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Micah Zenko

Estimated Recovery Time

Will the self-inflicted political wound of the U.S. government shutdown ever heal?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 1971, artist Chris Burden performed his iconic “Shoot” piece before a dozen friends gathered in the F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana, California. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt while standing in front of a white wall, a friend shot a copper jacket bullet from a .22-long rifle into Burden’s upper left arm from a distance of 15 feet. The bullet was intended to merely knick the arm, but it went clean through, sending Burden to the hospital and requiring that he report the “accident” to the police. Burden refrained from revealing exactly why he undertook the drastic act, though he noted that the Vietnam War played some part. He left the piece open to interpretation, later acknowledging, “I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.” (There is a fascinating retrospective of Burden’s career at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan that runs through January 14.)

Burden’s performance piece of deliberate self-harm comes to mind when watching the behavior of policymakers on Capitol Hill throughout the 16-day federal government shutdown saga. Unfortunately, unlike Burden’s one-time action, Congress’s purposeless drama will be staged yet again in three months.

The policymakers most directly responsible for the shutdown (scores of House Republicans, and a few on the Senate side) apparently believe that they can achieve the three goals of all politicians — get elected and re-elected, then earn power and wealth through political connections once retired — without compromising on their principles, since they are relatively insulated from the harm inflicted by their manufactured dysfunction. This disconnect recalls how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper characterized Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s decision-making calculus: “You know, his view of the world may not be necessarily fact-based, particularly when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

The United States certainly pays some price in achieving its foreign policy objectives as a consequence of Washington’s debilitated politics and governance, and it is no coincidence that many of the same politicians who want a smaller federal government with reduced powers at home advocate for limiting U.S. commitments abroad. However, it is difficult to evaluate what the costs are in real-time, and it is easy to over-interpret current events as evidence of lasting structural changes. Previous predictions of America’s internal decline and diminished global influence have proven incorrect, though these claims often pretend there was once an era of U.S. omniscience and omnipresence.

The 31 U.S. mutual defense treaty allies — the 27 other members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia — might doubt America’s commitments to their territorial defense because of Washington’s recent political chaos. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel admitted last week: “Our allies are asking questions: Can we rely on our partnership with America? Will America fulfill its commitments and its promises?” Allies are constantly asking these questions, pressing Pentagon officials to re-articulate what military capabilities the United States will provide to deter and defend against various threats. There was a comparable sense of America’s global retreat during the Iraq War, which was crystallized by Donald Rumsfeld’s 2004 decision to redeploy the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from the South Korean DMZ to Iraq. President Obama’s decision to fight with Capitol Hill rather than attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and Association of South-East Asian Nations summit does not help.

There are also direct economic costs to Washington’s needless budgetary fights, which can impinge upon those “elements of national power” — known as the DIME (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) — that purportedly underpin U.S. grand strategy. Macroeconomic Advisers determined that fiscal policy uncertainty since 2009 “lowered GDP growth by 0.3 percentage points per year, and raised the unemployment rate in 2013 by 0.6 percentage points, equivalent to 900,000 lost jobs.” Since March, the sequester has indiscriminately cut $109 billion, split between defense and non-defense spending, from the discretionary budget, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently warned risks military readiness. Meanwhile, Standard and Poor’s estimated that the shutdown alone “shaved at least 0.6 per cent off of annualized fourth-quarter 2013 GDP growth, or taken $24bn out of the economy.” As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (and my boss) rightly noted in Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order, “America’s lack of fiscal discipline has contributed far more to its loss of power and influence than [the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq].”

Yet the foundation of any functioning state — for domestic or foreign policy — is its capacity for governance, which “consists of the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised,” according to the World Bank. Here, the Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators are useful for comparing where the United States ranks among the world’s growing countries and territories — the total has increased from 178 to 215. The governance measurement includes how governments are “selected, monitored and replaced”; their capacity to “effectively formulate and implement sound policies; and “the respect of citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them.” These variables are represented in six aggregate indicators drawn from 31 data sources and then rescaled and combined with a methodology that you can read more about here. The chart below summarizes U.S. governance over the past 18 years and its percentage ranking.

Several stark points jump out from the World Bank’s rankings. First, comparatively speaking, the United States either initiates or experiences a great deal of international tensions, warfare, and terrorism. There are nine individual data sources used to construct this indicator including “armed conflict,” “costs of terrorism,” and “frequency of torture.” Second, there has not been the precipitous drop-off in governance that one would surmise from repeated exposure to the declinists featured on cable television and editorial pages. Third, America is not number one in any indicator, at any time, but is a solid B/B+ student in the world’s classroom. To comprehend what advantages in the world this potentially provides, it is useful to understand just how far ahead the United States is in front of China, India, or Russia in every single indicator.

Washington’s dismal politics may be getting worse, but the enduring hardware and software of governance assures that the United States will remain an above-average country — relative to other states and territories — for the foreseeable future. The question is whether confronting each mini-crisis fomented by veto players on the Hill is a temporary glitch or a permanent and defining feature of American politics. The ultimate and incalculable penalty for dealing with events like the government shutdown is the opportunity cost of applying finite time and resources to political theater rather than tangible policy accomplishments. 

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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