SINGAPORE — Having lived and worked abroad for many years, I’m sensitive to the changing ways that foreigners look at America. Over the years, I’ve seen an America that was respected, hated, feared and loved. But traveling around China and Singapore last week, I was confronted repeatedly with an attitude toward America that I’ve never heard before: “What’s up with you guys?”
Whether we were feared or loved, America was always the outsized standard by which all others were compared. What we built and what we dreamt were, to many, the definition of the future. Well, today, to many people, we look like the definition of a drunken driver — like a lifelong mentor who has gone on a binge and is no longer predictable. And, as for defining the future, the country that showed the world how to pull together to put a man on the moon and defeat Nazism and Communism, today broadcasts a politics dominated by three phrases: “You can’t do that,” “It’s off the table” and “The president didn’t know.” A Singaporean official who has been going to America for decades expressed shock to me at being in Washington during the government shutdown and how old and emotionally depressed the city felt.
“Few Americans are aware of how much America has lost in this recent episode of bringing the American economy to the edge of a cliff,” said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here, and the author of “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World.” “People always looked up to America as the best-run country, the most reasonable, the most sensible. And now people are asking: ‘Can America manage itself and what are the implications for us’” — if it can’t?
In talking to Asian college students, teachers, diplomats and businesspeople, here is how I’d distill what was on their minds: “Are you really going to shut down your government again? Like, who does that? And, by the way, don’t think that doesn’t affect my business over here, because I’m holding a lot of dollars and I don’t know what their value is going to be. Also, how could the people who gave us Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, HP and Google not be able to build a workable health care website? I know it had 5 million users, but there are 48 million Indonesians on Facebook!”
Worse, whenever you’d visit China or Singapore, it was always the people there who used to be on the defensive when discussing democracy. Now, as an American, you’re the one who wants to steer away from that subject. After all, how much should we be bragging about a system where it takes $20 million to be elected to the Senate; or where a majority of our members of Congress choose their voters through gerrymandering rather than voters choosing them; or where voting rights laws are being weakened; or where lawmakers spend most of their free time raising money, not studying issues; or where our Congress has become a forum for legalized bribery; or where we just had a minority of a minority threaten to undermine America’s credit rating if we didn’t overturn an enacted law on health care; or where we can’t pass even the most common-sense gun law banning assault weapons after the mass murder of schoolchildren?
I still don’t believe there would be many takers for the commentary on the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, after the government shutdown, suggesting that it was “perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” But Xinhua got the befuddled part right. Many people would still line up in a blizzard to come to America, though for too many now that is not because we’re the “beacon on the hill” but rather “the cleanest dirty shirt.”
Singapore is not a full-fledged democracy. What it does have is a government that wakes up each day asking: What world are we living in, and how do we best use the resources we have to enable more of our citizens to thrive in this world? Little things here catch my eye, like the ERP: the electronic road pricing system that greets you when you drive into the center city and tells you every minute, via an electronic billboard, how much it will automatically charge you when you drive into the downtown. It constantly adjusts the price based on the number of cars that can comfortably fit the roads.
The Bush team tried to fund a similar system to reduce congestion and pollution for Manhattan, but it was killed by other boroughs and lawmakers in Albany, N.Y. And that is what bothers me most today. It’s not just that we can no longer pull together to put a man on the moon. It’s that we can’t even implement proven common-sense solutions that others have long mastered — some form of national health care, gun control, road pricing, a gasoline tax to escape our budget and carbon bind.
As Andy Karsner, the former assistant secretary of energy who participated in last week’s New York Times forum here, remarked to me: “This is the first time I have visited Singapore where its modernity is not a novelty, but a depressing contrast.” Because, he added, you know that all the modernity and prosperity you see here “is not based on natural resources but on a natural resourcefulness — and on implementing with ease best practices, many of which ironically originated in the United States.”
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.