‘Twas the First Week of Shutdown

October 4, 2013 By John Glenn

As Washington grapples with the continuing government shutdown, the foreign policy community continues to try to guess exactly what the impact will be on our national security. And we also have to ask what this could do to America’s image and leadership around the world.

 src=Now in the short-term, folks are reporting to work as normal at Foggy Bottom, USAID, MCC, and our embassies and missions around the globe. That’s because much of the work supported by the International Affairs Budget had already been committed earlier in the fiscal year, and diplomacy and development have been considered part of national security by the current and previous Administrations. These funds can be used to continue programs and pay staff, at least for now. And consular programs such as processing visa applications are largely funded by fees, so also require no new appropriations.

But with negotiations at a standstill between the White House and Congress, the big question is how long will the shutdown last and what will the impact be if it drags on. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy stated that, “Department offices, bureaus, and State elements at our posts overseas will continue to function for a limited period of time.” So what happens after that limited period of time?

If this shutdown continues, many are speculating on furloughs and closures in U.S. development and diplomatic operations here in Washington and around the world. These could occur as agencies identify staff and activities are forced to specify what is exempt from the shutdown and may continue, while placing non-exempt staff on furlough, just as some domestic agencies and departments have already been forced to do.

And what about the message this sends to the rest of the world, which — make no mistake — is watching closely. Could we see signs on U.S. embassies around the world that the United States is closed for business? President Obama’s cancelled trip to Asia is one casualty, a missed opportunity to continue America’s engagement with allies as well as the challenges in the Pacific. Council on Foreign Relations President and State Department veteran Richard Haass says, “It raises anew questions of American predictability and reliability, which are qualities that are vital to an effective great power.”

Even if Congress changes course and decides to pass the continuing resolution that funds the government for the rest of the fiscal year, additional hurdles such as lifting the debt ceiling don’t look any easier and could hurt the perception of American leadership even more strongly. Nobody has a crystal ball for the coming days, so we have little choice but to keep watching and hoping that calmer voices will prevail.