Quick quiz: what do “Obamarama”, “Romnesia”, “No-drama Obama”, and “binders full of women” have in common? If you answered that they are just some of the neologisms and buzz-phrases that have become associated with the imminent election in the United States, then give yourself a large slice of American pie. And take it as proof that the slow death of America’s influence on the rest of the world is greatly exaggerated. Why do Kiwis continue to be so fascinated with US political discourse, when we profess to be so deeply disillusioned with our own? The answer, of course, is that much of our foreign news is still sourced from the US. And despite Asia’s growing impatience with the old world order, as the “leader of the free world” the US President remains hugely powerful. Plus it’s fabulous media fodder – even when it includes as cool a customer as Barack Obama.
It also helps that this year’s presidential election, set for November 6, looks like being a particularly close race. The worst possible outcome would be that there is no clear winner. The US cannot afford another four years of legislative brinkmanship. There is much at stake for both the Republican and Democrat camps. It will be devastating for the Democrats if Obama is kicked out after just one term, and the Republicans will be justifiably jubilant if they manage to pull off a victory after so much internal squabbling. As always, there is much at stake even for a nation as remote as New Zealand. In the short term, a Romney victory could delay progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed trade deal between 11 countries, including New Zealand and the US. The next round of talks is due to be held in Auckland in December, but could stall if the US needs to select a new representative. Given our opposition to many of the proposals that are apparently being discussed, such as potential changes to the way we buy medicines, that might not be a bad thing. But we can also expect a much more hard-line stance from a Republican administration, which will not necessarily work in our favour.
The Republicans’ aversion to a universal fiduciary standard for investment advisers, for example, could have ramifications here. At least we could be confident now that if Romney’s team wins, it would know where to find New Zealand on a map – former Kiwi businessman Chris Liddell is part of his so-called “transition team”. But Romney is also likely to be far more aggressive on foreign policy. A big question is whether a Republican administration would change regional dynamics in the Pacific. The US has finally woken up to China’s rising influence in the region, and developed a particularly close relationship with Australia, which recently won a seat on the UN Security Council. That’s good news for New Zealand, but although Australia now hosts US troops on its soil, we’re unlikely to follow suit. Even American analysts note that would still be too controversial. The US will, of course, realise it is no longer our second-biggest trading partner, or our second-biggest source of tourists. China has now overtaken it on both those counts. New Zealand can hardly be blamed for striking a free-trade deal with China, when the US has been so reluctant to advance its own bilateral deal with New Zealand.
Nevertheless, under John Key’s watch, relations between the US and New Zealand have clearly improved. After the embarrassment of New Zealand vessels not being allowed to dock at Pearl Harbour during this year’s Rimpac maritime exercises, the US has finally lifted its ban on our naval ships using US ports. Key even managed to wangle an invitation to the Oval Office. In return we have had a visit from several top officials, including Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Notably, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also paid a visit. It has been an unexpected blessing for Obama that she has proved so adept at her job – and a boon for us since she has clearly facilitated our warmer relationship with Washington. Who knows – now that America is comfortable with the idea of a black man as president, maybe we’ll one day see a white woman in the role. In the meantime, New Zealand is surely not the only country keen to see Madam Secretary keep her job.