President Biden left for Japan on Wednesday for a meeting of the leaders of seven major industrial democracies who get together each year to try to keep the world economy stable.
But as it turns out, the major potential threat to global economic stability this year is the United States.
When Mr. Biden lands in Hiroshima for the annual Group of 7 summit meeting on Thursday, the United States will be two weeks from a possible default that would jolt not only its own economy but those of the other countries at the table. It will fall to Mr. Biden to reassure his counterparts that he will find a way to avoid that, but they understand it is not solely in his control.
The showdown with Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling has already upended the president’s international diplomacy by forcing a last-minute cancellation of two stops he had planned to make after Japan: Papua New Guinea and Australia. Rather than being the unchallenged commander of the most powerful superpower striding across the world stage, Mr. Biden will be an embattled leader forced to rush home to avert a catastrophe of America’s own making.
He was at least bolstered before leaving Washington by signs of progress as both sides emerged from a White House meeting on Tuesday expressing optimism that an agreement was possible. In the preparations leading up to the G7 meeting, officials from the other participating countries have not struck U.S. officials as all that alarmed about the possibility of default, perhaps because they trust Mr. Biden, know that the moment of truth is still a couple weeks away and assume that Washington will get its act together in time.
But that simply underscores how much volatility has become the new norm in Washington. After generations of counting on the United States as the most important stabilizing force in world affairs, allies in recent years have increasingly come to expect a certain level of dysfunction instead. Extended government shutdowns, banking crises, debt ceiling fights and even political violence would once have been unthinkable but have prompted foreign leaders to factor American unpredictability into their calculations.
“I think our biggest threat is us,” said Jane Harman, a former Democratic representative from California who later served as the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Our leadership in the world is being eroded by our internal dysfunction. The markets are still betting against our defaulting, and that’s a decent bet. But if we only manage to eke out a short-term extension and the price is onerous budget caps — including on defense — we will be hobbled when Ukraine needs us most and China is building beachheads everywhere.”
The White House warned that a default would only embolden America’s adversaries, using the argument against Republicans, whom they blame for playing with fire.
“There’s countries like Russia and China that would love nothing more than for us to default so they could point the finger and say, ‘You see, the United States is not a stable, reliable partner,’” said John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
But he sought to play down the effects of the dispute on the G7 meeting, saying that he doubted it would “dominate the discussion” and maintaining that other leaders “don’t need to worry about that part of it.” The president’s counterparts would understand his need to cut short his trip, he said.
“They know that our ability to pay our debts is a key part of U.S. credibility and leadership around the world,” Mr. Kirby said. “And so they understand that the president also has to focus on making sure that we don’t default and on having these conversations with congressional leaders.”
Even if they understand, though, they see consequences. Mr. Biden’s decision to head home early reinforces questions about American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and leaves a vacuum that China may exploit, according to analysts. A presidential visit to places like Papua New Guinea, where no U.S. leader has gone before, speaks loudly about diplomatic priorities — as does the failure to follow through.
This is not the first time an American president has scrubbed a foreign trip to deal with domestic concerns. President George H.W. Bush canceled a two-week trip to Asia in 1991 to show he was focused on a lagging economy at home, while President Bill Clinton scrapped a trip to Japan during a government shutdown in 1995. President Barack Obama delayed a trip to Indonesia and Australia in 2010 to focus on health care legislation, then skipped an Asia-Pacific summit meeting in 2013 during a government shutdown of his own.
The perpetual culture of crisis in Washington, however, has grown only more intense since the arrival of President Donald J. Trump, who threatened to unravel bedrock alliances and embraced longstanding adversaries abroad while disrupting democratic norms and economic conventions at home.
The debt ceiling showdown between Mr. Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy has underscored to the president’s peers that however much he may seek to restore normalcy, U.S. politics has not returned to the steady state of the past — not least because Mr. Trump seeks to reclaim office in next year’s election.
World leaders took notice last week during Mr. Trump’s CNN town hall-style interview in which he refused to back Ukraine in its war against Russian invasion and casually endorsed the idea of a default, saying it would not be that damaging and indeed “could be maybe nothing.”
That is not how most policymakers and analysts see it.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said at a meeting of G7 finance ministers and central bankers in Japan last week that a default “would spark a global downturn” and “risk undermining U.S. global economic leadership and raise questions about our ability to defend our national security interests.”
Mr. Biden, a veteran of half a century in high office in Washington, has regularly remarked on the uncertainty surrounding America’s place in the world that he discovered when he took office after Mr. Trump’s disruptive four years. “America is back,” he said he would tell foreign counterparts, only to hear, “But for how long?”
By contrast to his predecessor, Mr. Biden has conducted a far more conventional foreign policy familiar to world leaders, and foreign officials see him as a more traditional U.S. president. But they also understand that he is presiding over a country whose democracy has been tested and found to be fragile. And they see a fractious politics in Washington that values confrontation over compromise, even at the risk of something that would have once been unimaginable, like a default.
“For sure, the U.S. debt ceiling issue will be a topic of conversation and concern at the G7 summit,” Matthew P. Goodman, a senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said at a briefing about the meeting last week. “I’m sure the other leaders will ask, you know, how serious this risk is. And I assume President Biden will say he’s working on it and doing everything he can to avoid it.”
By this point, U.S. partners have become oddly accustomed to the culture that dominates Washington. They have watched the brewing debt ceiling fight with little evident fear.
“I don’t think many European governments are very concerned, presumably because these crises come round quite often but never end in disaster,” said Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform in London. “Cutting short the trip is a bad signal, but there is such good will to Biden in most capitals that they are prepared to cut him some slack.”