United States of America country brief

Political overview

System of government

The United States is a liberal democracy with a federal political structure comprising 50 states and the District of Columbia. The federal government is characterised by a separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The constituent states have significant powers of self-government.

The executive is headed by the President, who is elected every four years through a national contest by universal suffrage.  The election is held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November every fourth year. Although more than 100 million Americans have voted in each of the last four presidential elections, the President is not directly elected by the people.  Under the Electoral College system, each state is represented by ‘Electors’ whose number is equal to that state’s congressional delegation (one for each member of the House of Representatives plus two Senators).  In 48 of the 50 states (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions) as well as the District of Columbia, a ‘winner takes all’ system awards all of a state’s electors to the winning presidential candidate.  In the nationwide election, a candidate that receives a majority of 270 or more Electoral College votes out of the total 538 is elected President.  

The legislature, known as the Congress, consists of 535 voting members divided between two chambers: the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives.  Each state is represented by two Senators who serve six year terms. Representatives in the House are elected from single-member constituencies and serve two year terms. Additionally, in the House of Representatives there are five non-voting delegates who represent a US territory (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands) and the District of Columbia, as well as one non-voting Resident Commissioner representing Puerto Rico. Congress has sole powers to appropriate financial outlays, and operates through a committee system. Legislation must be approved by a majority in both chambers, then signed by the President, to become law. The President can veto legislation, but a veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

The Supreme Court is the highest judiciary body in the United States and leads the judicial branch of the federal government. It consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices.  There is no term limit for justices, who serve after nomination by the President and confirmation in the Senate.  The Court is the highest tribunal in the nation for the laws of the United States and all matters arising under the Constitution. It has the authority to invalidate legislation or executive actions which it deems to be unconstitutional.  

Political parties

The United States has two broad party coalitions, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The Democratic Party evolved from the party of Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s. The Republican Party was formed by a coalition opposed to slavery led by Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s.  Today, both parties encompass a variety of views.

Barack Hussein Obama is the 44th and current President of the United States of America. President Obama was elected in the November 2008 presidential election on the Democratic Party ticket.  His first term commenced with his inauguration on 20 January 2009, and he was re-elected for a second term in the 2012 presidential election.

The most recent congressional and gubernatorial elections took place on 4 November 2014. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 36 of the 100 Senate seats were contested, as well as 11 state governorships. The 114th US Congress was sworn in on 3 January 2015. The Republican Party retained their majority in the House of Representatives. John Boehner (Republican-Ohio) is the current Speaker of the House. The Republican Party gained control of the Senate and Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) became the Senate Majority Leader. The next presidential and congressional elections will be held on 8 November 2016.

Bilateral relations overview

There are strong formal structures of co-operation between Australia and the United States spanning foreign policy, defence and security, intelligence, development, energy, environment, education, law, trade and economics.  The Alliance and the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement are central in a relationship that also benefits from widespread collaboration across government, academia and business.

Australia and the United States work closely with like-minded partners in regional and global forums, including the G20, East Asia Summit, World Trade Organization and United Nations. 

Australia and the United States established diplomatic relations on 8 January 1940. Following the establishment of Australian and United States Legations in March and July 1940 respectively, the White House announced the elevation of the Legations to Embassy status on 9 July 1946. Australia's first Ambassador to the United States, Norman J O Makin, presented his credentials to the US Government on 11 September 1946. The first US Ambassador to Australia, Robert Butler, presented his credentials on 25 September 1946.

Defence and security overview

A key pillar of relations between Australia and the United States is the 'ANZUS' Treaty, which was originally an agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The ANZUS Treaty was signed by the parties in San Francisco in 1951 and entered into force in 1952. It binds Australia and the United States to consult on mutual threats, and, in accordance with our respective constitutional processes, to act to meet common dangers. Australia invoked the ANZUS Treaty for the first time on 14 September 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

The Alliance is the foundation of defence and security cooperation between Australia and the United States. It increases Australia's ability to protect itself and its interests by providing access to world-leading defence hardware and technologies, training courses and combined exercises, as well as vital intelligence capabilities. In facilitating such cooperation, the Alliance supports regional engagement, security and stability, underpinning prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. It also enables joint efforts against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Both countries are committed to working together to help shape international norms to advance vital shared interests in the domains of sea, airspace and outer space, as well as to advance important matters related to cybersecurity. Further information about the defence relationship is available on the Australian Department of Defence website.

The Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) Consultations are held between foreign and defence ministers on a regular basis and hosted alternately by Australia and the United States. AUSMIN was last held in Sydney on 12 August 2014, co-hosted by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and then-Defence Minister Senator David Johnston. The US delegation was led by Secretary of State John Kerry and then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. AUSMIN 2014 reaffirmed the Alliance’s important contribution to the peace, security and prosperity in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean as well as its enduring value in addressing contemporary and evolving challenges in Australia’s region and throughout the world. One of the key outcomes was the signing of the Force Posture Agreement between Australia and the United States that provides a framework for implementation of the force posture initiatives announced in 2011. Other issues of discussion and outcomes from AUSMIN 2014 are outlined in the Joint Communiqué. The United States offered to host the next AUSMIN meeting in 2015.

In addition to AUSMIN, senior officials regularly meet with US counterparts on a broad range of strategic, military and political issues including political-military meetings and military-military talks.

Trade, investment and economic overview

The United States is the world's largest economy. US GDP (nominal) was estimated at nearly US$16.77 trillion in 2013 or around 22.4 per cent of global GDP. The United States is a major driver of the global economy and a world leader in terms of international trade and investment, research and development expenditure, stock market capitalisation and its share of large global corporations. Information about the US economy and economic outlook is widely available and constantly updated. The latest official economic indicators are available at the US Census Bureau and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The US market comprises 50 states and one federal district.  The country includes a range of markets with distinct regional characteristics.  It is the world’s fourth largest country in terms of geographic area and spans six time zones.

Although the United States operates foreign investment restrictions in some sectors of the economy (airline ownership, telecommunications, and radio services) foreign investors are generally treated on an equal footing with domestic business. There are no restrictions on moving capital in or out of the United States (or between states) or on the repatriation of profits. A protocol amending the double taxation convention for Australia and the United States entered into force on July 2003. The agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the United States of America to Improve International Tax Compliance and to Implement the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) entered into force on 30 June 2014.

The United States is our largest two-way investment partner, with the two-way investment stock reaching over $1.1 trillion in December 2013. In 2013-14, the United States was Australia’s third-largest two-way trading partner in goods and services (after China and Japan), at $58.2 billion.

The Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) entered into force on 1 January 2005. Upon AUSFTA's entry into force, more than 97 per cent of Australia's non-agricultural exports to the United States (excluding textiles and clothing) became duty free and two-thirds of agricultural tariff lines went to zero. Under AUSFTA, for the first time, Australian companies have access to the federal government procurement market in the United States and the government procurement markets of 31 US states. Since AUSFTA entered into force, bilateral trade has grown by around one third.

Australia and the United States have a shared record of working together closely to promote global trade liberalisation for over 50 years. Australia and the United States worked closely in establishing the G20, and work together in global and regional trade and economic fora, including the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Australia and the United States are also negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership (a regional free trade arrangement between Asia-Pacific countries).

Australia's strong economic links with the United States do not mean we agree on all trade issues. Indeed, Australia has a number of concerns about US trade barriers. For example, the size of US farm assistance packages in recent years has caused much concern. The Australian Government pursues our interests at every opportunity. Many of our trade priorities have been addressed in the AUSFTA and others we will continue to pursue bilaterally and in TPP and WTO negotiations.

Tourism, culture and education overview

Over 938,300 Australian tourists visited the United States in 2013-14 (up 3.3 per cent on the previous year), making it the third most popular tourism destination for Australians after New Zealand and Indonesia. At the same time, 528,900 US tourists visited Australia, an increase of 9 per cent on the previous year.  In 2013-14, 7,500 US citizens were issued with student visas. In US FY 2013, over 2,300 Australians received F-1 student visas to pursue full-time academic studies in the United States.

Australian culture, from Indigenous art to Australian films, continues to stimulate interest in the United States.  The annual G'Day USA program showcases all things Australian from trade and investment, food and wine, film, arts, fashion and lifestyle, to Indigenous culture and tourism.

