The U.S. government shutdown may finally be starting to wind down, if reports out of Capitol Hill and the White House are to be believed. But in the meantime, the cutoff of federal funds is hobbling American diplomatic efforts around the globe. A long-planned visit from a delegation of Chinese generals has been waived off. The State Department has been forced to postpone a scheduled review in Geneva of America's human rights record. High-level diplomatic, trade, and military meetings have all been shelved.
Last week, the shutdown prompted President Barack Obama to cancel plans to attend last weekend's summit of Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The U.S. trade representative, meanwhile, announced that the United States would have to delay its participation in ongoing trade negotiations in Brussels; the office's tiny, $4 million annual travel budget is now effectively zero. Turns out those major, public admissions were only the start.
Some of China's most influential military thinkers and policymakers -- including several general officers -- were due to come to the United States next week for a series of long-arranged meetings at the U.S. Army War College, followed by private discussions at some of Washington's more prominent think tanks. Led by the respected Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Academy of Military Science, the delegation's meetings were considered important at a time when Beijing and Washington are squaring off over issues from cybersecurity to the South China Sea.
But on Wednesday, the Army said it had to cancel the meetings because the funds to host the Chinese had dried up. "After the American democratic process provides the Army with funding to conduct international activities, we look forward to rescheduling this exchange at both sides' earliest possible convenience," the service noted in an email.
There are more dramatic stories generated by Congress's inability to fund the government: preschools closed, fighter pilots grounded, code-breakers twiddling their thumbs, oil pipelines left uninspected, grieving families unable to visit their sons who have died in battle. Compared to these human tragedies, America's diplomatic missteps can feel inconsequential. But they do change, if only subtly, how America is perceived in the world.
"When you have situations like this when you cancel trips -- especially on very, very short notice -- it diminishes America's credibility with a country that still casts a wary eye on America's intentions," said Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution (where, full disclosure, Noah Shachtman has a nonresident fellowship).
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told her colleagues on the Security Council last Wednesday that the shutdown had almost derailed her plans to accompany the U.N. Security Council on a tour of the African Great Lakes region to press for peace in the war-wracked Democratic Republic of the Congo. But she ultimately was able to make the journey.
Now, however, U.S. officials claim that America's diplomatic force is being forced to tailor its ambitions. Some U.S. diplomats at the U.N. have told their counterparts that they are uncertain how long they will be on the job. Even Power's Twitter feed, along with that of the U.S. mission of the United Nations, has gone silent since Oct. 2, shortly after the shutdown began.
"We're not conducting business as usual, and we've already had to make some difficult choices about what is and what is not appropriate in this climate, and those choices will only get more difficult," said Erin Pelton, Power's spokeswoman. "Just like the State Department, we have been able to function for a limited period of time without furloughs. But the clock is ticking. The uncertainty caused by the shutdown hinders our diplomacy and development, and depletes our flexibility to respond to national security imperatives."
Sarah Margon, acting Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said that her organization just received word that the State Department decided to postpone next week's high-level meeting of international envoys addressing the long simmering humanitarian and political crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "The State Department has been very lucky so far, as they have been able to move money around to keep everyone employed, but this is now coming down to the wire," Margon said. "My understanding is that they will have to start furloughing" staff in the very near future, she added.
In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Committee announced that it would delay a review by an international panel of experts of America's compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"A request for a postponement from the USA was made on 10 October 2013 and accepted by the Committee on the same day," the Geneva-based rights agency announced in a statement. "The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown."
"The Committee and the Secretariat regret the inconvenience this will cause, in particular to members of civil society who had made arrangements to attend and participate in the meetings," according to the statement.
Nongovernment organizations planning to make the trip to Geneva to draw attention to shortcomings in the American record had to cancel their plans. For instance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had scheduled a press call Thursday morning to outline its plans for the weeklong visit to Geneva.
But it canceled nearly an hour before.
Jessica Neal, a spokeswoman for the organization, wrote in an email, "the U.S. asked for a postponement due to the government shutdown and it was granted. The delegation will go instead sometime in March, 2014."
Human Rights Watch's Margon, meanwhile, said the review is a "really unfortunate casualty of the shutdown and denies the United States an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to critical human rights issues that are integral to U.S. foreign and domestic policy."
But not everyone was being inconvenienced by the shutdown. One U.N.-based diplomat said that the U.S. Office for Foreign Missions -- which issues tax exemptions and diplomatic immunity cards to foreign diplomats -- said he had submitted an application for a new set of diplomatic license plates on Wednesday. He got a call today saying the request was being processed. "I was afraid that they would also be affected by the shutdown," the diplomat said. "But I got a response. They said they are swamped and that many new diplomats arrived in the summer, and everyone wants diplomatic licenses." But they assured the diplomat that they would process his application for license plates.
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