Most New Zealanders have a view on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden should win the election this week. But why should we care, exactly? Former United States ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner has a few ideas.
While talking with attendees after a Marine Band concert in Porirua in 2012, I was approached by an older woman who insisted that Kiwis be allowed to vote in US presidential elections. When I said that I’d see what I could do if she agreed to pay US income taxes, she punched my arm, dropped the F bomb, and decamped.
Less dramatically, I was approached numerous times that year with questions and comments about the election by folks I met while I was grocery shopping, visiting the gym, or just out for my usual Sunday saunter around the Hutt.
So, I know that the topic on which I’ve been invited to write may be wholly moot. The prurient attraction and entertainment value of America’s unruly politics aside, I know that many Kiwis do care deeply about what happens politically in the rest of the world, including – and at times, particularly – in America.
Rather than try to sell you a ticket when you’re already on the ride, I’d like to focus on what I see as the primary reasons to care about this election.
First, climate change. Despite the tenacious investment of fringe politicians in denying anthropogenic climate change, the science is clear and the danger is imminent. Repudiating the work of its predecessors, the current American administration denies both the science and the danger. Four more years of backsliding and obstruction by a cynically luddite US government may doom any global effort to adapt and mitigate in time.
A US president, Barack Obama, led the effort to set global commitments. If a US government devotes eight years to deconstructing that framework and revving up fossil fuel production and consumption, it provides cover for other big emitters to back away, whether by original intent or current convenience, from their commitments. If the primary emitters abandon the effort, nothing done elsewhere matters. Nothing.
Second, multilateralism. In the 21st century, not the 19th century in which certain supposedly “conservative” politicians seem to live, national borders are increasingly illusory. Information and money flow instantly from one hemisphere to another. Goods and people move constantly and with less scrutiny than we like to pretend is possible. National economies have evolved so that few, if any, are – or could ever again be – self-sustaining or self-contained. And we have all benefited immensely from that.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States led the effort to create those institutions and norms that would bring nations together, enhance the odds of resolving most differences without armed conflict, and stabilise and stimulate economies. We take those institutions for granted in part because they have been so effective.
The current American president delights in disrupting and undermining that essential global infrastructure, making the senseless decision to withdraw from the WHO in the midst of a raging pandemic, launching impulsive trade wars that cripple our own domestic industries, and flirting with tanking NATO and other alliances at a time of escalating security risk, all based on the politically convenient snake oil that an inward-focused, isolated America can be a more prosperous and secure America.
Eruptions of such “populism” in certain other nations would be concerning. An American government that commits itself both to turning inward and to undermining global cooperation is an existential threat to peace and prosperity within the global community generally.
Third, rule of law. Pluralist democracies share core civic and human values that influence life on this planet in powerfully positive ways. A slide away from democratic norms by any member of that community creates risk to others, including by emboldening authoritarians and criminal opportunists. The potential loss of a politically aligned, reliable counterweight is particularly dangerous if one has tied one’s economic health to regimes with values anathema to one’s own.
The United States was born in revolt against autocracy and founded on principles of law rather than lineage or force. The current administration repudiates that important, if certainly imperfect, legacy. The incumbent’s personal corruption is well documented, and those who continue to serve him either revel in that corruption themselves or embrace the toxic supremacies on which his politics of deception are based. One of America’s major political parties has devoted itself to purging voter rolls, suppressing the vote, preventing the counting of ballots, intimidating voters, and packing courts with judges who will bless such domestic attacks on American democracy.
Such banana republicanism – and that impolite term should indeed be turned back on the current regime – shreds what credibility America has to advocate for traditional democratic processes abroad, and emboldens similar dysfunction and devolution elsewhere.
I don’t mean to depress you. In fact, I am optimistic as we hurtle toward voting day.
The profound incompetence, corruption, and cruelty of the current American regime has – wholly unintentionally – sparked authentic conversations about both structural racism and the dangers of incipient theocracy, and the result will strengthen and improve the union whatever happens on Wednesday (NZ time). There is no going back. The façade having crumbled, we can no longer demurely avert our eyes from the rot in the beams.
Perhaps most powerfully, however, the current regime has – again wholly unintentionally – shaken a tsunami of young Americans into active political life as candidates, activists, and donors. In that tsunami is the promise of profound renewal and advancement.
On that point, I often say (and am almost as often misquoted) that the only thing that directly correlates to age is proximity to death. Yes, wisdom does often accrete, but so too do myopia, inertia, and rigidity. There is great benefit in empowering voices with many decades, rather than just a handful of years, yet ahead of them on this planet.
As I told that nice lady in Porirua, you may not be able to vote in our elections, but your opinions matter. So keep voicing them. And don’t be bashful. Good friends are honest with each other, even when the conversation is uncomfortable. We’re all in this together.
David Huebner was the United States ambassador to New Zealand from 2009 to 2014.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.