Harris gets a crash course on foreign policyFebruary 26, 2021
After insisting for the last few months that she didn’t need a clear-cut portfolio in the Biden administration, Vice President Kamala Harris is now trying to carve out a niche in foreign policy, with the president’s encouragement.
But after a political career focused on domestic issues, particularly law enforcement, it’s going to take some time to get her up to speed.
Compared to the current occupant of the Oval Office, Harris comes to the vice president’s job as a neophyte on foreign policy. Biden developed relationships with foreign leaders over decades in Washington, including as a longtime member and later chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president under President Obama, which took him to more than 50 countries over eight years.
Harris spent the bulk of her career as a prosecutor, rising to become California’s attorney general. While she served on the Intelligence Committee during her four years in the U.S. Senate, foreign affairs was not a major policy focus either during her time in Washington or her presidential campaign.
Biden wants Harris to catch up and has urged her to engage with foreign leaders directly and develop her own rapport with key U.S. partners. Another, more strategic reason for the encouragement: as the heir apparent to the Democratic Party—especially if Biden, who is 78 years old, doesn’t run for re-election—Harris needs to bulk up her foreign policy expertise, and fast.
“The interest in her from outside is really about: Is she the future of the Democratic Party?” said one Asian ambassador, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship with the new administration. “Biden in a way represents the traditional white male politician. And Vice President Harris is in many ways the future: female, blended family … But her policy views, they are still waiting to be shaped out.”
The push started early: the day after the inauguration, Harris called the director-general of the World Health Organization to discuss the U.S. role in the global Covid-19 response. Since then, she has held solo calls with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, given a speech at the State Department and on Tuesday participated in the first bilateral meeting of the new administration between the U.S. and Canada—an opportunity Biden himself was not afforded when he was vice president.
Harris has also had weekly lunches with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a veteran foreign policy and national security official whose experience rivals Biden’s. And her national security advisers, Nancy McEldowney and Philip Gordon, are themselves long-serving diplomats.
An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who worked on U.S.-Ukraine issues from 2019-2021 and tracked the presidential candidates and their positions closely, acknowledged Harris’ lack of experience in the foreign policy arena. But he said experience can be “overrated,” especially “in a rapidly changing world.”
“Plus she’s got a great team working for her,” he added.
Her team is aware of the need to boost awareness of Harris’ involvement on the global stage—on Wednesday night, White House officials told CBS that Harris would be focusing on cybersecurity and global health, even as the White House has yet to lay out her domestic priorities.
But others say that even without extensive experience, Harris has the right tools to learn on the job. Halie Soifer, who served as Harris’ national security adviser while she was a senator, said it was “fitting that [Harris] would lead on foreign policy” as vice president.
“I see it as a continuum of her leadership in the Senate, which was focused mostly on domestic policy issues but included national security and was driven by values and principled policy that carry over into the international arena,” Soifer said.
Soifer noted Harris’ travel to Israel in 2017, early in her Senate term, and her “deep commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” as well as her work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Soifer says Harris played “a very active role “ in the panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Members and staff from the Intelligence Committee have praised Harris’ four years there; the committee does most of its work without cameras or reporters present with “no need for anyone to make it a show about themselves,” one Republican staffer put it. The staffer called Harris “a productive member of the committee” who “took it very seriously.”
Current Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) told POLITICO that her time on the committee gave her a “sophisticated and thoughtful understanding of the most pressing foreign policy and national security issues facing this country right now.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who also sits on the panel, described Harris as “thoroughly engaged” on the issues—even after she became vice president-elect.
“She was VP-elect, and she came into one of the meetings, and I said, quite loudly, ‘What a clever way to get intelligence briefings during the transition!’” King recalled, referring to the Trump transition’s early refusal to provide Biden and Harris with briefings.
He acknowledged there could be a learning curve on the subject of foreign policy but said that shouldn’t be an issue because “she has a genuine curiosity. She likes to learn. And her interest in these issues is not new.”
But while a stint on the committee provides valuable insight into the nation’s spy agencies and threats from around the world, it doesn’t help a senator develop relationships with foreign leaders or a profile on the international stage—both indispensable tools in foreign relations.
The Biden administration is clearly working to change that and has given the veep a chance to engage deeper on foreign policy. In addition to calls, Harris accompanied Biden in his first appearance at the State Department, where she gave her own brief remarks reiterating the administration’s commitment “to upholding the highest standards of integrity and accountability, inclusivity and diplomacy.”
It’s what the administration would say is proof of the equal partnership between the two, with Biden willing to bring Harris onto turf he is both known for and familiar with. Others say it’s more strategic: developing her own foreign policy credentials and being seen as Biden’s partner on these issues will give her an edge heading into 2024 or 2028.
World leaders and dignitaries, meanwhile, are already clamoring to start building relationships with Harris, who many believe could be president herself one day.
A European ambassador put it bluntly: “She will be seen by everyone as a potential president in waiting,” the ambassador said. “Much more than in previous presidencies.”
“As I said to the Vice President during our meetings, I look forward to welcoming [Harris] to Canada as soon as the pandemic will allow for it,” Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told POLITICO. “Canadians, particularly so many women and girls, were delighted by her historic election, and I look forward to working closely with her to advance shared priorities.”
Andy Blatchford and Nahal Toosi contributed to this story.