Partisan Squabbles Raise Questions Over U.S. Global Influence The government shutdown didn't help the U.S. on the world stage. But when it comes to political dysfunction, the U.S. is far from alone.
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Partisan Squabbles Raise Questions Over U.S. Global Influence

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Partisan Squabbles Raise Questions Over U.S. Global Influence

Partisan Squabbles Raise Questions Over U.S. Global Influence

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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That's the state of America's relationship with Pakistan, now a broader look at whether America's standing in the world is in jeopardy. Last month, the Obama administration had to let Russia take a lead role on the Syria issue. U.S. prestige took another hit after reports that the NSA monitored the communications of foreign leaders. Then the government shutdown and the fight over the debt ceiling prompted new criticism of U.S. political dysfunction.

With all this in mind, NPR's Tom Gjelten examines whether the U.S. is the global leader it used to be.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The United States has long been accustomed to lecturing other countries - how to be more democratic or how to run their economies more efficiently. But when the International Monetary Fund met in Washington earlier this month, it was the U.S. on the hot seat. The prevailing view: By flirting with default on its debts, Washington threatened the whole global economy.

IMF director Christine Lagarde made that point on NBC's "Meet the Press" in the midst of the debt crisis.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE: If there is that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the U.S. signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over.

GJELTEN: In the aftermath of the debt fight, the concern was that the U.S. government, from here on, may be unable to deliver on treaty and trade commitments. Global rivals like China might pull ahead.

Columnist Marc Thiessen has often criticized some of his fellow conservatives for being Isolationist. But he doubts the brinksmanship by Tea Party Republicans really hurt U.S. standing in the world.

MARC THIESSEN: I don't think, quite frankly, that there's been any lasting damage from this standoff.

GJELTEN: The budget standoff. But Thiessen does think U.S. leadership in the world was damaged when Syria used chemical weapons and President Obama did not respond militarily, as he had threatened to.

THIESSEN: Every adversary we have - from Al-Qaida to Hamas, potentially China, to North Korea, to Iran - looked at Syria and said this president drew a line in the sand and didn't enforce it. Why do we have to worry about him?

GJELTEN: Of course, a big reason President Obama seemed to back down on his Syria red line was that he didn't have support from Congress to follow through on his threat of military action. That problem of divided government, again, making it more difficult for a President to take a stand in the world.

That does hurt the United States, says writer Moises Naim, just like political dysfunction hurts other countries.

MOISES NAIM: Democracies around the world have become Italian. World political systems are becoming more and more like that of Italy; gridlock and inaction and very small groups that have the ability to block initiatives of the majority. That's becoming a common pattern around the world.

GJELTEN: Naim, a former minister of trade in Venezuela, lays out that thesis in his book "The End of Power." Yes, the United States has lost influence, he says, but so have other countries.

NAIM: In international relations, what matters is not absolute power, is relative power. So instead of just looking at the United States and comparing it to itself a few years ago, one needs to look at others, at their rivals. How is China doing? How is Russia doing? How is Europe doing?

GJELTEN: They all have problems. They've all been embarrassed on the global stage for one reason or another. So, maybe Americans shouldn't be too discouraged by their loss of stature in the world. In some areas like energy, the U.S. is a rising power.

Thomas Wright is a fellow with the Managing Global Order Project at the Brookings Institution.

THOMAS WRIGHT: The underlying trend lines are very good for the United States. There's lots of positive news on the horizon. And the U.S. should not think of itself as a declining power because that will just lead to a counterproductive foreign policy and a counterproductive economic policy.

GJELTEN: Still, even if other countries are just as hamstrung as the United States is, the news is disturbing.

Moises Naim, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees a general trend of governments not taking politically difficult steps for the sake of the broader world. Trade agreements and global treaties get harder to negotiate.

NAIM: We have a lot of problems that require countries to collaborate. At the same time, the capacity of countries to work together has become either stagnant or declining. And the reason is that because they don't have a lot of power at home, there are compromises that they simply cannot make.

GJELTEN: So the United States is in a weaker position globally. But even worse, so is everyone else, meaning the world has become less manageable.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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