During a trip to the British Isles during part of the debt-ceiling debate, I was frequently asked what in the world was going on in Washington. Many Americans abroad wondered if their leaders back home had lost their minds. Non-Americans politely asked why the world's greatest democracy had descended into such bitterness and stalemate. I had no easy answers for them, but I talked about how America is very polarized and to some extent the current mess in Washington reflects that.
But there was another important point that emerged from my conversations in the U.K. and Ireland. There was little or no gloating about all this even though many Europeans said that in the past they had criticized Uncle Sam for being too arrogant. Their questions were motivated, it seemed, by genuine concern that America's leaders don't have their act together and our government seems so dysfunctional.
There was another element to the questions—a fear that America's problems would somehow have negative effects across the globe. Most people seem to believe the old foreign policy axiom that when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold.