Daniel W. Drezner

Does a U.S. government shutdown really hurt American foreign policy?

Does a U.S. government shutdown really hurt American foreign policy?

In his column today, Nicholas Kristof gives voice to  a sentiment shared by many within the foreign policy community:

In my travels lately, I’ve been trying to explain to Libyans, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Chinese and others the benefits of a democratic system. But if Congressional Republicans actually shut down the government this weekend, they will be making a powerful argument for autocracy. Chinese television will be all over the story.

If a high school student council refused to approve a budget so that student activities had to be canceled — even as student leaders continued to pay themselves stipends — a school board would probably cancel the entire experiment in student democracy. But I can’t imagine high school students acting so immature.

Now, this is the kind of gut-level response that most foreign policy wonks — myself included — have when initially confronting the absurdity of a government shutdown.  Surely, such a self-inflicted wound would tarnish the brand image of democracy in general and America in particular across the globe. 

Is this truthiness actually true, however?  I’m beginning to wonder if this hypothesis rests on anything other than sheer assertion.  In terms of direct effects, the U.S. military won’t be suddenly lay down their arms or anything.  As I understand it, the U.S. won’t default on debt payments until mid-May, so the financial catastrophe is still six weeks away.  So any appreciable effect rests on whether or not American soft power would be dented.   

In a brief survey of the interwebs, I could find no research paper that  researched whether the 1995/96 government shutdowns had any effect on either American foreign policy or U.S. standing abroad.  This jibes with my personal memory of this period, in which very little was written about how the shutdown affected foreign policy.  So maybe this gnashing of foreign policy teeth is a bit much. 

Of course, this was likely because the previous shutdowns didn’t last that long, the longest duration (17 days) took place during the Christmas break, and no big foreign policy crisis was going on during the shutdown.  I think it’s safe to say that the world is a wee bit closer to the end of days interesting this time around.  That said, no one expects a long stretch of no federal government, so the effect might very well be similar — which is to say, nonexistent. 

In the end, my more analytical take is that the foreign policy effects of a goverment shutdown will depend on how its resolved.  If there is little in the way of massive protests, it would signal to the rest of the world the remarkable stability of American civil society.  If steps are taken to get a grip on America’s mouning debt levels, then the aftermath of the shutdown would not necessarily leave a bad aftertaste. 

That said, there might be one residual effect for democratizing nations — a preference for parliamentary systems of government over presidential systems.  As Robert Williams and Esther Jubb observed back in the 1990s:  

The world’s other advanced industrial democracies, Germany, France, Japan and Britain, manage their budget crises without resorting to the extraordinary shutdown measures which have become a familiar feature of the American budgetary process.

This shutdown thing does seem to be unique to the American presidential system, which might cause newly emerging democracies to embrace other forms of democratic rule.  On the whole, however, this is a pretty marginal effect on American foreign policy. 

So, on second thought, if any government shutdown is over by the end of April, I think the foreign policy effects would be pretty minimal.  But I am very curious to know if there’s been any in-depth research on this question.