Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo during their meeting. (Source: PTI)

Big Winners of the Shutdown: China and Russia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the partial government shutdown drags on, the political cost is mounting for the White House, and the domestic consequences — from uninspected food to long airport security lines — are accumulating. There is also a widely overlooked problem: The shutdown is taking a toll on U.S. foreign policy.

With global concerns about the stability of the U.S. government rising and liberal democracy being challenged by capitalist authoritarianism, the shutdown is one more sign of a political dysfunction that America can little afford. 

It’s true that compared to previous shutdowns, this one is having relatively few day-to-day effects on American statecraft. In 2013, President Obama canceled a key diplomatic trip to the Asia-Pacific because of the Obamacare shutdown, leading to worries that the U.S. was forfeiting its leadership in the region. This time around, most of the major departments and agencies that make up the national security establishment particularly the Pentagon and the intelligence community had already received their full budgets for the fiscal year and have kept operating with minimal or no disruption.

The State Department has been significantly affected: 42 percent of domestic employees and 26 percent of those stationed abroad are furloughed. Others presumably including those who staffed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent trip to the Middle East are working without pay. It was already a time of low morale at the department, and this hardly helps. Still, the major muscle movements of U.S. diplomacy have not yet been disrupted any more than has become the norm during the Trump era, at least. 

So where is the foreign policy damage? In the realm of symbolism, because this breakdown of American governance is occurring in two contexts that give it global significance. 

The first is surging international concern about the stability and basic functionality of the U.S. government. Countries around the world are always trying to measure those qualities, because international peace and security depend on them. Yet American political dysfunction has been on the rise for decades, and over the past two years in particular, the world has witnessed an alarmingly erratic turn in U.S. policy.

A president who threatens war by tweet and reverses policy on a dime, unprecedented turnover among top foreign policy advisers, and alarmingly high levels of infighting and leaking are standard in the Trump administration. In recent weeks, there have been dueling statements about whether and how the U.S. is withdrawing from Syria, and dueling indications from the president about whether Washington will hand the counter-ISIS fight over to Turkey or devastate that country’s economy. Amid all this came the resignation of James Mattis, the secretary of defense in whom many U.S. allies and partners placed so much confidence. 

The longest shutdown in U.S. history, triggered by the whim of a president increasingly captive to the most radical parts of his base, can only worsen the growing doubts among allies and friends about whether America can still be counted upon. 

Then there is the second context: the intensifying “contest of systems” between liberal democracy and capitalist authoritarianism. The U.S. rivalries with Russia and especially China are not just about military power and diplomatic influence. They are about which system of government can best meet the needs of its people and operate effectively on the global stage. America’s competitors have been quite explicit about this. In 2017, President Xi Jinping advertised China’s system — which blends a partially free market with authoritarian political control — as “a new option for other countries and nations” around the world.

The U.S. has some inherent advantages in this contest, especially that its political system is far more open, inclusive and transparent. Yet authoritarian leaders often argue that liberal democracies are chaotic, undependable and prone to failure — precisely the message that the shutdown sends. While China is pursuing a trillion-dollar geo-economic project in the Belt and Road initiative, and Russia is re-emerging as the key player in the Middle East, the U.S. cannot even keep its government open.

The Trump administration has promised to make America respected again; it has touted its willingness to engage in great-power competition. It might start by realizing the damage — symbolic but real — this shutdown has caused.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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