American policy lost in translation

American policy lost in translation

United States President Barack Obama's recent absence from key Asian summits due to the ongoing government shutdown in Washington was regarded by many as another palpable sign of American global decline.

The contrast could not have been clearer. While the US leader went Awol, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Mr Vladimir Putin, hogged the limelight. Mr Putin even managed to crack a joke at Mr Obama's expense.

Mr Obama's no-show was both a missed opportunity and an embarrassment to his hosts. Only those involved in organising a visit by a US President can truly appreciate just what this means. As a British protocol chief once remarked: "Next to organising the arrival of an American President, the worst nightmare is being told at the last minute that he is not, after all, coming."

It is also clear that in the aftermath of Mr Obama's dithering over Syria - when he first threatened to use force but then retracted the threat - aborting another major foreign policy initiative such as a trip to Asia is not going to boost the President's ratings as a decisive leader.

Although the episode will have no lasting impact, the real problem with US foreign and security policies in Asia is the content of the policies themselves, and not so much the number of trips the Air Force One jumbo jet makes to the region.

Washington's government lockdown already tells us a great deal about the way US politicians view their global economic duties.

The fact that a gridlock exists between Congress and the President is not surprising. America's founding fathers viewed the inherent tension between the executive and lawmakers not as a regrettable fluke, but as a necessary safeguard of democratic government.

Nor is it obvious that congressmen alone are responsible for the current crisis. To suggest that legislators should never threaten to close the US government down is tantamount to arguing that, ultimately, the President always prevails over Congress, precisely the concept which the US Constitution rejects.

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