A growing number of Australians in the entertainment industry are taking on starring and supporting roles on American movie and television screens with many winning awards. Australian creativity and expertise is being harnessed behind the scenes in areas such as cinematography and special effects. The cultural scene across the United States is enriched by Australian dancers, musicians, authors and artists.

People-to-people links overview

Australia and the United States enjoy strong people-to-people links based on common values and our deep historical and cultural bonds. The relationship is characterised by a very high flow of people in both directions (including tourists, students, long-term professional workers, temporary business travellers and working holiday makers).  Our Embassy estimates there are upwards of 215,000 Australians in the United States at any one time (both residents and visitors).  According to Australia’s 2011 Census, there were over 77,000 US-born residents in Australia.

Australians can apply for E-3 visas to live and work in the United States. Australia also has a Work and Holiday visa arrangement with the United States, further strengthening our strong relationship and people-to-people links. In US FY 2013, Australians were issued with almost 4,000 E-3 professional work visas and over 8,000 B-1/B-2 visas for temporary visits for a combination of business and/or leisure travel. The working holiday visa allows eligible Australians to stay and work for 12 months in the United States. In US FY 2013, over 5,300 Australians entered the United States on J-1 work and study exchange visas. Over 5,300 Australians entered the United States on J-1 work and study exchange visas.

In October 2002, the Australian and US Governments signed a bilateral social security agreement to provide improved social security protection to people who have lived and/or worked in both Australia and the United States. The social security agreement also exempts Australian employers from the requirement to provide American social security support for Australian employees sent temporarily to work in the United States.

The United States Studies Centre (USSC) was co-founded by the University of Sydney and the Australian American Association and supported with a federal government grant of $25 million in 2006. In November 2012, then-US Secretary of State Clinton opened the Perth USAsia Centre, a partner organisation to the USSC, at the University of Western Australia.  These Centres collaborate to help deepen Australian knowledge and understanding of the United States and strengthen the underlying links between people and institutions in the two countries. The USSC has also been the coordinating body for the Alliance 21 project, which receives federal funding to identify new challenges and opportunities for the bilateral relationship.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsors a Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Australia–US Alliance Studies. The Australian-American Fulbright Commission administers the scholarship, which aims to further develop our bilateral ties through the study of contemporary issues of interest to both alliance partners.

The Australian American Leadership Dialogue is a bipartisan annual private initiative between Australia and the United States. The Dialogue brings together leaders from business, government, media and the community from both countries to exchange views on the bilateral relationship.

High level visits

Recent visits to the United States

Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited Washington, New York, Houston and Hawaii in June 2014. During his visit, Mr Abbott met President Barack Obama, as well as House Speaker John Boehner, Secretary of State John Kerry, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Mr Abbott also held meetings with a range of leading figures in industry, finance and the media. In New York, Mr Abbott met United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has visited the United States on a number of occasions since taking office. Her most recent visit, in January 2015, included Washington and New York. Ms Bishop met senior figures in the US Administration including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry and National Security Advisor Rice, made two keynote speeches and held business meetings.

The Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, has also visited the United States several times.  Mr Robb accompanied the Prime Minister’s business delegation in June 2014, visiting New York and Houston.  In September 2014, Mr Robb visited Washington for bilateral meetings and the Global Services Summit.  During these trips, and his most recent visit to New York in March 2015, Mr Robb met senior American business leaders in key sectors to promote Australia as an investment destination and highlight the strengths of the Australian economy.

Parliamentary Secretary Mr Ciobo, Treasurer Mr Hockey and Minister for Communications Mr Turnbull have made official visits to the United States in 2015.  Minister for Finance Senator Cormann and Attorney-General Senator Brandis made official visits to the United States in 2014.

Recent visits to Australia

President Barack Obama attended the 2014 G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane on 15-16 November. He also visited Australia on 16-17 November 2011 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance, and addressed a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and then-US Secretary for Defense Chuck Hagel visited Australia in August 2014 for the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Sydney.

During Australia’s G20 Presidency in 2014, Federal Reserve Chair Yellen, Treasury Secretary Lew, US Trade Representative Froman and Secretary of Labor Perez all visited Australia. 

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited in November 2014 for the World Parks Congress in Sydney.

Last Updated: 16 April 2015

Last Updated: 16 July 2014