Harris’ Foreign Policy Looks Mainstream, But Remains a Bit of a Mystery
But will it matter in an election that is likely to turn on domestic issues?
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Joe Biden’s pick for vice president, is a bit of a mystery on foreign policy.
In the runup to an election defined by twin domestic crises — the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests related to police violence — foreign policy has taken a backseat on the virtual campaign trail. And Harris, a former prosecutor from California whose record on policing received much scrutiny during her unsuccessful primary run, has little in the way of a public track record on global issues. On Capitol Hill, she sits on the Intelligence Committee, offering her a front-row seat to some of America’s most closely-held secrets — but the panel does most of its work behind closed doors and is famously tight-lipped.
The Trump campaign has sought to paint Harris as a radical liberal. But her voting record, alongside her public statements, paint a picture of a relatively mainstream Democrat on foreign policy — and one whose worldview appears largely aligned with Biden’s alliances-and-engagement focused one.
“The greatest U.S. foreign policy accomplishment has been the post-war community of international institutions, laws, and democratic nations we helped to build,” she wrote as a presidential candidate last year in a questionnaire for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Harris has voted to the right of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., voting against a “defund the Pentagon” measure from the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist to cut 10 percent from the Pentagon’s budget. She has called for the United States to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, and voted to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the brutal killing of U.S. resident and dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi. (Her critics on the left say she should have done so sooner, in response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen.)
On perhaps the most high-profile foreign policy issue of the 2020 campaign, the decades-long war in Afghanistan, Harris has disappointed progressives by refusing to unequivocally call for a full withdrawal. As a presidential candidate, she promised to bring home U.S. troops from Afghanistan “responsibly,” but maintain a presence to support “what the leaders of Afghanistan want to do in terms of having peace in that region, and certainly suppressing any possibility of ISIS or any other terrorist organization from gaining steam.” (Biden offered a similar prescription.)
On China, the other major animating foreign-policy issue of the campaign, Harris has also hewed to a mainstream Democratic course. She has criticized Beijing for violating the human rights of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and for its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. She has also opposed Trump’s tariff war with China. But publicly at least, she has so far yet to stake out the fierce, tough-on-China agenda that Biden has taken in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Harris has earned praise from Republicans with whom she has served on the Intelligence Committee, which is known for its bipartisanship.
“I don’t vote with her very often; we don’t agree on our votes, but I served with her, I like her,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who sits on the panel with Harris, said Wednesday. “She has normally stayed very well within the standards of that committee, which in the Senate is the least political of all committees. And she’s smart and she’s tough.”
Harris is best known on the Hill for her public grilling of committee witnesses. In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Harris that her rapid-fire questioning “makes me nervous.”
“She's very, very good,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters on the Hill this week. “I mean, obviously, her Judiciary, Intel performance has always demonstrated that she knows how to debate and deal with a witness, so she'll be fine.”
She has also been a fierce critic of Trump’s defense secretary, Mark Esper, accusing him of “demeaning” himself in testimony related to reports of a Russian bounty program targeting U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Esper, she said, played “cutesy games with words" that were “offensive to the American public.”
Perhaps the biggest question is whether she will be called upon to act as a voice on foreign policy in a Biden administration.
Congress originally envisioned the role of vice president as an extension of Congress, there to chair the Senate and break legislative ties when required. It wasn’t until Walter Mondale, President Jimmy Carter’s No. 2, that the vice presidency acquired the power and weight it carries in the executive branch today — particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s self-deprecating second-in-command from 1913 to 1921, later wrote that he “soon ascertained that I was of no importance to the administration beyond the duty of being loyal to it and ready, at any time, to act as a sort of pinch hitter.”
In the years since, some vice presidents have taken on an outsized role in foreign policy. The office hit its high-water mark during President George W. Bush’s first term, when Vice President Dick Cheney achieved Svengali-like influence in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Cheney’s power ebbed during the second Bush administration, when he failed to get the president to order air strikes on a Syrian nuclear plant in 2007 and to call off nuclear diplomacy with North Korea in 2008.)
But Biden has years of experience on the world stage, including a stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and later, as President Obama’s emissary to the ascendant leader of China, Xi Jinping. Although he said Wednesday that he wants Harris to “always tell me the truth, which she will, challenge my assumptions if she disagrees, ask the hard questions” — and vowed that she would be the last person he would consult before making a major decision — how much weight her counsel on foreign policy decisions will carry remains an open question.
In a speech Wednesday in Delaware celebrating Harris’ arrival on the ticket, Biden praised her experience on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.
“She’s been the center, in the middle of the most critical national security challenges our country faces,” he said. “Well aware, well aware of all the threats to this nation and ready to respond to them.”
But most of both Biden’s speech and Harris’s follow-on focused on her domestic record and agenda, and the personal ties between the two candidates, forged in part through Harris’s friendship with Biden’s late son, Beau.
“Kamala, you’ve been an honorary Biden for quite some time,” Biden said.