Viewing U.S. in Fear and Dismay

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MEXICO CITY -- The word many Mexicans now use to describe Washington reflects a familiar mix of outrage and exasperation: berrinche. Technically defined as a tantrum, berrinches are also spoiled little rich kids, blind to their privilege and the effects of their misbehavior.

"It's a display of American arrogance," said Raúl Silva, 40, an entrepreneur grabbing coffee at an upscale cafe here. "It's a problem, and it's going to affect us."

Faced with Washington's march toward a default, the world has reacted mostly with disbelief that the reigning superpower could fall into such dysfunction, worry over global suffering to come and frustration that American lawmakers could let the problem reach this point.

A common question crossing continents remains quite simple: The Americans aren't really that unreasonable and self-destructive, are they?

"It just goes to show that it's not only Greece that has irresponsible and shortsighted politicians," said Ioanna Kalavryti, 34, a teacher in Athens. "We've been held hostage by our reckless politicians, and the interests they serve, for more than three years now. I guess our American friends are getting a taste of the same medicine."

For countries that have had their own experiences with financial crises -- often followed by American dictates about the need to be more responsible -- the brinkmanship in the United States has produced an especially caustic mix of bewilderment, offense and more than a little eagerness to scold.

Many people in countries like Greece, Argentina, Mexico and Russia still have searing memories of defaults and their lasting effects, including lost power. Especially galling for those who endured crises of their own is the fact that the United States remains sheltered: a default could well hurt weaker countries more than the United States, which has the advantage of the dollar's being used as a global currency.

Indeed, the unequal distribution of power and wealth -- part of the exceptionalism that American politicians loudly defend -- has become a focal point for many foreign economists and officials. If any other nation had gotten this close to failing to pay its debts, they say, its economy would have already collapsed as investors fled, creating the need for a bailout not unlike what occurred here in Mexico in 1994.

"The U.S.'s exorbitant privilege" -- of issuing the world's most widely accepted currency -- "allows it not to have a budget, to bump against debt limit with scant market reaction," said Luis de la Calle, a Mexican economist.

If Mexico and many other countries shut down their governments, stopped paying salaries and threatened to default, he added, the titans of global finance, as they have in the past, would make sure the consequences were swift and severe. "We have little choice but to be responsible," Mr. de la Calle said.

Especially in places accustomed to American lectures on good governance, finger-wagging has been easy to find. In Egypt, where the military-backed government has been criticized by the Obama administration for its heavy-handed crackdown on opponents, the American woes were splashed across the front page of the flagship state newspaper this week with alarm and a hint of satisfaction.

In Argentina, which defaulted on around $100 billion in debt in 2001, then the biggest default in history, the newspaper La Nación pointed out in an article that the United States "is supposedly an international leader, and one that speaks every day of setting an example."

But in many countries, a wide range of people, from executives to shoe shiners, simply seemed surprised and annoyed, with some saying they hoped that Washington's dangerous game of chicken would draw to an end without global repercussions.

"They're putting at risk thousands of jobs here in Mexico," said Ahmad Fayad, 31, an administrative assistant leaving a bank in Mexico City. "Many companies here depend on the American economy's health. And if everything continues to be so uncertain, they'll start laying people off."

Already, many argue, the standoff in Washington has deepened the sense of America's decline. On the streets of many countries, conversations about the United States now regularly include expressions of shock and dismay. One businessman in Mexico said that following the fracas was like watching a famous couple's marriage collapse in public, with shoving, shouting and ugly insults.

How, many ask, did the United States become more like the rest of the world, and less of an obvious leader? "I think the U.S. is losing its place," said Osama Shawki, a shopkeeper in Cairo.

Others agreed. "It's strange that such a thing has happened there," said Irina Popova, 40, a homemaker in Russia, which suffered a financial collapse and default in 1998. "I always dreamed of going to America. It can happen to any country. It was us before, now it's them."

On the streets of Greece, people seemed to be shaking their heads, stunned at what they saw as American political weakness corroding a country of obvious strength.

"I never thought a global superpower like the U.S. could ever be in a comparable position to Greece," said Theodore Couloumbis, emeritus professor of international relations at the University of Athens. "Both countries are paying dearly for rising political tensions. But in America's case, there is the potential for serious global repercussions, too."

For some, that shared risk led to empathy. "I have lots of friends in America," said Zhanna Lanskaya, 36, a school director in Moscow. "I worry what effect it will have on ordinary people."

For others, though, there was only disappointment -- and some sanctimony. Many said that the United States needed to accept that the current crisis was the product of the same absolutist tendencies that had aggravated foreigners for centuries.

"America has fallen into a trap of its own making," said Artur Khanukaev, 26, a ballistics engineer in Moscow. Even if the United States never slips into default, he said, the fear of collapse "will be a very good lesson."

In some countries, pundits have singled out President Obama, questioning his leadership. But generally opinion pages have been focused on explaining the Tea Party and condemning it for the political paralysis. Columnists in Argentina have written that the Tea Party is blackmailing the United States and, in turn, the world.

Here in Mexico, José Luis Valdés Ugalde, a political science professor at the national university, recently compared Tea Party lawmakers to "reckless scoundrels who can sink the local and, in passing, also the global economy in the name of a reaction, rather than rational action."

For Mexico, the risks of an American default are enormous. The government shutdown has already doubled wait times at some border crossings, slowing commerce with the United States, Mexico's largest trading partner. The Mexican peso has fallen to a two-month low, and many business owners are anxious about what will come next.

Many here and elsewhere say that they expect the United States to avoid default. But others say that "tantrums" have come to define Washington, and that a reprieve will probably be short lived.

"They are supposed to be an example of consensus and democracy for the rest of the world," said Salomón Cavane, 33, the owner of a men's clothing business. "The fact they can't come to an agreement because of their pride and their need to show who has the power -- it is just ridiculous. I find it quite irresponsible as well."

Reporting was contributed by Paulina Villegas from Mexico City, Andrew Roth and Patrick Reevell from Moscow, Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, Jonathan Gilbert from Buenos Aires, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 16, 2013 2:02 PM


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