Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Justin Sullivan/Pool via AP

Harris and Pence Failed the Global Leadership Question

People vying to become, or stay, vice-president should be ready to explain their vision of America’s role in the world.

“What is your definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?”

That seems like a question that a potential world leader should be ready to answer. Almost like, “Why do you want to be president?”, the one Ted Kennedy muffed in 1980. But Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., did no better in their debate on Wednesday. 

Why were two people vying to be, or stay, “one heartbeat away from the presidency” unable to answer such a central, if hardly simple, question about global leadership? 

Harris went first, stammering that she likes to hear former Vice President Joe Biden talk about foreign policy. “He says, you know, ‘Foreign policy: it might sound complicated, but really it's relationships there – just think about it as relationships.’ And so we know this, in our personal, professional relationships – you guys keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends.” Then she rambled about Trump’s record and alleged missteps on Russian interference, Vladimir Putin, the Iran deal. But she didn’t really answer the question, unless “be loyal” is all there is to her vision of American global leadership. 

Pence began by recalling a policy change that bucked the UN and America’s NATO allies: “Well, President Trump kept his word when we moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Israel. When Joe Biden was vice president, they promised to do that and never did.” Pence went on to assert that “we stood strong with our allies, but we've been demanding. NATO is now contributing more to our common defense than ever before. Thanks to President Trump's leadership, we strengthened our alliances across the Asia-Pacific. And we've stood strong against those who would do us harm.” NATO allies dismayed by Trump’s initial refusal to commit to Article 5; South Korean leaders surprised by his cancellation of bilateral military exercises; and even Russia’s Vladimir Putin, unchallenged by the U.S. president over 2016 election meddling, may have a different view. But more to the point, that’s not really a vision for American global leadership; it’s a list of priors. 

Pence added that Trump “unleashed the American military” in Syria and ordered the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and closed with a (tad bit overly) dramatic invoking of Kayla Mueller, the American hostage killed by ISIS, whose parents the White House brought to the debate hall. The Muellers and former U.S. Special Operations Command leader Tony Thomas have said that President Barack Obama held back a rescue mission. “If President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today,” Pence said. 

Harris responded by bringing up the Atlantic report that Trump called U.S. troops “suckers” and “losers,” recalling his disrespect for John McCain’s service as a POW, and asserting that Biden would hold Russia accountable for alleged bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. 

None of this is a proper answer to the question. 

It shouldn’t have been this hard for Harris. Biden actually has very clearly and repeatedly laid out his intentions for American leadership abroad. He has stated in speeches and print that his first major foreign policy act will be to convene a summit of the world’s democracies and reestablish the alliances and relationships that Trump has poked, prodded, and shaken. And Biden’s surrogates have been flooding the think tank and media circuits promising a new foreign policy to serve America’s middle class instead of multinational corporations, hoping to break through to voters of the anti-globalization wave that brought Trump into office in the first place. Harris said none of that.

Pence, for his part, could have answered with two words: America first. That’s the Trump mantra, even if it’s not always clear where America stands when his business interests call. Pence could have started there and produced a presidential moment of his own. Instead, he whiffed. 

We still have not heard from Pence or Trump a truly presidential (or vice presidential) vision statement on what they hope the world looks like four years from now and how they plan to achieve it. To be sure, Americans who care about foreign affairs can watch things play out in the actions, policies, and words of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And some few might have caught Trump’s latest, very short virtual speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he challenged China and called upon the UN to follow. It’s the clearest foreign policy message coming out of his administration, and the one with most bipartisan support and support among Americans and allies, who little-by-little are buying into the message. It’s effective, it’s potentially the governing paradigm for global security and politics for the rest of this century, but it’s not a case for or articulation for American leadership of the world. 

Harris and Pence were debating a China question when Harris noted that in recent polling outside the country, more people said they have confidence in Xi Jinping’s global leadership than Donald Trump’s, prompting debate moderator Susan Page of USA Today to follow up with the leadership question that caught them off guard.

If Biden wants a robust American leadership role in the world order, from trade to war and peace, then he and Harris need to do much more to explain it to Americans in moments when more of them are paying attention. Televised debates, for all their brevity and messiness, offer opportunities unmatched by op-eds, rallies of diehard supporters, and think-tank Zoom panels. 

Biden didn’t choose former Susan Rice as his running mate because, one can safely assume, she’s a bit too much like him: a foreign policy and security expert. The otherwise accomplished Harris is not, which is fine until it’s not. The senator is potentially three weeks away from becoming second in line to the presidency. She should be better prepared to answer why Americans should want Biden and herself to lead America, and America to lead the world.