Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously noted that “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities,” and the recent debt debate was no different. Proving true to form, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 at the zero-hour. The bill raises the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion, cuts spending by more than $900 billion over 10 years, and establishes a 12-member bipartisan House-Senate “supercommittee” to recommend up to an additional $1.5 trillion in long-term savings before the end of the year.
The rest of the world, though, didn’t like the soap opera we just went through. Foreign reaction was less than congratulatory after the last-minute agreement and focused on the intractable American political process. Following the passage of the bill, the Economist criticized all sides, calling the debt debate “kabuki-like.” Chinese credit ratings agency Dagong Global “blamed a shaky and untrustworthy political system” as it downgraded US debt. And the Russian press noted that “the obvious inability to reach an agreement that was demonstrated by political forces in the US has had an equally damaging effect on the country… The image of the country as a responsible borrower has suffered most.”
Now that the US has been on the brink of default, an unthinkable proposition until recently, it has changed the way that the rest of the world views us. There is, of course, griping that to some extent has allowed others to take a break from dealing with their own problems to criticize ours. Yet, dismissing foreign viewpoints entirely ignores the importance of taking these viewpoints into account as we burnish our global image, especially if how we go about finding solutions to our long-term challenges is starting to affect the American brand nearly as much as what solutions we find.
In addition, this criticism comes as the second act of the debt drama – the work of the supercommittee – steps into high gear. Few like it. To many, it seems like a common Congressional tactic: if at first you don’t succeed, establish a Congressional committee and kick the can down the road. As a result, the supercommittee has spurred more fodder than inspiration. Speculation over who will serve on the supercommittee has raised concerns that it will become another group fraught with ideological discord. Not surprisingly, many believe that Washington will miss another opportunity for a long-term deficit-reduction solution.
But the supercommittee, while ultimately not the desired course, must rise above these low expectations, not let ideology get in the way of finding effective solutions, and do the hard work necessary to get our fiscal house in order. Across the globe, challenges abound and neither domestic infighting nor foreign criticism of the U.S. political process will alleviate them. Maintaining US power and prestige requires having a strong global brand. And convincing a foreign audience of this strength may now require a little more than quoting Churchill.