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Friday, October 4, 2013

Experts Say Shutdown Weakens U.S. Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama speaks about the government shutdown and debt ceiling, in Rockville, Md., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Barack Obama speaks about the government shutdown and debt ceiling, in Rockville, Md., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama says he will not go to key meetings in Asia because of the government shutdown, adding to worries that the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. is weakening the U.S. abroad.

Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister says the president not being able to attend these meetings will make Asians question U.S. leadership.

Veteran Diplomat Richard Haass says the shutdown “sends the message that the country is divided,” and makes both allies and enemies question whether the U.S. is reliable.

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations writes:

“For those who claimed that attacking Syria with cruise missiles was required to maintain U.S. credibility in the eyes of Iran’s Supreme Leader, doesn’t Capitol Hill’s behavior over the past week do more to demonstrate America’s incompetence? If the foundations of functioning governance are impossible at home, shouldn’t U.S. allies question America’s commitments to their security thousands of miles away?”

Here & Now speaks to Nicholas Burns, who has served as U.S. Ambassador, Under Secretary of State, and U.S. Representative to NATO.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And in a few minutes, a Tea Party activist weighs in on how she feels the government shutdown is going.

HOBSON: But first to some of the foreign policy implications of the shutdown. President Obama has canceled his trip to Asia, where he was supposed to attend two key summits on economic and security issues. The cancellation is adding to worries in foreign policy circles that the dysfunction in Washington is weakening the U.S. abroad.

Joining us to discuss is former ambassador and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School. Ambassador Burns, thanks for coming in.


HOBSON: We'll start with the cancelation of this Asia trip. How significant is that?

BURNS: I think it's significant. You have to show up in international politics, especially when you're the global leader. You can't be a part-time leader. And here you have this extraordinary fact that our president, President Obama, cannot attend one of the most important international gatherings of the year in the most important region of the world - the Asian-Pacific Region, and we're a Pacific power - and be able to work with those leaders to resolve some of the big problems before us.

And you have the contrasting image of the president of China, Xi Jinping, visiting many of the same countries this week that the president was going to visit, of a China that's confident, that's assertive and an America that's paralyzed right now because of our government shutdown.

HOBSON: Well, did President Obama have a choice in this? Should he have gone?

BURNS: I really don't think he had a choice. Here, you've furloughed several hundred thousand federal workers. You have one of the great modern constitutional crises in American history. I don't think the public would have understood or accepted if the president had gone off for a week to Asia. So I think he was between a rock and a hard place. He made the decision he had to make. And frankly, I think some of the demands being made by the Republican leadership are just unreasonable, and they've caused this problem.

HOBSON: So you agree, then, with the veteran diplomat Richard Haass, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, who said the shutdown weakens U.S. foreign policy, simple as that.

BURNS: It affects our credibility because, you know, we are, in many ways, the irreplaceable country in the world because of our power, and countries expect us to be fully engaged on a day-by-day basis. You can't take weekends off. You can't take holidays. And if you think about things like global terrorism, our ability at all of our embassies and consulates to have everybody employed and everybody at work to defend and to be smart about how we engage with the world, it's a full-time occupation, and right now we can't be full time.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about what happens at the embassies and consulates around the world during a shutdown. You were, of course, at the State Department during the shutdown in the 1990s. How reduced is the capacity around the world?

BURNS: Oh, it's significantly reduced. What you have to do in any part of the government is declare that some people, a minority of people, will be essential personnel, and therefore they'll be exempt for the furlough. And the majority of people in most places are called nonessential personnel. It's a very difficult thing, if you're a supervisor, to tell people who've worked hard for you, sorry, you can't come in for the next week. Because of the furlough, you're nonessential.

And, in my view - and maybe you expect me to say this, because I worked for the government for a long time - the government's really important to this country. Our country can't function without the federal government every day, the broad array of agencies that, you know, do good work for the American people.

HOBSON: What about the image issue, here? Simon Johnson, the economist from MIT, has said that this situation in Washington right now - along with the sequester and maybe the debt ceiling debate coming up - just shows that the U.S. is not able to function in a way that projects power to the rest of the world.

BURNS: Part of a country's power and influence of the world, of course, is a function of its own - how it handles its own affairs at home. And the United States, for a variety of reasons over the last year or two, has given the impression that we are dysfunctional, that we can't even make basic decisions. Do we raise the debt limit? How do we tax and regulate our companies?

And if those decisions cannot be made, if we're effectively frozen in our tracks in Washington, I think it depreciates the respect that certain peoples and governments have for the United States. And frankly, a lot of foreigners are mystified how, in a democracy, where the majority does rule, in a case like the Affordable Care Act, where the president won a majority, the minority comes back and says we don't like the decision. We're now going to hold the entire government hostage. It doesn't strike people as reasonable, as they look at us. And I think it does, in the short and long term, affect negatively the way that a lot of people see us.

HOBSON: Do you think that there is a view of what is going on now in the rest of the world that we're not seeing, here, that perhaps the news reports about this in other countries look very different than what we're seeing about the government shutdown here?

BURNS: I think the news, as I've appreciated it - and I traveled last week in Europe and, of course, have been reading the foreign press. The news reports are generally confused. Why would the United States put itself in the position of being effectively semi-paralyzed, unable to operate on all cylinders, unable to attend basic meetings? There's a sense of being mystified by that confusion in Washington. So that's negative for us. We don't want to impart that kind of image.

HOBSON: Any way out of this, do you see? I mean, do you see this coming to a close soon?

BURNS: Well, I think the most serious aspect of this is if it is linked with the debt ceiling crisis, and if we cannot make a decision to raise the debt limit. If that's the case, then I think we're looking at profoundly negative economic consequences to the United States. It was very positive to see the reports that Speaker Boehner has determined that he will not allow that to happen.

HOBSON: Nicholas Burns is former ambassador and undersecretary of state, now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School. Nicholas Burns, thanks so much for coming in.

BURNS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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