Although the U.S. government shutdown over domestic policy issues, the decision has implications abroad, and not just for those seeking visas to travel to the U.S.

It remains to be seen what implications a government shutdown will have for the U.S. image. Photo: Reuters

As most Muscovites were heading to work, the U.S. government shutdown over disagreements ranging from fiscal policy, the federal budget and the healthcare law known as Obamacare. The issues are all domestic ones, but the move may affect the way the United States is viewed abroad.

This shutdown is the first in the 21st century. The U.S. government closed 15 times between 1977 and 1996, lasting anywhere from three days to three weeks. The most recent shutdown, which took place between mid-December 1995 and early January 1996 lasted 21 days.

According to the Washington Post, the current shutdown is expected to be longer than the 1995-1996 one, partially because it is taking place at the end of the fiscal year.

“Back then, several appropriations bills had been signed into law, including the two that funded the military, so most of the government stayed open,” according to the Washington Post, “But this time, no appropriations bills have been signed into law. That means the entire government would have no money to operate at midnight on Sept. 30.”

While the shutdown was on the minds of hundreds of thousands of U.S. federal workers, the move did not go unnoticed by those Russians who were hoping to get U.S. visas and those Americans needing help from American Citizen Services for anything from registering the birth of a child to replacing a lost passport.

When asked about the implications of the shutdown for U.S. Embassy services in other countries like Russia, a spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said: “The Department and USAID receive funding in the annual State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. Under this law, appropriated money can remain available for expenditure for varying time periods, depending on the specific appropriation account.”

“Some money is only available for one year, while other appropriations accounts are multi-year, fee-based, or available until expended,” the spokesperson added. “In addition, because FY 2013 appropriations were not received until late March, certain State Department and USAID accounts have residual funds that will be available after Sept. 30, 2013.”

In layman’s terms, many of the Embassy services will still be available during the shutdown.

How will the shutdown affect the U.S. image abroad?

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen what long-term implications the shutdown will have for U.S. foreign policy and, particularly, for its image abroad.

Gregory Feifer, a writer and former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), sees the shutdown as “a stark example of reckless Republican zealotry” that will expose “dysfunctional American government.”

“This is a matter of domestic politics,” Feifer said. “I don't believe the U.S. government shutdown will affect President Obama's foreign policy vector in any significant way. That doesn't mean a shutdown won't affect American actions abroad, however, especially if it drags on.”


Photo: AP

According to Feifer, a shutdown may require the government to suspend spending in many areas, including on foreign aid and delay military paychecks. Moreover, tackling “the crippling effects of a shutdown would distract the White House from its typical daily business,” which could include its ability to focus on foreign policy.

“But although trips abroad may be delayed or canceled, a shutdown shouldn't affect the long-term agenda in any way that would be palpable to Russia,” Feifer said.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, argues that U.S. domestic problems like the government shutdown might impact U.S. foreign policy indirectly.

“The more controversies the U.S. faces, the more likely people focus on their own domestic problems instead of supporting interference [in other countries],” he said, implying that the U.S. government could shift funding from risky foreign policy projects to more relevant domestic problems.

Lukyanov believes that the shutdown doesn’t have very serious implications for the rest of the world. But he is concerned about the impending standoff over the raising of the U.S. debt ceiling, which must happen by mid-October or the country will default on its debt.

Both the shutdown and the debt ceiling fight send a negative message abroad, according to Lukyanov.

“The U.S. political elites absolutely don’t seem to care about the rest of the world,” he said. “It might not be important for ordinary Americans, but it creates a very unfavorable image of the country in the world.” 

James Brooke, the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia, echoes this view. He argues that many people may see the U.S. as “disorganized and lacking a consensus and ability to move ahead on” on their basic domestic problems. And this presents the country in a very negative way, according to him.

“Congressmen can’t do their jobs,” he said. “The image of the political system may be too weak and disorganized.”

Victoria I. Zhuravleva, Professor of American History and International Relations at the Russian State University for the Humanities, believes that Republicans and Democrats will have to seek a compromise, because Barack Obama will not agree to postpone the health care reform. 

"This is the key issue of his political agenda,” she said. According to Zhuravleva, the House of Representatives controlled by Republicans falls short in doing its job well because of political bias and prejudices.

"Republicans are highly likely to be blamed for the political crisis and escalating problems, not Obama and the Democrats," she said. "And this means the Democrats will go on the offense rather than defense."

Shutdown and its implications for U.S. foreign policy

When asked about the the impact of the shutdown on U.S. foreign policy, Jeffrey Mankoff, fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, said that "the political dysfunction in Washington is now visible for all around the world to see."

"At a minimum, it undermines U.S. soft power and prestige," he argues. "More concretely, the impact is likely to be limited. "Essential" activities are not being shutdown – presumably securing Syrian chemical weapons would fall into the category of "essential." Longer-term, the shutdown, and the broader dysfunction behind it, are likely to limit U.S. ambitions on the international stage. We'll still remain engaged on Syria, Iran, and other issues of high importance, but the need to deal with domestic challenges probably limits the amount of high-level attention available for big new foreign policy initiatives on other issues, including relations with Russia."

Former C.I.A. analyst Paul Goble argues that the shutdown "will suggest to other countries that the U.S. is now so preoccupied with its own problems that there is an opening for them, thus making an already dangerous world more dangerous still."

“In particular, the United States may very well be more willing to defer to major regional powers such as Russia in their relations with their neighbors and less willing to take a more active role in resolving conflicts with Iran and Syria,” Goble wrote in a column for Russia Direct.