This is just an assumption here, but I’m guessing that even those Republican members of Congress who forced the government to shut down believe in the importance of exporting American goods overseas. No congressional district is completely cut off from the global economy. I’m also guessing that congressional Republicans think that Asia is an important continent, or at least in the top six.
So it stands to reason that even the hardest of the hard core would think that it’s necessary, from time to time, for the U.S. president to visit Asia to solidify relationships with the people with whom we do business.
This is why it’s so embarrassing that the shutdown has forced President Obama to postpone trips to the Philippines and Malaysia. Imagine you’re the president of the Philippines, and you receive a call from Obama (as Benigno Aquino just did) telling you that, because a handful of Republicans in Congress are holding the government hostage because of their displeasure with aspects of a new health care law, he can no longer visit. You might be tempted to think that the United States is not a very serious place anymore. Or you might be tempted to think that Obama is actually facing a coup but is too embarrassed to admit it — because, in years past, one good reason for presidents of the Philippines to cancel trips was to prevent coups from taking place in their absence.
I’ve been trying to report how the government shutdown is playing overseas. One Arab official I spoke to said the impasse feeds a growing narrative across the Arab world that the sun is setting on American power. He said that when the shutdown is combined with the country’s growing isolationist sentiment, Obama’s wavering and hesitant performance in the Syria crisis, and a sense that the White House is a bit too eager to make a deal with Iran simply to extract itself from an intractable problem, it all suggests that the U.S. has lost a bit of its confidence and its sense of national purpose.
It isn’t a healthy situation when your allies don’t think they can rely on you, and when countries in Asia — the continent to which Obama would like to “pivot” his foreign policy — think they can’t count on you to visit when you said you would.
Most analysis of the overseas fallout from the shutdown has focused on issues of trade and alliances. But there’s another issue here that might flummox foreign leaders, and that is the proximate cause of the shutdown: Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Late last year, I visited Australia’s then-prime minister, Julia Gillard, in her office in Canberra, and we spoke mainly about issues of defense and foreign policy. At one point, though, the conversation shifted to the differences between Australian and American social policy.
“Australians look just with wonderment at the American debate about health care,” she said. “In the 1970s, the single biggest reason people were ending up in bankruptcy courts here was unpaid medical bills. Our medical system today, in which this wouldn’t happen to anyone, is now settled bipartisan policy. If you said to people that Medicare” — the Australian universal health care system — “should be abolished, that there would not be free public health care, and that we are going to replace it with what the Americans have in health care, people would look at you like you are nuts.”
She described what she saw as the fundamental difference between the way Australians approach issues of governance and the way Americans do.
“When you look at attitudes toward government — this is going to be a kind of overgeneralization — I think in the United States, the starting point of an American is that government can’t really work, and to the extent that it does work, you need to keep your eye on it because of an instinctive distrust of its powers and capabilities,” she said. “In Australia, people start with the belief that government can work and should work, and to the extent that it doesn’t, it just means that we need some better politicians, but government malfunction doesn’t result in a loss of faith in the institution.”
There are many good reasons for wonderment in this strange moment, but for the leaders and citizens of American allies, one of the biggest curiosities must be this: How can it be that the entire government has been shut down simply because the president tried to figure out a way to provide health insurance for all the country’s citizens?
Because, after all, what sort of country is it that wouldn’t want its citizens to have access to health care?