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If America is exceptional among nations, it has to prove it – constantly


There was quite the flap here last month when Vladimir Putin dared suggest in an article in The New York Times that America’s long-held credo that it is “exceptional” among nations is wrong and even dangerous. This country’s sense of superiority was being challenged. But how can Uncle Sam hold his head up in the current mess?

There have been no scuffles on the floor of Congress yet and no one ever said that the democratic process doesn’t get messy sometimes. But if one country really aspires to be the grown-up in the room it needs to behave as such.

How does it look when its own President can’t even leave for an economic summit in Asia he really needs to attend? On Monday a spokesman for the Democrat leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, accused Speaker John Boehner, who leads the Republican majority in the House, of losing the plot.

“There is now a consistent pattern of Speaker Boehner saying things that fly in the face of the facts or stand at odds with his past actions,” Adam Jentleson said.

Mr Boehner is under colossal pressure from all sides, but that doesn’t mean there mightn’t be method in what he is doing. It is perfectly plausible he doesn’t want a deal to re-open the government yet because he knows it will fall short in the eyes of his Tea Party members. Their fury would make striking a subsequent deal on the debt ceiling before 17 October all the more impossible. If he is to be steamrolled, better it happens all at once in mid-month.

As a domestic political strategy this makes a degree of sense. The shutdown is unsettling, but the  fact is alarm clocks buzzed across America on Monday morning and the work-week began more or less like any other. Furloughed federal employees are a tiny fraction of the workforce. The Statue of Liberty is closed but it’s not the first time.

The problem is that America is not Liechtenstein (and no disrespect intended to Liechtenstein) and this is about more than just which political party – or factions within them – wins and loses. Even if we assume that two weeks from now a double-deal on the budget and the debt ceiling will be done, that is a long time for the rest of the world to wait. This was China’s point. Equity and current markets may also start to get spooked before then, and so might credit agencies.

Mr Boehner may think he has 14 days to look like he can stand up to the Democrats, perhaps in hopes of not being ousted from his high office when finally it turns out he can’t, but he may be deluding himself precisely because America is indeed exceptional at least in terms of its place in the global financial system.

Never mind that in almost every other respect right now it is starting to look exceptionally silly.