Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris speaks at a campaign event, on her first joint appearance with presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden after being named by Biden as his running mate, at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 12, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

What Kamala Harris would mean for a Biden administration’s foreign policy

The daily talking points sent out by the Democratic National Committee the day after Vice President Joe Biden’s historic choice of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate did not say a word about national security or foreign policy. Nor was this a topic in most of the commentary surrounding the pick, nor in their joint appearance in Delaware on Wednesday.

This is not surprising. National Democrats downplay national security. They do not see it as helping them in the 2020 elections, particularly in the swing House districts they won in 2018. They fear the issues will only expose them to attacks as weak. So, they generally avoid the subject — unless they are trying to attack Donald Trump from the right for his curiously cozy relationship with Russia’s Vladmir Putin or his love letters to North Korea’s Kim Jung Un.

Indeed, this year the House Democratic leadership eschewed any substantive changes to Trump’s enormous $740 billion Pentagon budget authorization, giving Trump everything he wanted, passing on the opportunity to have a serious discussion about redefining national security, and redistributing funding from weapons to COVID care and recession relief.

Thus, the DNC’s message points stress that “Kamala Harris is ready to lead on day one,” and that “[s]he knows how to ask the hard questions and get answers.” Instead of, say, highlighting how a new Inspector General report shows that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lied to Congress to push through a multi-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia without any consideration of how the weapons would continue the Saudi slaughter of innocent Yemeni civilians, the DNC focused on Trump’s threats to Social Security and Medicare.

You can’t blame the Democrats. Foreign policy will not drive this election. The big issues are domestic, with a raging pandemic, an economy slipping into a depression and a national uprising against systemic racism and police brutality. When asked, voters favor restraint abroad, cuts to military budgets and decreases to nuclear arsenals. But these issues tend to have low saliency among the public and are not usually a major factor in their votes.

Foreign policy is intimately linked to the domestic policies Democrats favor, however. Joe Biden cannot successfully implement his plans to “build back better” with an economic recovery, a defeated pandemic, sustainable energy, expanded health care, etc., without cutting Pentagon spending and pulling troops back from the wars they’ve been fighting without resolution for almost 20 years. There is a “a new national reckoning over budget priorities” coming, writes Win Without War advocacy director Erica Fein, “propelled into the nation’s consciousness by the national uprisings over systemic white supremacy and the coronavirus crisis.”

So, what do Harris’s positions on national security tell us about the ability of the Biden-Harris team, if elected, to enact transformational policies?

Harris generally lines up on the restraint and rebalance side of this policy debate. National security is not her strong suit, but the positions and votes she has taken point to a progressive pragmatism. She could be considered to the left of Susan Rice, for example, and to the right of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), both of whom Biden was reportedly considering as his number two.

Overall, she has positioned herself as a centrist in the party. But in a moment when the center has shifted, Harris “understands that the nation, and the Democratic Party in particular, has moved left, and that the policies of a Biden administration, therefore, have to be more progressive than those of Clinton and Obama,” Harold Meyerson writes in The American Prospect.

It appears that Harris would work to correct the decades-long militarization of U.S. foreign policy. “On Day One, I would make it very clear that I value the importance of diplomacy,” Harris said early in her campaign to be president. She told the Council on Foreign Relations in July last year that “the greatest U.S. foreign policy accomplishment has been the post-war community of international institutions, laws, and democratic nations we helped to build.”

Harris points to two threats to that community. “Our biggest mistake has been to jeopardize all that progress and accomplishment by engaging in failed wars that have cost lives, destabilized the regions in which they have been fought, and undermined our leadership,” she told CFR. “To make matters worse, the current president seems intent on inflicting further damage to U.S. credibility by disregarding diplomacy, withdrawing from international agreements and institutions, shunning our allies, siding with dictatorships over democracies, and elevating sheer incompetence in his decision-making processes.”

Specifically, Harris cosponsored and voted for ​S.J.Res. 7,​ legislation directing the president to withdraw U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. “What’s happening in Yemen is devastating. Thousands of children have died and last year alone, the war killed on average 100 civilians a week. Enough is enough. I voted YES today on a resolution to end the United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen,” she tweeted after voting for the measure back in March of 2019.

The national anti-war group Peace Action favorably notes that Harris has “consistently voted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the start of its brutal intervention in Yemen” and that she wants to remove most U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while leaving a residual force to support the Afghan government.

Like Biden, Harris slammed Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the U.N. Security Council approved Iran anti-nuclear accord — or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — and pledged that she would rejoin the agreement while seeking “negotiations with Iran to extend and supplement some of the nuclear deal’s existing provisions” and address regional disputes. Like many Democrats, she blasts Trump for his failure to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and seems to prefer a step-by-step approach since “simply demanding complete denuclearization is a recipe for failure.”

Harris — likely with an eye towards not jeopardizing her chance to be Biden’s VP pick — voted against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) amendment this July to cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10 percent (Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and 22 other Democratic Senators voted “yes”). But she did oppose the Pentagon’s budget in 2018, specifically for its funding of a new, “more usable” nuclear weapon, and when announcing her vote against the Sanders measure, Harris said she “agree[s] with the goal of reducing the defense budget and redirecting funding to communities in need, but it must be done strategically,” adding that she hoped “future efforts will more specifically address these complicated issues and earn my enthusiastic support.” 

She has generally worked with Democratic Senate leaders on national security to resist Trump’s dismantlement of the nuclear security regime. For example, she joined with 26 senators including Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Jeff Merkley (Ore., Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Richard Durbin (Ill.) and Christopher Murphy (Conn.) in a letter organized by Sen. Warren to protest Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. They warned that Trump’s “efforts to double down on new, unnecessary nuclear weapons while scrapping mutually beneficial treaties risks the United States sliding into another arms race with Russia and erodes U.S. nonproliferation efforts around the world.”

The progressive pro-Israel group J Street did not endorse Harris’s Senate bid in 2016, and her position on Israel-Palestine has been described as “more AIPAC, than J Street,” referring to her purportedly leaning toward the more hawkish, right wing side of the issue.

But J Street, which has already endorsed Joe Biden for president, greeted his choice of Harris as his VP pick with a glowing tweet, in part perhaps for Harris’s outspoken opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank. “Unilateral moves by either party, such as annexation,” Harris said, “put a negotiated peace further out of reach.”

Finally, Harris appears to have a broader view of national security than the traditional military-dominant frame. She was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and has emphasized the importance of reversing climate change as essential to national and global security, calling it “the most complex, far-reaching challenge of our time.”

Environmental leaders supported Biden’s choice. Niklas Hohne, head of the New Climate Institute think tank, said it was “definitely a good forward move for climate diplomacy,” adding that a Biden-Harris administration would be “like day and night in relation to climate policy and the Paris Agreement.”

Harris is no stranger to these issues. She serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “She’s no foreign policy lightweight,” says Rebecca Bill Chavez who advised Harris during her campaign, “Not only does she have the vision, the smarts, and the instincts, she has the values necessary to help Joe Biden restore U.S. standing in the world.”

That said, the reality is that she does not have a long track record on foreign policy (certainly nothing remotely approaching Joe Biden’s), making it difficult to predict future positions from her past performance.

Harris will likely be a reliable partner for Joe Biden in the construction of a post-Trump foreign policy. Harris can help re-imagine foreign policy, right size military budgets, re-orient military missions, and help integrate climate change, immigration policy, health care, and economic policy into national security priorities.

The support and ideas of independent experts, advocates, and the new mass movements have been instrumental to the development of her positions in the past. They will be crucial to the success of a Biden-Harris administration into the future.  

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