Daniel W. Drezner

An Open Letter to Foreign Leaders Worried About the U.S. Debt Ceiling

Dear Rest of the World, Hi there.  Let’s get some preliminaries out of the way.  First off, I’m really sorry about the whole U.S. government shutdown/possible "possible default on the U.S. debt" thing.  I know that many of you are eager to negotiate trade treaties with the United States, and now that’s on hold.  I ...

Dear Rest of the World,

Hi there.  Let’s get some preliminaries out of the way.  First off, I’m really sorry about the whole U.S. government shutdown/possible "possible default on the U.S. debt" thing.  I know that many of you are eager to negotiate trade treaties with the United States, and now that’s on hold.  I know that the U.S. is the world’s financial anchor, and manufactured crises like this one can muck up your economies a bit.  I know that many of you are clucking at how maybe the presidential system of government ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Fair enough.  Right now America is exceptional — at racking up policy own-goals. 

All that said, can I make a teeny, tiny suggestion?  If you want the United States government to resolve this deadlock, you’re gonna have to rethink whether you can influence what is, essentially, a domestic politics game.  For example, I’m not sure that this is the best idea

China called on the U.S. to take necessary steps to avoid defaulting on government debt, in the first official comment on the shutdown impasse from Washington’s largest foreign creditor.

Noting that China is a major holder of U.S. Treasurys, Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao warned Monday that failure by the U.S. to raise its debt ceiling would have global ramifications.

"Because of this, We naturally are paying attention to financial deadlock in the U.S. and reasonably demand that the U.S. guarantee the safety of Chinese investment there," Mr. Zhu said, according to a report on the website of the official Xinhua news agency.

"On the question of the debt ceiling, the Chinese side feels the U.S. needs to take realistic and resolute steps to ensure against default on the national debt," he added.

How to put this gently…. these sorts of statements are at best futile and at worst counterproductive. 

To understand what I mean, go click here, here, here, here, and here to get a sense of the dynamics at play in the U.S. House of Representatives right now.  It doesn’t matter that the shutdown is unpopular and more people are mostly blaming Republicans.  What matters is that the representatives in most GOP districts (though not all) aren’t feeling much political pain right now.  Hell, as the links above suggest, many GOP politicians are unconvinced that a default on the debt is possible and/or undesirable.  They’re completely wrong, of course — but this is the mindset you must acknowledge right now. 

In this kind of political ecosystem, you know what won’t help?  Complaints from a possible foreign rival.  If you think GOP members of Congress will become less intransigent because of Chinese pressure, well, you haven’t been watching recent political campaigns.  If China is complaining about some aspect of U.S. policy, that’s seen as a good thing by most members of Congress. 

Is there any kind of foreign pressure that would help?  In the old days of the 1990s, I suppose a joint statement by America’s closest friends and allies might at least garner some attention.  But we’re operating in a political universe right now where the chairman of the House Rules Committee publicly articulated the GOP’s bargaining position as:  "Look. We’re not French. We don’t surrender."  So no, I doubt that would help either.

The most frustrating thing in international politics is to see a crisis and do nothing about it.  But in this case, foreign pressure on Congress – whether from friends or rivals — will do nothing to alleviate the deadlock. 

Yours very sincerely,

Daniel W. Drezner

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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