Climate, multilateralism and rule-of-law have all been key issues during this US election. Laura Walters talks to former ambassador David Huebner about why he believes these things matter to New Zealand

International coverage of the United States presidential election has been dominated by personality, rather than policy.

The shouty debates make it hard to identify and unpick the key election issues, and Covid-19, and debates about mail-in voting and electoral fraud, have added to the confusion.

But behind the bluster the 2020 United States presidential election contains core issues that matter to New Zealand, and the wider international community.

Former US Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner – a Democrat, who is currently campaigning for presidential candidate Joe Biden in the battleground state of Wisconsin – laid out what he believes are the most pressing topics for New Zealanders.

In an interview with Newsroom, Huebner said what occurred in the United States had ramifications for New Zealand, and the rest of the world, due to its size and influence on the international stage.

“People should be very interested in the results of this election, because we are at a pivot point,” he said.

Climate Change

Huebner said that on climate policy, Donald Trump’s administration, unlike most before it, was driven by special interests rather than science.

He pointed to the administration’s immediate steps, following election, to remove climate data from government websites, as well as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord after the previous administration had been one of the leading voices in support of the agreement.

The big issue was existential, he said.

“If the United States is not leading on the issue, it becomes very easy to make excuses.”

Trump “repudiates climate change, denies climate science, and has taken radical, affirmative steps to deconstruct climate action”.

“I think the biggest issue for people outside the United States is a rogue administration that is taking steps in its short term interests that will cause immense long term damage.”

If the United States wasn’t doing its part on climate, and the US, China and India lost focus, it provided cover for other countries to compromise when it came to difficult and expensive climate policies.

“If the United States is not leading on the issue, it becomes very easy to make excuses,” he said.

When the big three weren’t in the game, the chances of keeping warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius were slim, and citizens in countries like New Zealand questioned why they should have to pay more and change their behaviour if it wasn’t going to make a difference in the overall scheme.


The growing idea that multilateralism and being part of the global community was somehow restricting or removing freedom was “wildly dangerous and misinformed”, Huebner said.

Attacks on multilateralism in countries with populist governments were not particularly worrisome if the country was small.

“But if it takes root in a place like the United States, which has historically been one of the linchpins of keeping multilateralism functioning and international organisations functioning, then there is a serious threat to global cooperation. 

“And the Trump administration seems to take great glee in undermining international community infrastructure.”

While the idea of multilateralism might seem abstract, it did have an impact on everyday life.

“Economies of the planet are no longer plural, they’re singular; there is one economy, not 187 economies.”

The global economy was dependent on multilateral cooperation, and an attack or breakdown in these relationships would lead to economic dislocation and uncertainty.

This is something that’s been demonstrated through the US-China trade war, and protectionist policies.

“Economies of the planet are no longer plural, they’re singular; there is one economy, not 187 economies,” Huebner said.

Economic dislocation to see the global economy slide back into the trade environment of the 1920s and the investment environment of the 1970s, which would be catastrophic – especially as the world faces the Covid-19 recession.

Then there was the global security achieved through multilateralism, and institutions and communities like NATO, the United Nations and the European Union.

“Much of the infrastructure that’s multilateral is designed to keep the planet more peaceful than humans are naturally,” Huebner said.

“Deconstructing that will allow bad actors free reign.”

President Donald Trump has been a divisive figure, but has also sparked important and frank discussions about racism and has mobilised young voters. Photo: Getty Images

In the current environment, pluralist democratic governments can make decisions to do business with dictatorships for economic gain because there is a multilateral security structure in place that makes those kinds of transactions safe.

But if those security networks collapse, it would be foolish to think dictatorships, particularly military dictatorships, would continue to behave according to certain norms, because the norms would no longer be consensus or enforceable, he said.

“Many of us who are alive today have become comfortable with a relatively peaceful planet, we seem to think it’s the natural state, it’s not the natural state.”

The planet was peaceful because of the “massive accumulation of force” by the likes of the US, NATO and the EU, which was not used, but was a deterrent.

If those institutions collapsed, it would be foolish to think there were “adventurers” who would not step into the void.

Rule of law

Related to the topic of multilateralism, was a domestic issue that had international ramifications: the rule of law.

Huebner said he believed Trump and his administration had undermined the rule of law in the United States through court nominations, the politicisation of bureaucratic government departments, attempts to suppress alleged crimes committed by the administration, and the use of criminal pardons.

The “assault on democratic norms and rule of law” were not only a domestic issue, but one that was dangerous for the global community.

‘Populous strong men’ may be domestically destructive if they arose in smaller countries or in countries not part of the core global infrastructure, he said.

But if that ‘strongman culture’ took root in a place like the United States or the EU, it had knock-on effects because the natural state of the human race would no longer be peace and cooperation.

Optimism prevails

The issues laid out by the former ambassador are those that pose an existential threat to the future of the planet and global society.

However, he said he was optimistic about the future, regardless of next week’s election outcome.

While Huebner is clearly a Democrat (he’s calling the popular vote for Biden-Harris, but isn’t risking a call on the Electoral College), he says the reelection of Trump would not be doom and gloom, because the Trump administration had strengthened the country and would continue to strengthen the country.

Under this presidency, the US has had an authentic conversation about racism.

“Where we tend to think that older people are wiser and should be in control. My own view is age only directly correlates to proximity to death, and we shouldn’t make any other assumptions.”

The way issues of race were talked about made it impossible to pretend racism wasn’t a problem, Huebner said. This had led to marches across the country, and resulted in a powerful coalition to deal with individual and institutional racism.

Huebner said Trump’s presidency had also put a spotlight on how the past two generations of politics had been “distorted” by a small group of fundamentalist Christian politicians.

And the domestic and global unrest had mobilised a new generation of voters, who were having their voices heard through the ballot, through marches, and by running for office.

Similar to New Zealand, early voting data in the US showed more young people were getting out and voting, and voting early.

This was bringing in large numbers of young people who didn’t share a lot of the dysfunction of older generations, Huebner said.

“Where we tend to think that older people are wiser and should be in control. My own view is age only directly correlates to proximity to death, and we shouldn’t make any other assumptions.”

Fighting in public

History showed the United States had not been “a static enterprise”. There had been tumultuous periods, followed by recovery, such as during the 1960s with its economic dislocation and the Vietnam War. 

What followed was a renewal in terms of economics, security, and in terms of moral authority, Huebner said.

He believed that would again be the case.

Regardless of who wins next week’s election, issues of climate and multilateralism will remain key topics for New Zealanders to follow. Photo: Getty Images

Unlike other countries – including New Zealand – the US showed its warts, and was happy to have its fights in public.

“There are vicious fights; they’re specific fights, and I think that’s part of the strength of the culture.”

It was no accident the US was innovative, and managed to fix its own problems, he said.

“It’s because we go through these occasional periods, where we fight each other tooth and nail, we drag it all out onto the lawn. And then we figure it out.”

And while people in New Zealand might watch the US and become panicked by the state of things, Huebner reminded Kiwis that those in the US also paid attention to what went on in other pluralist democracies, like New Zealand.

Most Americans realised the US was not an island, and they were concerned by decisions made by other like-minded countries.

“My point is, this is a two-way street… Most Americans recognise we have similar friends in this club with pluralist democracies and we worry about them.”

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