On Saturday September 30, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy struck a surprising flashpoint spending deal with Democrats to avert a painstaking government shutdown, at least for 45 days. The deal was passed as part of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until at least mid-November where Congress will steal the national spotlight once more to discuss another elusive spending bill. But, while Congress certainly demands the attention of the American public anytime a government shutdown enters the fray, America’s global competitors look on with great cynicism.
In a retooled international sphere, rising nations such as China are looking to challenge the United States’ dominance in the status quo. To an extent, they already have, with projects like the Belt and Road Initiative or the rise of BRICS, an economic alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, challenging the U.S.-dominated economic order. But the effect and frequency of government shutdowns in the United States spells trouble for America’s legitimacy abroad, not only because it possibly threatens funding to aid programs that compete with these other actors, but because it builds a case for autocratic governments as better functioning than democracies.
While looking to expand influence and strengthen partnerships around the world, American statesmen will have a tougher case to make to foreign governments to adopt democratic principles. While some Congressional lawmakers at home use the threat of a government shutdown to score political points with their constituents, this political brinkmanship threatens the security of America’s interests abroad and may lead other nations around the world to view democracy in a negative light.
Take U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific for example. While the U.S. looks to empower Indo-pacific democracies abroad to prove President Biden’s promise, “Democracies deliver,” China looks to persuade vulnerable nations that freedom and democracy can be skipped when achieving adequate development. In general, the United States places major economic sanctions on economies that are complicit in human rights abuses or averse democratic records. Nations such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran and China have all been on the end of U.S. sanctions for a host of reasons that include adversarial governments, human rights abuses or the upheaval of democratic institutions.
U.S. negotiators continue to be at a major disadvantage when trying to convince foreign representatives that democracies do, in fact, deliver progress for their people when the U.S. faces cyclical difficulties in funding its own. Developing nations, desperate for foreign investment, do not have an appetite to adopt democratic values if it means political gridlock and disrupted progress towards their policy goals. If the threat of government shutdowns persist under democratic systems, then developing nations may fear that following in the footsteps of the U.S. might be a mistake. In a world where global issues such as climate change already pose as setbacks to developing economies, the last thing they can afford to squander is progress on development. Reversely, if autocratic governments prove to provide more prosperous economic, social and political outcomes, then developing nations might be keen on trusting an autocratic-style form of government.
While in Vietnam, Biden scored a foreign policy victory by upgrading Vietnamese-U.S. relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” but largely failed to garner any promises from Vietnam towards improved democratic institutions. If the United States cannot demonstrate a smooth functioning democracy, foreign governments have the opportunity to call the United States on its bluff. For strategic American foreign policy interests, an inefficient and ineffective legislature that fails to govern, fails to persuade.
For China, Russia, Iran and other American rivals and adversaries, the depiction of the United States’ political system as flawed, chaotic and unruly in their state media only increases legitimacy to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Khamenei. When countries that look to develop partnerships with the United States or China on the international stage examine their options, there seems to be no case that the United States can make to persuade them that democratic reform could be the answer to the issues that matter to them.