Having lived and worked abroad for many years, I'm sensitive to the changing ways that foreigners look at America. Over the years, I've seen an America that was respected, hated, feared and loved. But traveling around China and Singapore last week, I was confronted repeatedly with an attitude toward America that I've never heard before: "What's up with you guys?"
Whether we were feared or loved, America was always the outsized standard by which all others were compared. What we built and what we dreamt were, to many, the definition of the future. Well, today, to many people, we look like the definition of a drunken driver — like a lifelong mentor who has gone on a binge and is no longer predictable. And, as for defining the future, the country that showed the world how to pull together to put a man on the moon and defeat Nazism and Communism, today broadcasts a politics dominated by three phrases: "You can't do that," "It's off the table" and "The president didn't know." A Singaporean official who has been going to America for decades expressed shock to me at being in Washington during the government shutdown and how old and emotionally depressed the city felt.
"Few Americans are aware of how much America has lost in this recent episode of bringing the American economy to the edge of a cliff," said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here, and the author of "The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World." "People always looked up to America as the best-run country, the most reasonable, the most sensible. And now people are asking: 'Can America manage itself and what are the implications for us'" — if it can't?
In talking to Asian college students, teachers>, diplomats and businesspeople, here is how I'd distill what was on their minds: "Are you really going to shut down your government again? Like, who does that? And, by the way, don't think that doesn't affect my business over here, because I'm holding a lot of dollars and I don't know what their value is going to be. Also, how could the people who gave us Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, HP and Google not be able to build a workable health care website? I know it had 5 million users, but there are 48 million Indonesians on Facebook!"
Worse, whenever you'd visit China or Singapore, it was always the people there who used to be on the defensive when discussing democracy. Now, as an American, you're the one who wants to steer away from that subject. After all, how much should we be bragging about a system where it takes $20 million to be elected to the Senate; or where a majority of our members of Congress choose their voters through gerrymandering rather than voters choosing them; or where voting rights laws are being weakened; or where lawmakers spend most of their free time raising money, not studying issues; or where our Congress has become a forum for legalized bribery; or where we just had a minority of a minority threaten to undermine America's credit rating if we didn't overturn an enacted law on health care; or where we can't pass even the most common-sense gun law banning assault weapons after the mass murder of schoolchildren?