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 the powers of the executive from the legislative and judicial functions. The constituent states have significant powers of self-government.

Heading the executive is a President, elected every four years through a national contest by universal suffrage. Though millions of Americans vote in the election, the President is not directly elected by the people. On the first Tuesday in November of every fourth year, registered voters elect the members of the Electoral College. Apportioned by population to the 50 states — one for each member of their congressional delegation (with the District of Columbia receiving three votes) — these Electors then cast the votes for the President. There are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College.

The legislature, known as the Congress, consists of the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives. Senators are elected on a state basis and serve six year terms. Each state is represented by two Senators. Representatives are elected from single-member constituencies and serve two year terms. Congress has sole powers to make US federal legislation and appropriate financial outlays, and operates through a system of committees. Legislation must be approved by both chambers to become law. The President can veto legislation, but can be overridden by two-thirds majorities in both chambers.

The Supreme Court is the highest judiciary body in the United States and leads the judicial branch of the US federal government. It consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and a number of Associate Justices decided by Congress. There are currently eight Associate Justices on the Supreme Court. The Justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The Court is the highest tribunal in the nation for all matters arising under the Constitution and the laws of the United States. It has the authority to invalidate legislation or executive actions which it deems to conflict with the Constitution.

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. Both parties embrace a wide variety of views and have supporters across the community.

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 a Democratic Party ticket and his term commenced with his inauguration on 20 January 2009. He was re-elected for a second term in the 2012 Presidential elections.

Congressional and gubernatorial elections took place on 6 November 2012. All 435 United States House of Representatives seats and 33 of the 100 United States Senate seats were contested, as well as 13 state governorships. The 113th US Congress was sworn in on 3 January 2013. The Republican Party retained the balance of power in the Congress, with John Boehner (Republican-Ohio) the current Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party retained control of the Senate and Senator Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada) continues to serve as Senate Majority Leader. The next Congressional and gubernatorial elections will be held on 4 November 2014, with Presidential elections to be held in November 2016.

Bilateral relations overview

A strong and close relationship with the United States serves Australia's national interests and brings us significant benefits. As the world's largest economy and strategic player, the United States has a significant influence in international affairs. We engage with the United States closely and advocate our views across a very broad range of international issues. Although Australian and American interests converge on a majority of international policy issues, we do not agree on all issues. Where this is the case, Australia pursues its interests separately from the United States.

Australia and the United States established bilateral 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 Security Treaty, originally agreed between Australia, New Zealand and the United States, the 'ANZUS' Treaty. 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 was one of the first countries to join the United States in the coalition to fight terrorism following the attacks on 11 September 2001. Australia invoked the ANZUS Treaty for the first time on 14 September 2001 to make a major contribution to combating terrorism.

The Alliance is the foundation of defence and security cooperation between Australia and the United States. This cooperation increases Australia's ability to protect itself and its interests by providing access to US intelligence resources, military technology, preferred status in military equipment purchasing, access to training courses and invaluable combined exercises.

Australia and the United States continue to cooperate globally to combat terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, both bilaterally and in partnership with other countries and institutions. Australia believes the sustained engagement of the United States in the Asia Pacific provides support for regional stability and prosperity. They are also 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 Department of Defence website.

The Australia-United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) Consultations are held between foreign and defence ministers on a regular basis and are hosted alternately by Australia and the United States. AUSMIN was last held in Washington on 20 November 2013 and was co-hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The Australian delegation was led by the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the Defence Minister David Johnston. AUSMIN 2013 confirmed the enduring value of the Australia-US Alliance and its adaptability in meeting contemporary and evolving strategic challenges. Key issues of discussion and outcomes from AUSMIN 2013 are outlined in the Joint Communiqué. Australia offered to host the next AUSMIN meeting in 2014.

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. However, the United States should be treated as a series of regional markets with varying characteristics. It is the world’s fourth largest country in terms of geographic area. The continental United States covers four time zones, six including Alaska and Hawaii.

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 Agreement (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

Australia is a popular destination with American visitors — 506,500 Americans visited Australia in 2013. The United States is a major destination for Australian visitors with 941,800 Australians visiting the United States in 2013.

In 2012, 9,549 US students studied in Australia, making the United States the tenth largest source of foreign students.

Australian culture, from Indigenous art to Australian films, continues to stimulate the interest of Americans. The annual G'Day USA program showcases all things Australian from trade and investment, food and wine, film, arts, fashion, lifestyle, to Indigenous culture and tourism. In 2014, the G'Day USA program included events year-round for the first time since the program began in 2004. The 2014 program will involve 17 events across the United States and will generate extensive media coverage. This exposure helps to promote Australia as a trade and investment partner and to present the diverse and exceptional travel experiences Australia has on offer to US audiences.

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 historical and cultural bonds. 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. The working holiday visa allows eligible Australians to stay and work for 12 months in the United States. 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 need to provide American social security support for Australian employees sent temporarily to work in the United States.

The United States Studies Centre 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 at the University of Western Australia. These Centres will 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 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

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, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen. Mr Abbott also held meetings with a range of leading figures in industry, finance and media sectors. Ms Gillard also met United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the UN headquarters in New York.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has twice visited the United States since taking office. Her most recent visit, in January 2014, included stops in New York, Washington and Chicago. Ms Bishop met senior figures in the US Administration including Vice President Biden. The visit underlined the high priority that the Australian Government places on its relations with the United States, Australia's key strategic partner.

The Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, visited Los Angeles and San Francisco in January 2014. Mr Robb also visited New York and Houston in June 2014. During these trips, 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.

Visits to Australia

President Barack Obama made his first official visit to Australia from 16 to 17 November 2011 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance. The visit resulted in a number of significant outcomes, including on defence cooperation and cooperation to increase global growth, trade and employment.

Then-US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and then-US Secretary for Defense Leon Panetta visited Australia in November 2012 for AUSMIN.

In February 2014, the Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board, Janet Yellen, and US Treasury Secretary, Jacob Lew, visited Australia for the G20 Meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors.

Last Updated: 16 July 2014