Looming fiscal disaster doesn't seem to be moving Washington towards getting an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. Is it too late for basic shame?
National embarrassment should be a motivating factor. Ours is a country that presents itself as a model to be emulated, in terms of freedom and opportunity as well as economic power. How can we hold up our collective head if our leaders cannot work this out?
I am reminded of the mid-'90s, when I was posted in Eastern Europe. The region was going through its own tumult—the transition from a communist state to a market economy was an exciting but also painful one, both for individuals and elected officials. So locals couldn't understand why the United States was spending so much time and political angst on whether then-President Clinton had had sexual contact with an intern. There were cultural differences, naturally: Europeans see Americans as hopelessly prudish on matters involving sex. But actual impeachment of the president, especially over that issue, was beyond baffling to them. At a reception around that time in Budapest, an official in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry asked, "What are you doing to your president?" I said no—I'm Canadian. He chuckled, knowing full well my nationality. But it was a turning point; until then, I had been confused and a little annoyed by the Canadian ex-pats who had immediately sewn little maple leaves onto their backpacks and jackets upon settling in Europe, just so no one mistook them for Americans. [See a slide show of 8 politicos who survived scandal.]
After 9-11, the outpouring of goodwill from around the world was overwhelming. Even foreigners who had been complaining that the United States was getting a little too big for its britches dropped their resentment and offered support. But unlike 9-11, the current looming fiscal disaster is a crisis entirely of our own making, and it's unlikely an unprecedented default would provoke anything other than disgust for a nation which professes to be an example for the world. Shame is the motivator of last resort. And the nation's position as an international leader may well hinge on it.