The day that Kamala Harris was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States (US), hashtags like “#MadamVicePresident” flooded Twitter feeds in celebration of the first time a woman, a Black American, or an Asian-American has held the post. Some users posted photos of their children standing in front of the television as Harris placed her hand on the Bible, driving home a message that Harris has emphasised many times: her inauguration represents a widening of opportunities for non-white, non-male Americans.
Breaking into Foreign Policy
There are a number of reasons that one might be curious about Harris’ impact on foreign policy over the next four years. One is that President Joe Biden took on an unusually large role in foreign policy as Vice President to Barack Obama; we might expect him to delegate the same.
However, though Harris served on the Select Committee for Intelligence in her time as a Senator, the bulk of her career was spent in the criminal justice system, including as California’s Attorney General. Harris’ limited experience in international affairs has led Bertrand and Daniels, for POLITICO, to characterise the Vice President as a “neophyte on foreign policy” relative to President Biden.
During the Democratic primary debates, Harris’ remarks as a candidate for President centred on domestic issues: healthcare, criminal justice, race, and the economy. When she did speak on foreign policy during the debates, it was almost always in response to direct questioning. She rarely initiated a conversation around foreign policy while at the podium. Harris most commonly characterised her foreign policy stance in opposition to Trumpian retreat, which is central to Biden’s agenda.
Harris has even outlined her international priorities ahead of her domestic agenda. White House aides cite a particular interest on behalf of the Vice President in cybersecurity and global health.
However, in her first two months as the Vice President, Harris has already demonstrated a visible commitment to international relationships, having had phone calls with French, Canadian, Israeli, and Australian leadership since January 20. She also sits in on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) daily presidential briefing, which has historically been reserved for the President.
Harris has even outlined her international priorities ahead of her domestic agenda. White House aides cite a particular interest on behalf of the Vice President in cybersecurity and global health, both of which seem fitting in light of the pandemic and the recent SolarWinds hack.
Messages of Cooperation
Given the undeniable retreat from international apparatuses of cooperation—including from the World Health Organization (WHO) amid a global pandemic—in the four years since Donald Trump took office, most Americans are expectant that their leadership will re-engage with historic alliances. In an interview for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Denis Sullivan characterised diplomacy and human rights as the “calling card” of the Biden–Harris administration. Vicki Assevero, for the Atlantic Council, writes of “a unique consciousness that the new US president and vice president-elect each simultaneously belong to other places in our world beyond the United States,” which may have tangible implications.
Prioritising cooperation is certainly a distinctly “Biden” stance. The President has consistently framed the foreign policy as a means to “repair [U.S.] moral leadership,” as he said in a February speech at the State Department. However, Harris’ record on international affairs as a Senator syncs with the President’s agenda. On the campaign trail, she expressed her intent to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, strengthen the US relationship with NATO, and criticised Donald Trump’s “trade war” with China and withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
As Senator, Harris was vocal against the Xinjiang genocide perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uighur Muslim minority. In 2019, she cosponsored the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which called for condemnation and exhorted the Secretary of State to consider sanctions. In 2020, Harris renewed that call by writing a letter to the Trump administration with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urging a response to reports of a forced birth control campaign targeting the Uighurs.
Though this administration’s integration of traditionally “soft power” foreign policy issues like climate change and diplomacy denotes at least some diminution of traditionally masculine conceptualisations of power, we still see an internalisation of the militancy crucial to American identity.
Harris has also called for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable for the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She voted in 2019 to block the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, which the Biden–Harris administration executed temporarily in January.
In the two months since they’ve taken office, the Biden–Harris administration has also rescinded the “global gag rule,” which blocked foreign organisations providing or advocating for abortion services from US aid, and revoked the Trump-era “Muslim Ban.” These are positive steps toward fostering cross-border unity that is mirrored by messages of political, racial, and gender solidarity at home. The Biden–Harris administration is nominally committed to considering women’s rights as part and parcel of foreign policy. Within the sphere of global health, White House aides note Harris’ commitment to maternal health in particular.
Progress Remains Partial
However, the administration has walked a fine line between publicly condemning human rights violations abroad and forcing a confrontation between abusive regimes. Last month, the White House decided not to sanction the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder, a move in which Alex Ward notes that Harris was a key player.
Despite the fact that arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been temporarily frozen, Iyad el-Baghdadi notes that this move was made in connection to the war in Yemen. “Even if Jamal was not killed, there were already very good moral and legal arguments to stop the weapons sales. So you can’t mix these two issues,” el-Baghdadi said in an interview with Slate.
Though diplomacy necessitates trade-offs, the Biden–Harris administration can do more to put teeth behind its condemnations of human rights violations. Defending the decision not to sanction bin Salman, Biden noted that it was unprecedented to sanction a sitting head of state. However, it was also unprecedented for a Black, Asian, or female American to become Vice President before Kamala Harris. Sometimes, “precedent” is used to mask archaism.
Though this administration’s integration of traditionally “soft power” foreign policy issues like climate change and diplomacy denotes at least some diminution of traditionally masculine conceptualisations of power, we still see an internalisation of the militancy crucial to American identity. While as a candidate, Harris expressed a desire to cut military funding, that has not happened yet, and the bombing of Syria within months of taking office shows little hesitation to use force. Yet, we see no discourse on the disproportionate harm that war causes to women.
There’s a clear consensus that, though Harris is relatively inexperienced when it comes to foreign policy, she has the potential to be revolutionary. The Biden–Harris administration has committed itself to its messaging; however, it is not enough. I implore the White House to be bold in the execution of its commitments to human rights and not to shy away from making history.