Joe Biden has made it clear his vice president would assume some very serious duties if he wins the White House. “You’ve got to be able to turn and say to your vice president, ‘This is your responsibility,’’’ he said last summer. “Because the job is too big anymore for any one man or woman.”
Biden played a similar role in the Obama administration and frequently handled critical foreign policy matters. Given the roiling global mess Trump has created abroad, from North Korea to Iran to China, it’s inconceivable that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who Biden selected as his running mate this week, would not be given tough tasks abroad if the ticket wins in November. Michèle Flournoy, a foreign policy analyst strongly favored to serve as Defense Secretary in a Biden administration, recently told the Washington Post she expects a President Biden to give a Vice President Harris specific national security issues to manage.
Harris does not have anywhere near the international experience Biden had when he became vice president as a longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In fact, she has very little foreign policy experience at all, aside from serving as a junior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
When pressed for clarity about her thoughts on global affairs, Harris supporters offer vague Washington-speak. “She is thoughtful, pragmatic and values-driven and the defense of human rights is fundamental to her worldview,” said Halie Soifer, who was Harris’s national security adviser for more than a year after she entered the Senate, and now heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
But a close examination of Harris’ Senate career and recent presidential run does yield some clues about her views on international issues. At the least, she appears to be gaining familiarity with the subject and searching for footing, susceptible to pressure from both backers of a muscular traditional American approach and the more dovish progressive wing of her party. The final destination of her evolution matters tremendously, both for the future of a Biden White House but also the party — which Harris could easily be leading herself in four to eight years. Watching her journey will be a useful way to understand where Democrats are likely to land after years of debating how to overhaul their approach to foreign policy.
For left-leaning Democrats, who gained traction during the primary with the success of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and have successfully rallied the party to their side in recent years on issues like rejecting President Barack Obama’s support for a brutal Saudi military intervention in Yemen, Harris is not a natural ally.
“From what little track record she does have … it’s consistently moderate and hawkish, so I don’t see her as super different than Biden,” said a well-connected activist who requested anonymity to preserve relationships. “But she has largely avoided taking positions on national security, and only does when pushed despite her perch on the intelligence committee.”
Often described as politically cautious, Harris has been willing to veer to the right of much of the party on foreign policy. She began her Senate career by co-sponsoring a resolution that criticized one of Obama’s marquee final moves on foreign policy, permitting a United Nations resolution condemning Israel for settlements in disputed areas integral to a future Palestine.
Harris also has close ties to Big Tech from her California days, which could influence her thinking on international affairs. While some technology firms have pulled back from their past efforts to court repressive regimes like the Chinese government, Silicon Valley has grown closer to other autocracies, notably Saudi Arabia. Biden and many other leading Democrats are promising to downgrade America’s bond with the Saudis, a relationship Harris herself has questioned, and to more vigorously advocate for human rights abroad, a policy that could make it harder for business interests to operate as freely as they would like.
But Harris has also aligned with progressives on some international issues. After criticism for speaking off-the-record to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby known as AIPAC that’s become increasingly associated with Republicans, Harris joined progressives (and nearly all other Democratic primary contenders in the Senate) against an AIPAC-backed bill that helped states punish people joining the boycott, divest and sanction movement against Israel. Harris’ new chief of staff on the Biden campaign, Karine Jean-Pierre, helped organize a boycott of this year’s AIPAC conference.
Harris was one of two senators to speak at one of the first rallies against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, Yasmine Taeb of the liberal group Demand Progress, which has been pushing Biden to reject traditional U.S. hawkishness, noted on Twitter, suggesting she is keen to see her as vice president. Left-leaning campaigners working on other issues believe Harris’ general lack of ideological definition means they could win her over to some degree.
And Harris’ work on the intelligence committee has given her experience on an issue nearly all Democrats agree should be a top priority: preventing foreign meddling in American elections, particularly malfeasance originating from Moscow. As the only freshman Democratic senator on the powerful committee, which was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 vote, Harris helped oversee the U.S.’s most sensitive national security choices and became deeply familiar with what was then the biggest story in the news cycle. Her seriousness even impressed Republican colleagues, BuzzFeed News reported in 2019; committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called her a “quick study” who was “very effective” and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) described her as “engaged and active.” She later crafted a bill to boost election security with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
“As someone who was new to Congress and new to Washington, you would never know it working for her ― she seemed very comfortable,” said Soifer, who had previously worked for two other senators and in the Obama administration.
Harris expanded on her view of global affairs once she launched her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019. Her pitch cited what had become consensus positions in the party: re-entering the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, warning against interventions in places like Venezuela, promising to withdraw from Afghanistan, pledging to be tough on China and Russia while avoiding full-blown conflict, questioning international trade deals and Trump’s record-busting military budgets and challenging the historically cozy U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
That combination of stances was still more progressive than that of the Democratic party of even ten years prior ― the very foreign policy environment that Biden helped craft during his many years in the Senate.
Harris engaged with prominent groups working on updating the party’s positions, who were in contact with Rohini Kosoglu, her campaign’s chief of staff. When Soifer left her team, Harris hired a new national security adviser with years of congressional experience and a stint at the Pentagon, Matt Williams. She is close to some other foreign policy analysts with California ties, a factor that could also portend some degree of change away if she elevates figures outside the circle of former officials who served under Biden and former President Barack Obama.
On climate change, Harris proposed a more ambitious international agreement to rein in fossil fuel usage than the Paris accord, which was negotiated under Obama and Biden has said he wants to rejoin. The League of Conservation Voters and the Sunrise Movement, two influential environmental groups, were more supportive of her than Biden during the primary.
When looking at her Senate record, it’s important to remember she has only served under a Republican majority in the body and with many Democratic leadership positions on Capitol Hill still filled by hawks. That may well change in 2021 if the Biden-Harris ticket wins. “A Biden administration will have a much more pro-diplomacy Congress” than Obama did when he struggled to sell policies like the Iran deal, Sanders advisor Matt Duss wrote on Twitter.
Moreover, she may see political value in courting the left on foreign affairs. This summer saw Democratic primary voters re-elect lawmakers whose more liberal foreign policy positions became controversial, like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and push out a powerful hawk, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
For Harris, deciding how to position herself will mean accounting for those changes and for old challenges like the sexism often lobbed against women taking on national security roles unfairly associated with stereotypes about masculine assertiveness, an issue that Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee for president, decided she had to respond to by seeking to project toughness.
The senator’s foreign policy credentials are already part of her new role on Biden’s ticket. In their first joint campaign event, on Wednesday, he mentioned her intelligence committee work and she said they plan to ”bring back critical supply chains so the future is made in America.” Their rival Trump has already attacked her for supporting cuts to the Pentagon budget.
Should Harris be elected with Biden, she’ll be defining her profile while addressing a world gripped by crisis and deeply skeptical of the U.S.
“She’s more than capable and ready to do it,” Soifer said.