What the Current U.S. Political Dysfunction Means to and for Asia

Asians know that the United States is the strongest country in the world; their question is how long it will remain so. The American genius has been, not to avoid major domestic errors, but to recover from them relatively quickly and emerge stronger than ever from the experience. Asian strategists now question whether the United States is losing that fundamental bounce-back capability. The recent debt ceiling spectacle and related events in Washington have intensified those concerns.T he damage is potentially wide ranging.

The global financial crisis of 2008-09 deeply tarnished America’s reputation in Asia as a steward of the global economy. Recent paralysis in Washington has raised new questions about the political system’s ability to address even whether the country will honor its debts. This embarrassing display has reduced the allure of the American political model as a system that gets things done despite divided government. By calling into question whether America still “works,” domestic political dysfunction is reducing US credibility as a regional and global leader.
The interim solution to the debt ceiling crisis contains a trigger mechanism that means that ongoing political paralysis will result in deep cuts to the budgets of the Defense and State Departments. Such cuts would call America’s capabilities in Asia into doubt. And Asians want strong American presidents who can make decisions and deliver on them. The latest domestic political battles highlighted President Obama’s weaknesses in precisely these areas.

Most countries in Asia do not want Beijing to be able to leverage its economic might for diplomatic and security gains. They therefore have both sought to benefit economically from China’s rise and to engage the United States in the region to balance Beijing’s growing power. To the extent that they now see America as slipping into long term decline, they will hedge their bets with greater accommodation to China, at cost to American interests.

Ardent nationalists in China argue that America’s decline makes this the right time for China to push more vigorously to assert its positions on issues around the region. China’s top leadership to date has disagreed with this conclusion. But American domestic political disarray that calls our future trajectory into doubt risks tipping the balance in the wrong direction.

The shadow of the future affects countries’ actions, and throughout Asia America’s domestic political failures risk giving that shadow an increasingly ominous shape.