Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The World Watched the U.S. Government Shutdown

By Morgan GreenePublished November 8, 2013

Although the immediate domestic effects of the recent government shutdown seem limited "” temporary job losses, the closing of federal parks and monuments, a temporary postponement of research "” the blow to American power and prestige cannot be underestimated. The shutdown undermined the U.S. global image, weakened deterrence, and slowed economic recovery in both the U.S. and abroad.
By Morgan Greene, Published 11/8/13

The effects of and responses to the U.S. government shutdown vary widely across the globe, yet observers around the world share a general sense of disbelief that a nation as strong and powerful as the U.S. could allow partisan polarization to undermine its capacity to conduct business as usual and maintain credibility. Although the immediate domestic effects seem limited— temporary job losses, the closing of federal parks and monuments, a temporary postponement of research—the blow to American power and prestige cannot be underestimated. The shutdown undermined the U.S. global image, weakened deterrence, and slowed economic recovery in both the U.S. and abroad. 

Although some countries remained confident in the U.S.'s ability to "have the wisdom to come to a consensus and solve this issue smoothly,"1 other countries viewed the shutdown as a telling sign of an America in decline and a government in disrepair. Surprisingly, some of the most aggressive criticisms of the shutdown came from the U.K., one of America's closest allies. A BBC reporter wrote, "Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers' wages. The leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing to many."2 Other countries, such as Italy, took the incident at face value, acknowledging the economic costs of the shutdown both for the U.S. and other countries as the world tries to regain its footing after the economic recession.3

Partisan polarization has increased dramatically since the 1990's, creating a near elimination of moderates and an unwavering gridlock in Congress. This is not the government that our founders envisioned, although James Madison did warn against the necessary evil of factions. Yet, political parties, which were never directly written into the Constitution, could very well produce irreparable damage to the integrity and functioning of the U.S. government. The international community has begun to suggest that the U.S. is "dysfunctional or even broken,"4 an accusation that is hard to argue with after the recent government shutdown. 

After Obama signed legislation ending the shutdown, he commented, "probably nothing has done more damage to America's credibility in the world, our standing with other countries, than the spectacle that we've seen these past several weeks."5 Once again, it is difficult to disagree. Even as business returns to usual in Washington, it is clear that this incident will have far-reaching and long-term effects on American foreign policy. Obama continued by saying that the shutdown has "encouraged our enemies, it's emboldened our competitors and depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership."6 The international community depends on the United States to enforce global norms and apply enforcement when needed. The government shutdown has led to growing concerns over America's ability to continue as the policeman for the world. American foreign policy relies on credibility for the viability of deterrents and to successfully regulate actions in unstable regions. This situation, following so shortly after the recent Syrian poison gas crisis, has led people around the world to question America's ability and willingness to provide international leadership and deter the forces working to disrupt international stability.

1) Beauchamp, Zack. "How The World Sees The Government Shutdown." ThinkProgress RSS. (accessed October 22, 2013).
2) Ibid. 
3) Craggs, Ryan. "What The Rest Of The World Thinks About The U.S. Shutdown." The Huffington Post. (accessed October 22, 2013).
4) Ibid. 
5) "JapanToday." Japan Today RSS.
dismayed-its-friends (accessed October 22, 2013).
6) Ibid.