United States

Washington DC
North America

The United States of America remains the most powerful country in the world. This is not simply because of its military capability, though it accounts for 41% of all of the world’s military spending, but also because of its financial and industrial strength. In 2011 it was estimated that its GDP was $15.29 trillion. In some high tech areas it is considered to be so far ahead that no other country could catch up with it for years. It has a population of 314 million people and is the third or fourth largest country in the world, depending on how it is measured. All this combines to make it one of the very few nations on earth to have global reach.

It is probable that tribes migrated from Asia 15,000 years ago when Alaska and Asia were still joined. As is well known for many centuries the two American continents were unknown to the countries of Europe and Asia, though Viking explorers or raiders seem to have stumbled on North America. Thus the native population of what is now the United States developed in isolation until Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492.

In the years after that the English, French, Dutch and Spanish all landed in North America, the Spanish arriving in Florida as early as 1513. It is the English settlements that provide the cradle for the USA with the arrival of Sir Walter Raleigh and others in what would become Virginia and the adjacent states, starting with the settlement at Jamestown in 1607. The British gradually took over most of the Atlantic seaboard, gaining New Amsterdam (now New York) from the Dutch, confining the Spanish to Florida, and pushing the French West or into Canada.

From the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed in 1620, onwards many British settlers were those seeking a new life where they could practice their religion more freely than in England. This created a tradition which, for the time, was democratic in tone. In the years following the Seven Years War (1756-1763), which resulted in Britain finally gaining control of Canada from the French, tensions grew between the mother country which expected Americans to pay something towards their defence and local opinion which regarded this as undue interference in their affairs. This led to the American Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, followed by the War of Independence, culminating in Britain’s recognition that America should be free of British rule on 3 September 1783.

The new nation was initially confined to the thirteen original British colonies but expanded greatly when, in 1803, Napoleon sold France’s vast possessions to the West of the new United States to the US in a deal known to history as the Louisiana Purchase. Florida was acquired from Spain in 1819.

The Americans also started to move West with increasing clashes with the native population. Relations with Britain improved, despite a further war between the two powers in 1812, and the frontier with Canada was delineated during under the Oregon Treaty in 1846.

Texas, after a brief spell as an independent state, was annexed in 1845, and, after war with Mexico, California was incorporated in the expanding union in 1848, followed by Alaska, bought from Russia in 1867.

However, tensions between the slave-owning Southern states and the Northern states, where many abhorred slavery, grew and with the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860, the Southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. The American Civil War ensued which was fought by many as a war to preserve the Union and not simply on the issue of slavery. Ultimately the industrial might of the North prevailed and in 1865 the South surrendered. The war left many scars, some of which still resonate today.

In the years following America took off industrially, became an imperial power, and increased her financial standing. By 1900 she had overtaken both Britain and Germany in iron, steel and coal production.

When the First World War broke out the USA remained neutral but increasingly goaded by German policies, particularly unrestricted submarine warfare, she came into the war in April, 1917 on the side of Britain, France and Russia. At the end of the conflict America, which by some measures, had been the world’s debtor before the war, was now the world’s creditor. This was to be a source of much friction in the years ahead, especially as, after having abandoned President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of involvement in world affairs, the US opted for what is described as a more isolationist approach.

With the Wall Street Crash of 1929 America and then other countries plunged into the Great Depression when millions of Americans literally faced starvation. The agricultural disaster known as the Dust Bowl exacerbated the situation in many rural areas. In 1933 Franklyn Delano Roosevelt took office as President and initiated his “New Deal” policies. These remain the subject of debate but one of his principal achievements is that he gave hope to many Americans. That did not stop America sliding back into recession in the late 1930s and what finally pulled America out of this was the outbreak of the Second World War and her entry into that conflict after Japan attacked the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbour in December, 1941.

American forces fought, alongside their allies, in Africa, China, Italy, France, and the Pacific. With British and Canadian forces they landed on D-Day in Normandy and fought they way into Germany. By 1945 America was the most powerful and wealthy country in the world and the only one with the atomic bomb.

Since then the United States has been seen as the leader of the West. She is the most powerful force in NATO, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and has a major say in the affairs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The US led the UN response to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea which involved Western forces clashing with the army of the new Communist regime in China. The nineteen-sixties were turbulent as President Kennedy had to keep his nerve in the Cuba missile crisis of 1962, as President Johnson tried to ensure full civil rights for all, and by the long drawn out conflict in Viet Nam which caused unrest at home.

The fall of President Nixon over Watergate in 1974 and the humiliation of President Carter over the Iran hostages in 1980 followed. Since then America has seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, including the trauma of the twin towers atrocity in 2001, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emergence of China as a potential rival. Like all great powers she faces a time when her role may be questioned but because of her size and resources she will remain a force to be reckoned with militarily, politically, and commercially.

The United States of America is a republic with a constitution which was adopted in 1787 and became effective in 1789, and which is amended from time to time. Its legal system is based on English Common Law, except in Louisiana where it is based on the Code Napoleon civic law.

The President is elected every four years in November and takes office in January. He or she can stand for re-election only once, and is strictly speaking elected by an electoral college, chosen by all those voting in the Presidential election. Under the separation of powers enshrined in the American constitution the Presidency is entirely apart from the legislature and its power to carry through policy may be limited if a different party controls Congress.

In the last Presidential election Barack Obama (Democrat) won by 52.4% of the vote (365 electoral college votes) over John McCain (Republican) with 46.3% (173 electoral college votes), the other candidates taking only 1.3%. There was a turnout of 61.6%.

The US has a federal system with fifty states represented in Congress. In addition the District of Columbia, which covers the federal capital, Washington, is represented in Congress, as are certain US dependencies, though some of these are non-voting. Congress is bicameral, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate has one hundred members, two from every state, who are elected for six years with a third coming up for election every two years.

The House of Representatives has 435 members and is elected for two year terms. After the last set of elections there were 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and 2 Independents in the Senate, and 192 Democrats and 243 Republicans in the House of Representatives. At state level elections are held for the office of Governor and for the state legislatures, all of which, apart from Nebraska, being bicameral.

American politics is dominated by two political parties the Democrats, usually associated with the centre left, and the Republicans with the centre-right, though Southern Democrats have often been seen as right-wing as many Republicans. For a large part of the late nineteenth-century, from Lincoln, onwards the Republicans held the Presidency but Roosevelt’s Presidency initiated a time when the Democrats often occupied the White House and also controlled Congress. In recent years the Presidency has regularly rotated between the parties with a number of incumbents serving two terms, including Ronald Regan (Republican) 1981-1989, Bill Clinton (Democrat) 1993-2001 and George W Bush (Republican) 2001-2009.

On Tuesday 6 November 2012 the next Presidential election will take place, the two principal candidates being Barack Obama for the Democrats and Mitt Romney for the Republicans. President Obama was born in 1961; he worked as a community organiser, civil rights lawyer, and law lecturer. After serving in the Illinois State Senate he was elected to represent that state in the US Senate where he served from 2004 till 2008. Governor Romney was born in 1947, is a Mormon, and worked in management consultancy before eventually co-founding Bain Capital, which became one of the biggest private equity investment companies in the country. He served as Governor of Massachusetts from 2003 until 2007. To win, either candidate needs to get 270 Electoral College votes.

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places United States of America at 18th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 74 (where 100 is least corrupt).