STOCKHOLM, Sweden. "There is only one thing we fear more than American unilateralism," admitted a European foreign policy expert here in a recent conversation on the sidelines of a dialogue between Europeans, Americans and Chinese organized by the German Marshall Fund, "and that is American dysfunctionality."
Whether Washington is capable of making tough decisions and taking decisive action on significant issues is suddenly a topic of intense interest in India, China and Europe. The international media has recently picked up the theme, both legitimizing and amplifying it. The Economist's cover story this week was entitled "What's Gone Wrong in Washington."
Suddenly, the concern Americans' have lately been voicing to pollsters about the shortcomings of the Obama administration and voters' frustration with a "Do Nothing" Congress are being echoed all over the world. This phenomenon conclusively demonstrates that, at least for the United States, all politics are global.
The White House and Congress ignore foreign perception of their ineptitude at America's risk. Allies and adversaries who lose respect for Washington and conclude that U.S. decision-making is hamstrung on key economic, environmental and strategic issues will be tempted to challenge U.S. leadership or simply go their own way.
Power abhors a vacuum. And if Washington becomes even more dysfunctional in the run-up to the November election, which is highly probable, the world the new Congress and the administration confronts next year will be an even more difficult arena in which to pursue U.S. interests.
Much foreign criticism is focused on President Obama. "Mr. Obama should look harder at his own use of his presidential power," The Economist editorialized.
"We have spent this whole year," said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the British foreign policy think tank, in an interview with CongressDaily, "waiting to see if President Obama can take control. And we have come to the awful conclusion that Obama may not be the leader we expected."
But Congress does not escape criticism. Europeans observe that Congress is operating more and more like a parliamentary system, with party-line voting. But, unlike in European parliaments, the minority party is not restrained by the prospect of causing a government to fall and of having to fight a new election if it consistently frustrates the will of the sitting government.
Moreover, foreigners find the Senate filibuster and the need to have a supermajority to pass even elemental legislation to be fundamentally undemocratic. They are frustrated by Congress' failure to vote on a record number of administration nominees who, for foreigners, are often the personal face of the U.S. government. And they cannot understand how Congress can fail to pass healthcare reform that would still be far less than what Europeans take for granted.
Moreover, the criticism of Washington's dysfunctionality is often found not in what people say but what they don't say. Asians increasingly speak with admiration about China's ability to make tough decisions: to ramp up the world's largest economic stimulus program in the face of the recession, or to get high speed trains built on time. It should trouble Washington that Asians now cite the Chinese, not the American can-do spirit.
The first objective gauge of the cost of Washington dysfunctionality might come with annual surveys to be conducted later this year by both the Pew Global Attitudes Project and the German Marshall Fund. In 2009, these polls found exceptional support abroad for Obama and a rebound in pro-American sentiment. The Obama numbers will undoubtedly come down because they were unrealistically high. Europeans in particular thought he walked on water.
But if Obama's support slumps significantly and if that appears to drag down American approval numbers in the process, this might be sign of a broader disappointment with and frustration with Washington. The world looked to Obama to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to lead the effort to halt climate change, among other things. Global publics may judge him, and by extension the United States, harshly on these issues.
But there are also substantive consequences to U.S. dysfunctionality over the last year. Washington's failure to pass climate change legislation contributed to the decision at the Copenhagen climate summit in December that each nation should be allowed to do its own thing on curbing carbon emissions. That result increases the likelihood European nations will try to impose border taxes on carbon-intensive imports to protect their more ambitious climate change efforts. U.S. exporters may yet rue the day Congress failed to act.
Moreover, if Washington is seen as weakened, inward-looking and preoccupied, other governments may decide they have no choice but to hedge their bets in future dealings with China and Russia, undermining and complicating U.S. foreign policy leadership. "This is a seminal moment in the relative decline of American power," said Niblett. "Can President Obama regain elements of American world leadership?"
To do that, Washington, especially Congress, needs to act decisively on the major issues before it.
This article appears in the Feb. 27, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.