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. 


Daniel W. Drezner

Sometimes a superhero movie is just a superhero movie

Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott blogs about the explosion of forthcoming superhero movies, why they will suck, and what this means for American exceptionalism. 

Actually, let me put that a little differently:  James Wolcott has used prose more bloated than X-Men 3 to attempt a half-assed connection between summer popcorn flicks and America's place in the world. 

First, there's his general critique of today's superhero film: 

For old-school comic fans such as myself (who had a letter published in the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four in 1967—top that, Jonathan Franzen), these cinematic blowup editions are lacking on the fun side. The more ambitious ones aren’t meant to be much fun, apart from a finely crafted quip surgically inserted here and there to defuse the tension of everybody standing around butt-clenched and battle-ready, waiting for some laureled thespian (Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor) to elocute and class up this clambake. Even the films that play it loosey-goosier, such as the facetious Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage as a skull-blazing vigilante who chills by listening to the Carpenters), end up laying it on too heavy, faking orgasm like a porn star trying to keep Charlie Sheen’s attention. For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing. 

 Three thoughts.  First, this critique ain't exactly new.  Second, the reason this critique isn't new is that Wolcott ignores Drezner's Sturgeon's Law of Crap.  Take any artistic or literary category, and 90% of the contributions to said genre will be total crap [Does that apply to your blog posts as well?--ed.  More like 95% in my case.]  Therefore, the easiest thing in the world to blog about is how 90% of any kind of genre stinks.  Third, Wolcott clearly slept through hasn't seen the superhero films that rise above the 90% and possess a fair degree of whimsy, like, say, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles, or Iron Man.   

As for the symbolic implications for American power, er, well, here's his key paragraph: 

Why so much overcompensation? The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. But in the new millennium no amount of nationally puffing ourselves up can disguise the entropy and molt. Despite the resolute jaw of Mitt Romney and John Bolton’s mustache, American exceptionalism no longer commands the eagle wingspan to engirdle the world and keep raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since Vietnam, whatever the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform, America’s superpower might hasn’t been up to much worthy of chest-swelling, chain-snapping pride (invading a third-rate military matchstick house such as Iraq is hardly the stuff of Homeric legend), and our national sense of inviolability took a sucker punch on September 11, 2001, that dislocated our inner gyroscope. Sinister arch-villains make for high-stakes showdowns, but asymmetrical conflict has no need for them, and for all we know the cavern voice of Osama bin Laden could be a Mission: Impossible tape, poofing into smoke at the first shaft of sunlight. The subsequent War on Terror is one waged within a shadow maze of misdirection and paranoia where the enemy might be no more than a phantom army of apprehensions, viral bugs invading the neural network.

Let me be blunt -- I'm not entirely sure if Wolcott wrote this paragraph or outsourced it to a computer program that strongs together random clauses about American foreign policy.  Suffice it to say that the better superhero flicks -- both Iron Man and The Dark Knight Returns come to mind -- contain some interesting commentary on American foreign policy.  Indeed, a few years ago Jesse Walker at Reason argued, with some justification, that "Superhero stories may have begun as power fantasies, but it is our ambivalence about power that keeps the modern genre thriving."

I share Wolcott's distaste for hackneyed comic book films, but sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie.  Anyone trying to use any film released in January The Green Hornet as a metaphor for what ails American foreign policy really needs to remember that, most of the time, a bad superhero movie is just a bad superhero movie.