America is wounded. Many of the wounds are self-inflicted. That befits a global power without equal. No one could damage us as much as we could damage ourselves. And many of the wounds are, for now at least, superficial. But there is blood in the water.
Imagine how we look to the world.
Imagine if you had grown up anywhere else and knew America only from a distance. You may have heard of the country that led its allies to victories in two world wars. Or you may have heard of a country that was a Cold War adversary, an imperialist manipulator, a source of aid, a bully, but nonetheless a source of strength.
Whatever the America you imagined, it was almost certainly not the one you see via the headlines today, a laughingstock, a subject of scorn, and the inspiration not for hopes as before, but for such doubts as have never existed before.
Try to listen with fresh ears to the ridiculous debate that has shut down the U.S. government and brought it within a stone's throw of default. Don't listen as a partisan. Listen objectively and ask: Is there any way to regard the name-calling and the inflexibility as something other than a system that has ceased to be able to fulfill the most rudimentary requirements of governance? It is shameful. There is no acceptable defense or rationale for it.
While the Republican Party certainly bears the great lion's share of the responsibility for this current breakdown of sense and civility, that point requires an attention to the details of American politics few average citizens elsewhere care to muster. The watching world doesn't see the details. They see the nightly news snippets and the tweets. How can they think anything but that this is a political system in extremis, a country likely in decline? (Furthermore, part of the reason this sad display resonates is that it is not the first such breakdown and there is every reason to believe it will not be the last.)
It is undeniable that the government shutdown will likely be only a momentary lapse. It will end with an agreement to push the hard questions further down the road, much as is likely to be the case later this month when the problem of raising the debt ceiling is also encountered. The big financial problems America faces will not be addressed this year or next year, nor indeed are they likely to be addressed for years to come. That is the sad truth: The faux-heroic stands made by these cardboard statesmen are over trivia and tactics. The worst thing about these hollow spats is that they virtually ensure America will not grapple with the real big issues of our day -- issues of investment, innovation, education, climate, and restored equity or sustainably growth that would be essential to regaining our footing and becoming, once again, the America of our self-image and the world's expectations.
But it's not just that Washington has failed to meet the most basic requirements of competent governance that is harming this country's standing. Consider even the most recent foreign-policy achievements of the Obama administration: the unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and the faint, flicker of hope that the prospect of talks with Iran offers.
While these are certainly sources of cautious hope, it is still impossible not to wonder whether our rivals and adversaries are more willing to negotiate with the United States now because they feel our weakness and think they're likely to get a better deal today than they might have in the past.
This perception of weakness is not just the product of the bouts of dithering and the aimlessness of U.S. foreign policy during the past several months -- our inability to offer up coherent, effective responses or real leadership in the face of crises in Egypt and Syria. It is not just the fact that some of our recent "victories" appear to be unraveling -- Osama bin Laden is dead but extremism is resurgent across the Middle East and Africa, Iraq is rocked daily by violence, our intervention in Libya seems as though it may end up having traded its despot for chaos, and our departure from Afghanistan may likely create an opportunity for those we sought to depose to return to influence.
Our weakened position is not just due to the fact that our growth has slowed and we have only slowly and partially recovered from the great financial crisis of 2008-2009. Nor is it due to the fact that new powers, especially China, seem likely to be the epicenter of the world's fastest economic growth over the decades ahead. It is not just because our students don't perform to the standards of dozens of other nations in math and science. It is not just because our allies in Europe are weakened, nor is it due to the continuing revelations of American violations of the trust of those allies and others thanks to the abuses of our state surveillance apparatus.