The shutdown debacle was watched from abroad with some surprise mixed with a portion of glee. In essence the world looked at it as a curiosity of American political life. Some were angered by it, as major lines of communication froze, governments from Europe, Asia, Africa or Australia were unable to reach their counterparts, do business. Visits were canceled, negotiations stalled. Hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists were unable to visit museums and government-operated sites, such as parks. This harmed America's soft power in the world, but all in all the shutdown is viewed as an American nuisance that will blow over and the world will be back to normal.
However, the failure to agree on the increase in the debt ceiling is not normal, but historic. It could be a major economic and political disaster of proportions never seen before that would be a huge blow to America's superpower status. It is difficult to imagine the immediate and long-term economic and political impact, and its effect on America's reputation and influence globally. America will recover sooner or later, but do not underestimate the lasting consequences.
The inability of Congress to find a last-minute compromise would be a disaster, as future generations of Americans will remember a moment as important as the assassination of JFK or the Watergate affair. Those were defining moments, which at the end of the day ignited processes which made America better, stronger, more democratic and indeed more attractive.
This time around, America will lose much of its global power and attraction. If the US defaults on its debt, US Treasury bonds will no longer be the safest bet for countries and their individuals. The trust in America will suffer. The belief in America will suffer as well.
(Read more: How will the shutdown finally end? Let's talk 1995)
The world does not understand Obamacare, and perhaps sees affordable health care as a different project. The world gets it: This debate is not really about Obamacare. Political brinksmanship is not totally unknown in US politics — this level of carelessness is. For observers of U.S. politics, the U.S. Congress used to be the poster child of consensus building and pragmatic governance. "America first" was what I was taught by Democrats and Republicans alike over the years. Is this all gone?
America will lose a big chunk of its global influence. Its friends will be stunned and feel let down. Its enemies will rejoice. This will be a major setback to the advocates of democratic societies. Dictators and leaders with dictatorial inclinations will surely see this as a confirmation that democracies are ineffective, and dictatorships are better.
The danger that foreign creditors will not be first in line to be paid, before health care and other national obligations, is real — and the creditworthiness of the U.S. will fall substantially. U.S. Treasury bonds have been downgraded a notch already. The global economy might easily crash.
When the world's largest economy fails to meet its obligations, for whatever reason, it is not simply a domestic failure, but one that ripples through the global economy. When a democracy, which used to be the country others would look to for a sense of direction, fails to show leadership, then the world is in trouble.
I am a great admirer of the Cuban-American community. They fled to America from a dictatorship. I have had the honor to work with them on issues of democracy and human rights. They are a great people, who deserve a democratic Cuba. They have made an amazing contribution to American society. It is however sad to see that the son of immigrants from Cuba is leading the charge against the efforts to find agreement in Congress. Castro must be watching this mess with excitement and joy.
Those leading the fight are dead wrong in what they are doing. Approaching a mature age, I have seen many smart, even brilliant politicians lead a country to ruins. I know it, because my own country Hungary has produced at least one such leader. Being smart is not a guarantee for statesmanship. A statesman is not necessarily the most brilliant, he is simply a statesman. And a statesman is in a category of his or her own. I don't see statesmanship currently present in Washington.
Ideology is important in politics. It is a compass, a set of beliefs that guides politicians through very difficult times. It is important that politics is based on ideology. But having an ideology is not synonymous with being ideological. Ideology is not incompatible with pragmatism, common sense and consensus. Being ideological is.
When the radicals in the U.S. Congress contemplate their moves, when they declare victory, they must also contemplate the costs of victory, the damage done to America, the long-term fallout. They should remember that during the Cold War, the nuclear missiles served one purpose: Not to be used. Dropping the nuclear bomb was of course always an option. But in the end reason always prevailed and Communism was still defeated.
Perhaps this is something young and ambitious politicians in America should remember.
— By Andras Simonyi
—Ambassador Andras Simonyi served as Hungary's ambassador to the United States and was his country's permanent representative (ambassador) to NATO. He is an economist by training. He is presently the managing director at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University. His research includes the strategic relationship between the U.S. and the European Union, the future of NATO, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), better known as the free-trade agreement. He is a proponent of human rights and democracy. He is also a guitarist and plays in his band the Coalition of the Willing with Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (formerly of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers.)