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How this week in Washington was viewed around the world


How does our country's political dysfunction look to people in other parts of the world? This week almost began with a government shutdown, averted on the very last possible day by a bipartisan funding agreement. That compromise with Democrats was the last straw for hardline Republican lawmakers. And on Tuesday, eight of them led the charge to remove fellow Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House. Well, to get a sense of how other countries see this, we have gathered Washington-based correspondents from three different parts of the world. David Smith is D.C. bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian - good to have you here.

DAVID SMITH: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Patricia Vasconcellos covers Washington for the TV network SBT in Brazil.

PATRICIA VASCONCELLOS: Thank you very much - my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And Amr Hassan Sayed is based here in Washington for Al Jazeera's Arabic-language service - good to have you here.

AMR HASSAN SAYED: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Will you each begin by offering us a headline, either one that you wrote about this week's Washington dysfunction or one that you think captures the way it is landing with your audiences in the U.K., Brazil and the Middle East? Who'd like to go first?

VASCONCELLOS: I could start. I would say McCarthy's downfall is a reflection of a party that refuses to be governable.

SHAPIRO: A party that refuses to be governable. OK. That's how it looks from Brazil. What about in the U.K. and in the Middle East?

SMITH: Certainly, our headlines were in the same territory in terms of trying to govern the ungovernable. I think somewhere along the line, we quoted David Axelrod describing it as the "Lord Of The Flies" caucus in the Republican Party and, really, questions over, you know, how can this be happening in what's purported to be the world's greatest democracy, certainly the world's most powerful nation? And some of our coverage has explored those longer trends of decline.

SHAPIRO: There are some themes there that I want to follow up on, but first, what's the headline for Al Jazeera?

SAYED: I think I want to go visual a bit more than written. I think it was the image when we had Ilhan Omar sitting right behind Matt Gaetz when he was giving the speech, the motion to vacate on the House floor. I think this was very telling, and people in the Middle East really understood where she stands versus where he stands.

SHAPIRO: It's so interesting to me to hear this from all three of you because what I'm getting is that this is not just a story about American dysfunction or American political dysfunction. Your readers, your listeners, your viewers specifically understand that this is dysfunction within the Republican Party. And they even know who Matt Gaetz is, who Ilhan Omar is.

SAYED: I think when I speak about the Middle East, of course, Ilhan Omar is an icon by the very definition of the word. But then people are following the news in the U.S. not only because the U.S. is the greatest economy and its geography and its history - all of that considered. But they focus on the U.S. because it is the role model when it comes to democracy. So everyone back home, especially in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia - they really look up to the U.S. And they want to know, is this democracy still working? Or do we need to find other alternatives?

SHAPIRO: And, Patricia, when people in Brazil key into the Republican Party specifically, is that because they see parallels with politics in Brazil? I mean, there have been many comparisons between Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom are no longer in power but still creating chaos, to some extent.

VASCONCELLOS: Yeah. I think that, of course, in Brazil, many people there, our audience, see some similarities, especially because both countries experience a very delicate situation of political polarization - right? - especially in the past elections and everything related to these actions led by a group of politicians who are extremists, as we see now in the chamber and the House of Representative. And in other parts of the world, of course, it's viewed with attention and interest. From my side, I believe it's important to give the difference between the two scenarios, and it's part of the work also to explain why it happened and how it happens.

SMITH: Speaking of parallels, obviously, in the U.K., we've had Boris Johnson, who earned many comparisons with Donald Trump, and we've had the era of Brexit. And even more recently, just the last few days, we've had the Conservative Party conference in Britain, which had resonance with what was going on in the Republican Party. In both cases, you know, with the Tories in meltdown in Britain, you know, their conference was a bit of a damp squib. They seem to be heading for an election defeat. Again, that really echoed what's going on with Republicans, where you now have a party in disarray. So that comparison was hard to miss.

SHAPIRO: So is it reassuring to think, oh, well, it's not just us; this happens everywhere? Or is it frightening to think, oh, it's even happening in the U.S.? Like, is it schadenfreude, or is it a sense of tragedy?

SMITH: I think mainly a sense of tragedy because the world has so many priorities right now. And as you would expect, you know, an international audience is particularly zeroing in on, you know, what does this mean for Ukraine? People around the world are watching with alarm that it seems an increasing number of Republicans in Congress are opposed to supporting Ukraine. And then just also that bigger picture of Democratic decline - if the U.S. is teetering on chaos or authoritarianism, what does that mean for the rest of the world?

SHAPIRO: Let me ask about that specifically because particularly in the developing world, the U.S. has so often presented itself, described itself as a beacon, as a role model, as an example of how democracy ought to be done, whether or not that has been true in the day to day of American democracy. And so in the Middle East and in Brazil, when you see American democracy in such disarray, what - how does that land?

VASCONCELLOS: It's a feeling of surprise, I could say, for myself and also as a feeling in our newsroom in Sao Paulo, for example. We were not expecting this result on McCarthy's confidence. And the hours before the vote made it seem that he might have a chance to remain in power but also because, as you said, the United States is seen as a model of everything works in a perfect way. So the feeling is a surprise to see first what is happening. And from that moment, our work as foreign journalists is try to dive in that scenario and, you know, to explain the details to our audience, considering the differences among the countries and especially because in Brazil, we have a huge interest regarding everything that is related to United States, not only politics.

SHAPIRO: Amr, how does this land in some of the countries that carry your programming, given the long history of the U.S. purporting to tell Middle Eastern countries how to do democracy?

SAYED: I think some people might have a slightly different perspective, maybe a more positive one because as I was having conversations with people there, they were saying that this is democracy on full display. It's self-corrective democracy. Now, you might describe it as chaotic right now, but what we are seeing is the speaker of the House, the third person from the presidency, being toppled or being vacated from his position through a democratic process. So democracy works, but what's the end result? Is it leading to an incline or a decline for the U.S.? That's what people are more interested in.

SHAPIRO: And what's the tentative answer to that question?

SAYED: I would say that people are paying more attention to other examples like China, like Saudi Arabia, like wealthy countries in the Gulf as well. And they're trying to reach out to an understanding. Is there a monolithic path to modernity, to being a developed country versus developing country? Or there are other forms of governance that people are trying to understand and grapple with and maybe get creative with if, of course, their political regime allows such creativity.

SHAPIRO: Amr Hassan Sayed of Al Jazeera, Patricia Vasconcellos of SBT in Brazil and David Smith of The Guardian - so good to talk to all three of you. Thank you for your perspective.

SMITH: Thank you.

VASCONCELLOS: Thank you very much.

SAYED: Thank you so much.

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Mia Venkat
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.