To those outside the United States, it’s often a difficult battle to understand — few other nations have comparable crises in reaction to domestic funding disputes. But even if the shutdown is a distinctly American phenomenon, its effect will be felt internationally in three big ways.
The U.S. government employs thousands of people around the world — people who work at U.S. embassies may be the most obvious examples. Generally, the people whose work is most vital to national security and the safety of human life are considered “excepted” and are required to work through the shutdown, instead of being put on unpaid furlough. They will be given back pay once a new spending bill is passed. Most American diplomats fall under this category.
But the nonexempt workers may end up not getting paid. This is especially true for people contracted to do work for the U.S. government, many of whom are not U.S. citizens.
“In the developing world, where most of our employees live paycheck to paycheck and accrue little personal savings, the consequences of no pay can be devastating,” John Campbell, a former diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, wrote in 2011.
A government shutdown has a major effect not only on who goes to work but also what work gets done. The State Department, for example, said it will keep issuing passports and visas — although it warned that such activities “will remain operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations.” But some other services will not be provided, which can have unexpected consequences.
The Atlantic Council’s Graham Lampa noted that the State Department responded to a recent tsunami in Indonesia by telling Americans in the region to follow the Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta for updates. However, that embassy’s Twitter account announced that it had stopped tweeting regularly because of the shutdown. The U.S. Geological Survey, one of the world’s top resources for scientific research on seismological events, was unable to provide data on the tsunami.
The shutdown can also have implications for humanitarian assistance and foreign aid: No new funding commitments or obligations can be made during a shutdown, except to protect life and property. Further restrictions may have to be implemented if the shutdown continues and current funds become insufficient.
To many nations, U.S. government shutdowns are bewildering. As WorldViews explained earlier this year, the prospect of a political dispute leaving large numbers of government workers without pay is unheard of in most other political systems. Yet there have been 22 federal government shutdowns in the United States since 1979, including three in the past year alone.
Lawrence Martin, a columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, wrote this in January after one of them: “Canadians like to think their system of governance is better than the American one. If they want more evidence, they need only look at what’s happening now — a government shutdown in Washington — and be thankful their system doesn’t allow the same shenanigans."