An unmistakable sense of unease is growing in global capitals as the U.S. government from afar looks increasingly befuddled. America is shirking from a military confrontation in Syria, stymied at home by a gridlocked Congress and in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt, which could plunge the world's financial system into chaos.
While each may be unrelated to the direct exercise of U.S. foreign policy, taken together they give some allies the sense that Washington is not as firm as it used to be in its resolve and its financial capacity, providing an opening for China or Russia to fill the void, an Asian foreign minister told a group of journalists in New York this past week.
Concerns will only deepen now that President Barack Obama canceled travel this weekend to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei. He decided to stay home to deal with the government shutdown and looming fears that Congress will block an increase in U.S. borrowing power, a move that could lead to a U.S. default.
The U.S. is still a pillar of defense for places in Asia such as Taiwan and South Korea, providing a vital security umbrella against China. It has strong allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states arrayed against al-Qaida and Iran.
But faith that the U.S. will always be there is fraying more than a little, according to interviews with academics, government leaders and diplomats.
"The paralysis of the American government, where a rump in Congress is holding the whole place to ransom, doesn't really jibe with the notion of the United States as a global leader," said Michael McKinley, an expert on global relations at the Australian National University.
The political turbulence in Washington and potential economic bombshells yet to come from the U.S. government shutdown and a possible debt default this month have sent shivers through Europe. The head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, worried about the continent's rebound from the 2008 economic downturn.
"We view this recovery as weak, as fragile, as uneven," Draghi said at a news conference.
Germany's influential newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung bemoaned the U.S. political chaos.
"At the moment, Washington is fighting over the budget and nobody knows if the country will still be solvent in three weeks. What is clear, though, is that America is already politically bankrupt," it said.
Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to make the case that the partial government shutdown would do nothing to reduce America's global economic, military or diplomatic strength.
"To all of our friends and foes around the world: Do not mistake this momentary episode in American politics for anything less than a moment of politics or anything more than a moment of politics," Kerry told reporters Saturday on the sidelines of the APEC meeting.
"When we get this moment of political silliness behind us, we will get back on a track the world will respect and want to be part of," he said.
Obama finds himself at the nexus of a government in chaos at home and a wave of foreign policy challenges.
He has been battered by the upheaval in the Middle East from the Arab Spring revolts after managing to extricate the U.S. from its long and largely failed attempt to establish democracy in Iraq.
He is drawing down U.S. forces from a more than decade-long war in Afghanistan with no real victory in sight. He leads a country whose people have no interest in taking any more military action abroad.
As Europe frets about economics, Asian allies watch in some confusion about what the U.S. is up to with its promise to rebalance military forces and diplomacy in the face of an increasingly robust China.
Global concerns about U.S. policy came to a head with Obama's handling of the civil war in Syria and the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad's government.
But the worries go far deeper.
"I think there are a lot of broader concerns about the United States. They aren't triggered simply by Syria. The reaction the United States had from the start to events in Egypt created a great deal of concern among the Gulf and the Arab states," said Anthony Cordesman, a military affairs specialist at the Center for International Studies.
Kings and princes throughout the Persian Gulf were deeply unsettled when Washington turned its back on Egypt's dictator and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 uprising in the largest Arab country.
Now, Arab allies in the Gulf voice dismay over the rapid policy redirection from Obama over Syria, where rebel factions have critical money and weapons channels from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states.
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