Essential Politics: With long-distance calls, Kamala Harris dials up her diplomatic role

Kamala Harris wears a mask and sits at a table. Joe Biden sits at another table in the background.
Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden receive a briefing on the economy on Jan. 22 in the State Dining Room of the White House.
(Adam Schultz/White House Photo)

This is the Feb. 17, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Kamala Harris took just two official trips abroad as a U.S. senator — to Israel, Jordan and Afghanistan. They were the type of box-checking visits to strategic allies and a war zone that many politicians dash off as they position themselves to run for president.

Now that she’s vice president, we got an important indication over the last few days that Harris will have opportunities to engage much deeper in foreign policy. She held her second call with a foreign leader, this one with French President Emmanuel Macron, discussing the need to cooperate on “COVID-19, climate change, and support democracy at home and around the world,” according to a statement Harris released Monday evening.

Good morning, and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. This week, I’ll be looking ahead to Harris’ potential as a major player in the Biden administration’s foreign policy, and how it could burnish her political credentials if she runs for president again, as many expect.


Reversing ‘America First’

The content of Harris’ call with Macron wasn’t surprising: Both Macron and the Biden administration are eager to resume cooperation on environmental issues, building up alliances and human rights, after four years of friction with former President Trump and his “America First” agenda.

By enlisting Harris to help manage a cornerstone foreign policy relationship, Biden signaled his eagerness to involve her in one of his favorite parts of the job, and to give her some political help. Harris held her first call with another close ally earlier this month, that time with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Biden came to the White House with decades of experience, including many years as a leading Senate voice in international affairs and eight as President Obama’s frequent ambassador abroad. On the campaign trail, he loved to talk about his personal relationships with friends and foes around the world to make the case that his foreign chops could not be replicated by others. He has called restoring American alliances a top priority. He spoke with both Macron and Trudeau before Harris did.

But Biden is going to be very busy with his domestic agenda — ending the pandemic, restoring the economy, addressing racial inequity and curbing climate change are no small lifts. And at 78, he may not be up for as much travel as some of his predecessors.

Rebuilding American alliances will take work, and face time, and that could leave an opening for Harris to travel the world.

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She’s no Cheney

Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, called Harris’ early involvement “pleasantly surprising” given her domestic policy priorities.


“The best way to be good at the foreign policy brief is to take a keen interest in it early, and not just be crashing before a trip,” he said.

Harris served on the Senate Intelligence Committee. She is also the child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants who spent some of her childhood in Montreal. But the bulk of her political experience has been in local and state government, as a prosecutor and state attorney general in California, where she had little reason to pore over foreign policy briefs.

That should not stop her from taking an active role, however. Leaders around the world are likely to view her as Biden’s potential heir and will be eager to build a relationship.

“Politically, she’s a huge player. She’s got a good sense for the centers of gravity in the Democratic Party,” said Colin Dueck, an international security professor at George Mason University who has written about the role of presidents in guiding foreign policy.

“My guess is she will be used by Biden as a spokesperson and she will weigh in at different moments,” he added.

Vice presidents were largely irrelevant in foreign policy before the Cold War. Since then, they’ve become “like Cabinet secretaries,” even as the president remains the primary decision-maker, according to Dueck.

For comparison, Biden and George H.W. Bush brought vast international experience to the job of vice president. Walter Mondale and Lyndon Johnson brought less, but were nonetheless influential. Dan Quayle stands out as an exception for his lack of an identifiable role in George H.W. Bush’s administration, while Dick Cheney was intensely involved in foreign policy — critics would say excessively — during George W. Bush’s presidency.

“Cheney was in a different league,” Dueck said. “He was really second only to the president.”

Harris is unlikely to have that much clout. Wright said the extent of her influence will depend in part on whether she gets a specific policy portfolio, the way Biden focused on wars in the Middle East, NATO and China at various points under Obama.

Few expect her to reveal any differences with Biden on policy, at least in the early going, and even then privately if at all. The Biden team has said she will take an active role, but has not yet announced where and when she will be traveling.

Intrigued world leaders will be watching closely.

The latest from Washington

— The Senate vote to acquit former President Trump vividly illustrated the fault line that runs through the party: Even as the majority of Republicans stayed loyal, a sizable minority made clear their desire to be rid of him, David Lauter writes.

— And that divide heightens the stakes as Republicans decide what kind of power Trump will — and should — command in the party, including in the 2024 presidential election, write Jennifer Haberkon and Laura King.

— Biden has pushed to inoculate as many Americans as quickly as possible against COVID-19, Chris Megerian writes. But the uneven vaccination effort globally is expected to leave large swaths of the planet unprotected for years, potentially frustrating his effort.

— Days after Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounced Trump on the Senate floor, Trump viciously castigated McConnell in a statement released Tuesday, calling him “a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack.”

— For four years, Democrats succeeded in unraveling much of the Trump agenda through a California-led deluge of lawsuits, Evan Halper writes. But they now face a sobering reality: Their courtroom playbook is about to be turned against them.

— Dozens of immigrants facing deportation found sanctuary in houses of worship across the United States, but were hit with high fines by the Trump administration, Patrick J. McDonnell reports. What will become of them as Biden reforms immigration policy?

— Troubled conservative social media website Parler is back online, but it’s not clear what services are supporting it. The app remains banned from the Apple Store and Google Play Store.

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