve individual appropriation bills, instead funding most of the government through an omnibus “continuing resolution.” This time House Republicans refused to approve money to implement ObamaCare, while Senate Democrats voted to provide the cash.

The ensuing deadlock generated criticism abroad as well as concern at home. Some analysts warned that a partial shutdown—only about 17 percent of funded activity actually came to a halt—would ruin America’ international reputation and wreck the global economy. For instance, Sina Toossi of Foreign Policy in Focus predicted “the weakening of U.S. soft‐​power” and worried that “As politicians wrangle with one another in the halls of Congress, rival powers are watching with concern and no doubt grim satisfaction as the United States takes the world economy to the edge of a cliff.” Toossi added: “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.”

Of the separate possibility of a debt default—never likely, since even if the “debt ceiling” was not raised Washington could prioritize its spending and service past obligations—the International Monetary Fund warned: “The effects of any failure to repay the debt would be felt right away, leading to potentially major disruptions in financial markets, both in the United States and abroad.” IMF head Cristine Legarde worried: “It is mission critical that this be resolved as soon as possible.”

Secretary of State John Kerry joined the America‐​bashing. Although he told foreign leaders that the controversy was merely temporary, “a moment of politics,” he also warned that if the partial shutdown was “prolonged or repeated,” people might question America’s ability to “stay the course.” Indeed, other states might wonder if America can “be counted on,” whether “the Congress [will] come through” and a presidential agreement “will be held.” He claimed that “the shutdown created temporary but real consequences in our ability to work with our partners and pursue our interests abroad.” After the GOP caved he said that the political fight “didn’t impress anyone about the power of America’s example.” Indeed, “The world will not wait for us.”

The shutdown may have been a foolish tactic doomed to failure, but this collective hand‐​wringing was silly. For all of the drang und sturm in Washington, people elsewhere in the U.S. and especially the rest of the world barely noticed. American politicians looked stupid, even pathetic. But that’s nothing new. Everything else also stayed the same.

No major federal program was eliminated. Every federal employee was paid. International policies, overseas alliances, and military deployments remained unchanged.

No aircraft carriers sailed home. No Marines were withdrawn. No bases were closed. No diplomats were recalled. No embassies were shuttered. No treaties were abrogated. No trade agreements were cancelled.

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 plans to participate in two Asian conferences and visit four Asian countries. Not from lack of travel money, but because he wanted to remain available to negotiate a settlement. Nevertheless, the Economist opined that “It was hard not to see the week as an episode in a long‐​running drama of relative American decline in the Asia‐​Pacific.” South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo warned that unnamed analysts “say the cancellation risks the integrity of the president’s so‐​called Asia pivot.” 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 “the U.S. government shutdown and looming fears about the nation’s debt levels have hurt the country’s relations with Asia particularly hard.” The president’s failure to attend the APEC summit inflamed fears “that the United States is beginning to turn back on its earlier strategy to focus more heavily on Asia not just economically, but militarily and politically as well.” 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.” Alas, Goto concluded, “undoing the damage done due to days of U.S. inaction will require considerable and consistent commitment from Washington for the long haul.”

American Security Project’s August Cole argued that the president “would have sent a powerful message to Congress as well as to America’s allies and investors overseas” had he attended: “Asia’s nations need the personal reassurance that the U.S. is economically, militarily and politically committed to supporting a historic rise in Pacific prosperity that mutually benefits America. That kind of touch can only come from the top.”

These hyperbolic fulminations ignored the fact that nothing in Asia had changed. U.S. military forces continued to provide what amounts to defense welfare to prosperous and populous allies throughout the Asia‐​Pacific. (Unfortunately!) Washington continued to back creation of the Trans‐​Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade regime. American businessmen, tourists, sailors, entertainers, and others continued to overspread the area.

Of course, the president missed some meetings. But most of the work at any international gathering is done by staff, with principals merely ratifying what has been previously agreed. None of the president’s planned trips (including a visit to Brunei, hardly a global powerhouse) were particularly important and required a presidential presence, desirable though it might have been. After all, the Secretaries of State and Commerce—officials more influential than the heads of state and government of most other nations—attended the APEC gathering.

Moreover, political leaders the world over routinely forgo foreign travel in response to domestic political crises. None of the president’s counterparts would have ventured abroad while locked in mortal political combat with their opposition. A onetime cancellation does not portend President Obama’s refusal to board a foreign‐​bound plane for the rest of his term.

Still, the dramatic evidence that the superpower has feet of clay bothered Secretary Kerry, who argued that America is the “indispensable power.” He admitted: “I know there are some Americans who don’t care how the world sees us, but in an integrated world—a genie that no politician can put back into any bottle—we have lost the luxury of looking only inward.” Indeed, “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. Is it really true that the president risks global disorder by missing one meeting or cancelling one summit? Only in the over‐​eager imaginations of egotistical Washington officials. In fact, the world demonstrated that it can get along just fine.

It is in the interests of both American and foreign leaders to hype Washington’s importance. U.S. officials enjoy their much professed 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. Massaging the ego of a succession of U.S. presidents and other officials is a small price for foreign governments to pay for the ample benefits Washington bestows on even the most indifferent of “allies.”

Cole also 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 damage from the last month “will take the better part of the next decade to repair,” he argued.

However, it’s hard to believe that one temporary partial government shutdown will besmirch America’s reputation for years—so long as America retains a vibrant free‐​market system and responsive democratic system. In fact, they are under serious threat, but not by the recent political battle. The danger comes from ever more expansive government.

ObamaCare well demonstrates the challenge. 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 a counterproductive tactic, 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. Americans should not be shamed into yielding on political disputes which, in fact, are far more important than the opinions of foreign peoples and leaders.

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations pointed to a curious Republican inconsistency: “many of these same policymakers and officials [pushing a shutdown] routinely assert that U.S. credibility is the essential underpinning for American power and influence in the world. Indeed, many militarized foreign policy activities are justified on the basis of signaling resolve to U.S. allies and adversaries.” Then why not keep the government functioning as a similar symbol, he asked?

However, hypocrisy is a constant in politics, so that should surprise no one. That shouldn’t prevent a vigorous debate over big issues. What matters most is the interest of the American people, not foreign governments.

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