The shutdown of the U.S. federal government hasn’t just led to closed monuments and salmonella here at home – it is seriously jeopardizing our credibility abroad. Despite the panic it’s causing and the very real pain, Americans can rely on the fact that our government will (eventually) stagger to its feet. However, whether it will be possible to repair our reputation as the world’s leader remains to be seen.
This past week, President Obama was supposed to have been headed to Asia, for a multination trip that would have included his participation in both the East Asia Summit in Brunei and in one of the year’s most important economic meetings – the annual APEC Summit. And this isn’t the first time the president has had to bail on an Asia trip – it’s the third since 2010. It isn’t even the first time he’s had to cancel because of controversy over Obamacare here at home. This is in stark contrast to the current administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia” – an attempt to seriously increase our influence in the region that is intended to be a major component of the Obama legacy.
Let’s just say that America isn’t executing a very good pivot. One of the major incentives for this push to Asia is to counterbalance China’s increasing military and economic influence in the region and to reassure increasingly nervous allies there. This year’s APEC Summit (which concluded Monday without any major conclusions reached) proved an embarrassment for the U.S. and a show of force for China.
While President Obama was stranded at home by the government shutdown (including the threat of what his political opponents would say if he left during a crisis to negotiate with Asians and not Republicans) Chinese President Xi Jinping dominated this week’s discussions. President Xi arrived triumphantly at APEC after a tour of the region, a trip that included several of the countries Obama had planned to visit. In Malaysia, he received a literal 21-gun salute and conducted successful talks on future military cooperation. In Indonesia, a country President Obama had lived in as a child, he signed deals worth billions and became the first foreigner ever to address the Indonesian Parliament – even greeting them in the local Bahasa Indonesian language. At APEC, he was the keynote speaker, declaring that, “China cannot develop in isolation of the Asia-Pacific, and the Asia-Pacific cannot prosper without China.”
In contrast, President Obama’s speech for APEC had been entitled, “America’s leadership and priorities: What they mean for the world.” Silence speaks louder than words, and America’s silence seemed to say, “America’s priority is not world leadership.”
That’s not to say there isn’t any humor in all of this. Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the summit in Obama’s stead, tried to make a joke out of it, saying, “In 2004, obviously, I worked very, very hard to replace a president… This is not what I had in mind.” And then there’s the grand tradition of the APEC “funny shirt” photo, started by President Clinton in 1993 at the summit in Seattle, when he presented all participants with matching bomber jackets for the group picture (for this, and the chance to see Vladimir Putin in a poncho, click here). However, Obama’s absence was noted even in what should have been simply silly: USA Today ran an article entitled “Kerry is in APEC Picture – Barely,” declaring “This is what happens when your president doesn’t show up for a major economic summit.”
Unfortunately, Kerry being relegated to the back row of a photo wasn’t the biggest consequence of the president’s absence. In the wake of the shutdown and our failure to follow through in Syria, many around the world are starting to doubt our ability to act abroad when we can’t even get our act together at home. Richard Heydarian, a foreign policy adviser to the Philippine Congress, demanded: “How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can’t get his own house in order?
It makes people wonder: Is the United States really in the position to come to our aid in the event of a military conflict?”
The last thing we need right now is a loss of faith in the U.S. military’s regional abilities. Japan, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is in the midst of growing its long latent military, and Japan and China are grappling over two disputed islands in the East China Sea. As always, no one is quite sure what’s going on in North Korea, and South Korea relies on the U.S. as a principal ally. Even as Defense Secretary Hagel celebrated the 60th anniversary of the American-South Korean alliance in Mr. Obama’s stead, a popular Korean newspaper labeled American policy, “strategic neglect,” and worried that “Washington’s primary concerns have veered away from Asia, the Korean Peninsula and North Korea.” Of course, the U.S. is not without strength in the region – we still have the Pacific fleet and tens of thousands of troops in Japan and South Korea. However, with even our allies questioning our reliability, one has to wonder, how much have we hurt our ability to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan?
It comes down to this: the Shutdown isn’t just emblematic of America’s political problems at home – it’s indicative of a growing isolationist movement in the American psyche. We’ve grown complacent with the idea that we’re in charge on the global stage. We’ve become so focused on our problems at home that we’re not worrying as much about events on the other side of the world, perhaps reasonably so. This is a dangerous complacency because it’s sending the wrong message to both our allies and to our competitors. The world saw the reluctance of both Congress and the American public to intervene in Syria, and it witnessed a President too mired down in his own country to show up to an important summit. In a region where China’s influence is growing, we have to be aware that there may come a time when our allies start to bet on the bigger fish. If we want to maintain the illusion of American hegemony, we need to end the shutdown, and fast.