European leaders, mired in economic woe, have garnered thinly veiled—and sometimes overt—criticism from across the Atlantic for how they've navigated their domestic crises. Governments have fallen across Europe in recent years. Just today Italy is yet again on the brink, facing its own political collapse.
But it is with "incomprehension" that Europe views the U.S. this week, after a congressional dispute over President Obama's healthcare plan led to a U.S. government shutdown.
So far European markets have reacted calmly to America's political gridlock. And the shutdown has little direct impact on specific transatlantic relations. But it does add to a sense in Europe that the U.S. is bogged down and focused elsewhere, even as discontent over governance is equally discernible on both sides of the Atlantic.
"It fuels an already confused debate when it comes to the future of transatlantic relations," says Ian Lesser, senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels. "Europe is already worried that the US is pivoting to Asia, and what this would mean for European strategic interests.... [The shutdown] will also reinforce existing European anxieties about a more inward-looking, less activist U.S.."
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The Obama administration has acknowledged the global impact of the shutdown.
"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?" Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said to reporters this week. "It does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility to our allies when this kind of thing happens."
A loss of confidence in the US?
While a long-term shutdown would impact the global economy and thus Europe, it doesn't directly mar transatlantic policies, such as the trade agreement negotiations that are underway.
But it is the expression of a deeper problem of failed checks and balances that will impact American ties with Europe, says Josef Braml, a transatlantic expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "If the superpower has no room to maneuver, it will have to shift burdens to foes and friends," he says, which will then create a wedge.
(Read more: Trichet: 'Totally absurd' not to raise debt limit)
"We already see it in security policy," Dr. Braml says, especially the waning U.S. commitment to NATO and its focus on Asia. "Europe and especially Germans have to think of how they take care of their own security."
It's not that Europe is a stranger to political crisis. Governments from Greece to Italy to Portugal have fallen since the start of the continent's sovereign debt crisis. And as Europe has been clawing out of its recession, the US has pointed fingers at Brussels and Germany, which powers Europe, for focusing too much on austerity and not enough on growth. As a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney singled out Spain in presidential debates, saying he didn't "want to go down the path to Spain."
But now Europe is on the other side, looking at the U.S. as a political system it would not want to emulate. The French daily Le Monde on Tuesday ran the headline: "Jefferson, Wake Up. They Have Become Fools!"
(Read more: Why debt default would be 'catastrophic': Bowles)
"It is incomprehension," says Arun Kapil, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Paris. And while he says the shutdown is an internal American affair, the tenor of Le Monde sums up the dominant mood.