The World Is Laughing At The United States Over The Government Shutdown

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SHUTDOWN CAPITOL PARKING METER
The US Congress building is seen behind a parking meter in Washington, DC, October 14, 2013. The crisis over a US government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff continues into the third week of the shutdown. With just three days before the US Treasury exhausts its borrowing authority, and the government entering its third week of a crippling shutdown, lawmakers have scrambled to work out a deal that would resolve both crises. AFP PHOTO/ MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANT | Getty

WASHINGTON -- "When we get this moment of political silliness behind us," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at at an Asia-Pacific leaders conference in Bali on 5 October, "we will get back on a track the world will respect and want to be part of."

If you say so, Mr Secretary. Both politicians and pundits here in the country's capital seem to underestimate how difficult it will be to undo the damage that's being done to the reputation and standing of the United States by the federal government 'shutdown' that began on 1 October.

The world is laughing at America. Not since Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe offered to send observers to help with US presidential elections, in the wake of Florida's 'hanging chad' debacle in 2000, has it been this easy to poke fun at the most powerful nation on earth.

Yes, the United States. The richest economy on the globe. The planet's proudest democracy. The world's only superpower. And it doesn't have a functioning government. Out of choice.

In the short run, there may be a silver lining in all this silliness for the Secretary of State. As America's top diplomat, Kerry has had to try and keep a lid on growing anti-Americanism, provoked by the Obama administration's drone war in Pakistan, its failure to shut the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the NSA mass surveillance scandal.

But it's pretty difficult to fear or loathe a country that isn't able to keep its own government up and running. The truth is that the rest of the world can't hate America if it's too busy mocking it. (My favourite tweet of the past fortnight? British comedian Tiernan Douieb joked: "Psssst! World! While the US is #shutdown, why don't we all hide? Then when they come back they won't know where we are! Tee hee!")

Then again, it isn't just Brits like myself who roll our eyes as we wander around a weirdly quiet Washington DC - or wonder what went wrong with the 'land of the free' since our American cousins kicked us out in 1775. As US chat show host David Letterman deadpanned on 9 October: "It's day nine of the government shutdown. Are you like me? Are you beginning to miss the days when we were ruled by a mad English king?"

shutdown washington dc quiet

All tours of Capitol Hill have been cancelled since the shutdown began at the start of October

Furloughed federal employees are starting to see the lighter side of all this, too. "You want to meet up for a coffee while you're in town?" asked a friend who works at State Department, a wide grin on her face. "I have a lot of free time on my hands at the moment."

All jokes aside, of course, this isn't a laughing matter. Well, okay, it is - but it probably shouldn't be. Tiny Belgium (population, 11 million) went without an elected government for 589 days between 2010 and 2011, and the rest of Europe guffawed. Yet Belgian government employees continued to be paid and public services were provided throughout that particular 19-month period. Not in the mighty US of A, however, where 800,000 federal employees have been sent home without pay, cancer patients have been turned away from clinical trials and all routine food safety inspections have been suspended. This is the United States as banana republic, not federal republic.

Meanwhile, the very real, economic threat to the rest of the globe from the self-imposed shutdown was spelled out bluntly by the UK's prime minister, David Cameron, a close friend and ally of President Obama: "It is a risk to the world economy if the US can’t properly sort out its spending plans."

Here's the biggest problem of all: US politicians such as Kerry may want to put "this moment of silliness behind us" but there will be plenty more such moments. The crisis - the silliness - is nowhere near over. On Thursday, America could default on its external debts for the first time since.. wait for it.. 1790. Again, out of choice. If the row over the debt ceiling isn't resolved by Congress, reported the Washington Post on Monday, "the Obama administration will have to decide whether to delay - or possibly suspend - tens of billions of dollars in Social Security checks, food stamps and unemployment benefits".

Remember: the US federal government is in a partial shutdown but the US Congress isn't. At a rare Sunday session of the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid urged his fellow (paid) legislators "to reopen the government" - but Tea Party Republicans were in no mood to listen.

On Monday, I found reporters on the Hill camped outside the office of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. They were peppering his aides with questions. Would McConnell do a deal with Reid? Was he optimistic? Did he even have the power to bring his recalcitrant Republican colleagues to the table?

I bumped into Barbara Mikulsi, a long-serving Democrat from Maryland, in a frescoed hallway of the Capitol building.

"This is not a parliamentary system [like the UK]," she said, jabbing her finger at me. For Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, the US political system isn't broken. She dismissed talk of "golden ages", arguing that the current impasse on Capitol Hill is no different to previous and partisan rows - over budgets, civil rights and the rest.

barbara mikulski

Senator Barbara Mikulski isn't a believer in a 'golden age' of US politics or compromise

Perhaps the senator should have a word with Norman Ornstein and James Mann. In 2012, these two congressional scholars, who have been based in Washington DC for more than four decades, co-authored a book appropriately entitled It's Even Worse Than It Looks, in which they refer to the modern Republican Party as an "insurgent outlier" whose "ideologically extreme" elected representatives have "become more loyal to party than to country”.

The result? A political system, they say, that is "grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats.. The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively."

In fact, Mikulski and her colleagues, plus John Kerry, should all brush up on their Arnold Toynbee, as well as Ornstein and Mann. "Civilisations," wrote the legendary English historian of empire, "die from suicide, not murder."

Congress, it seems, is bent on proving Toynbee right.

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