Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.
The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.
Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.
Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed.
As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.
Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.
Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.
May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.
That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.
From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.
British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.
The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.
What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.
Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.