An unmistakable sense of unease has been growing in capitals around the world as the US government looks increasingly befuddled — shirking from a military confrontation in Syria, stymied at home by a gridlocked Congress and in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt, which could plunge the world’s financial system into chaos.
While each of the factors may be unrelated to the direct exercise of US foreign policy, taken together they give some allies the sense that Washington is not as firm as it used to be in its resolve and its financial capacity, providing an opening for China or Russia to fill the void, an Asian foreign minister told a group of journalists in New York last week.
Concerns will only deepen now that US President Barack Obama canceled travel this weekend to the APEC Forum in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei. He pulled out of the gatherings to stay home to deal with the government shutdown and looming fears that Congress will block an increase in US borrowing power, a move that could lead to a US default.
The US is still a pillar of defense for places in Asia like Taiwan and South Korea, providing a vital security umbrella against China. It also still has strong allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states arrayed against al-Qaeda and Iran.
However, in interviews with academics, government leaders and diplomats, faith that the US will always be there is fraying more than a little.
“The paralysis of the American government, where a rump in Congress is holding the whole place to ransom, doesn’t really jibe with the notion of the US as a global leader,” said Michael McKinley, an expert on global relations at the Australian National University.
The political turbulence in Washington and potential economic bombshells still to come over the US government shutdown and a possible debt default this month have sent shivers through Europe. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi worried about the continent’s rebound from the 2008 economic downturn.
“We view this recovery as weak, as fragile, as uneven,” Draghi said at a news conference.
Germany’s influential newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung bemoaned the US political chaos.
“At the moment, Washington is fighting over the budget and nobody knows if the country will still be solvent in three weeks. What is clear, though, is that America is already politically bankrupt,” it said.
Obama finds himself at the nexus of a government in chaos at home and a wave of foreign policy challenges.
He has been battered by the upheaval in the Middle East from the Arab Spring revolts after managing to extricate the US from its long, brutal and largely failed attempt to establish democracy in Iraq. He is also drawing down US forces from a more than decade-long war in Afghanistan with no real victory in sight. He leads a country whose people have no interest in taking any more military action abroad.
As Europe worries about economics, Asian allies watch in some confusion about what the US is up to with its promise to rebalance military forces and diplomacy in the face of an increasingly robust China.
Global concerns about US policy came to a head with Obama’s handling of the civil war in Syria and the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, in fact, the worries go far deeper.