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Cohen: Kamala Harris's foray into foreign policy is all about her future

Andrew Cohen

A version of this article was published in the online and print editions of the Ottawa Citizen, March 3 and 4, 2021.

The White House says she will be concentrating on cybersecurity and global health in foreign affairs. But clearly she is shoring up her experience for the day when Joe Biden is not the president.

When Joe Biden held his virtual summit with Justin Trudeau, he was accompanied by his secretary of state, his national security adviser, and Vice-President Kamala Harris, which was predictable. But other than Biden, only she spoke for the Americans, which was not.

In the early weeks of the administration, Harris has been surprisingly prominent in foreign affairs. Her apprenticeship for the presidency has begun.

A little premature to talk about 2024? Of course. We hear only the hoarse, coarse boasts of Donald Trump and his plans for a Republican restoration, as he struggles to avoid his rendezvous with obscurity. Meanwhile, Harris is learning the ropes.

If her first five weeks on the job are any measure, she’s creating a distinctive place for herself in foreign policy. Initially, it seemed that she didn’t want a particular role; she preferred to remain unencumbered as she focused on her constitutional duty as the 51st vote in an evenly divided Senate.

Some suggested she focus on reviving rural America, a priority for the Democrats, who do badly there. Not interested.

Instead, she is taking baby steps in foreign affairs. As Biden did not accompany Barack Obama to Ottawa in 2009, Harris would not have gone, either. Curiously, though, it was she, not Biden, who called Trudeau after their meeting.

And not just Trudeau. She has also called President Emmanuel Macron of France. She spoke at the virtual summit with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. She accompanied Biden to the State Department in his first week in office, making remarks of her own there.

The White House says she will be concentrating on cybersecurity and global health in foreign affairs. She has publicly identified no priorities in domestic affairs.

Unlike Biden, whom Obama chose in part because of his deep experience in foreign policy, Harris has not served decades in the Senate. She held important state offices in law in California. But she’s no rube, either. She was on the Senate Intelligence Committee, she made two trips abroad as a senator and she’s from a mixed background of India and Jamaica. As Biden noted the other day, she lived in Montreal as a teenager.

Her foray into foreign policy speaks to Harris’s ambition, her willingness to learn, her desire for experience. It also says much about Biden’s foresight, self-confidence, and generosity. He is treating her as Obama treated him: as a partner, confidante, and most strikingly, as his successor.

The old model of the vice-president as “standby equipment” went with the colourless Dan Quayle under George H.W. Bush. Mike Pence did try to revive it in his reliable obsequiousness to Trump, making Pence as creative as a lawn ornament in the Rose Garden. But the job had irrevocably changed.

Credit Dick Cheney. He made himself a rival centre of power to President George W. Bush, deeply involved in the levers of government. As vice-president, for his part, Biden asked to be “the first and last person in the room” when Obama made a big decision. He was.

By virtue of her race, her sex, her age, her story, and the culture of expectation, Harris is the most powerful vice-president in history. But what’s most important is that Biden is 78. He is unlikely to seek a second term – if he survives his first.

Biden knows this. He has called himself a transitional president. Practically and prudently, he is tutoring Harris in the art of governing, giving her real responsibility and offering her room to grow.

Back to Canada. As Biden visited Ottawa as vice-president in December 2016, Harris will eventually visit too. Indeed, Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, has publicly invited her to a meeting, as if she is Harris’s counterpart.

Freeland isn’t. When Harris visits, expect the prime minister to be her gracious host. He will treat her as a head of state, understanding this political reality: Sooner than later, Kamala Harris will be president of the United States.

About the Author

Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen

Global Fellow;
Associate Professor of Journalism, Carleton University
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