Editor’s Note: Hagar Chemali was a spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations under President Barack Obama. She is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and hosts a world news show on YouTube called “Oh My World!” Charles Landow is a public policy researcher and an adjunct instructor of political science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.
While pundits and analysts have focused on President-elect Joe Biden’s personnel choices, one of his most important foreign policy appointments actually occurred months ago when he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate. The vice president-elect, alongside the nominees for secretary of state and other posts, could and should be a top figure in shaping America’s standing on the global stage.
Harris’s historic victory has received well-deserved attention. Still, it bears repeating: 12 years after electing the first Black president, Americans have chosen the first woman, the first Black American and the first Asian-American to serve as vice president.
A clear majority of voters—the largest vote total in US history—looked at Biden, during a pandemic, knowing he would be the oldest person ever sworn in as president, and they supported a woman of color as his number two.
Harris’s presence in the White House will be vital for substantive reasons: Her expertise—including her background as a prosecutor, her Senate career and her role on the Senate Intelligence committee—will help the incoming administration govern far better than has the outgoing one. Her presence will also be vital as representation, renewing the promise of our diverse society for Americans of all genders and backgrounds, after the years of misogyny and xenophobia demonstrated at the top of the current administration.
But the implications of Harris’s election don’t stop at the water’s edge—or, at least, they shouldn’t. The Biden administration can benefit by affording Harris a prominent role in re-establishing American leadership abroad. In an era of global instability and renewed great power competition, that task figures to be just as critical as any other that Harris might take on.
Harris’s elevation constitutes an extraordinary milestone. Despite its domestic challenges and growing competition from China and other nations, the United States remains the world’s foremost power. The US vice presidency—though clearly less prominent than the presidency itself—retains enormous visibility in international politics. Electing the first woman of color as vice president demonstrates how both Biden and the American electorate value the country’s diversity, sending a potent signal to the world.
Indeed, the power of the vice president-elect to shape America’s global standing derives from the significance the US has long placed on its self-image as land of opportunity and moral actor on the world stage.
The US often falls woefully short of this self-image. The legacy of systemic racism in our society remains stark. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border and many other such actions have existed alongside the country’s far more admirable openness to immigrants and refugees.
So it is in US foreign policy, too. The United States frequently coddles, or at least tolerates, autocrats and human rights abusers when they are deemed strategically useful, even as it leads efforts to promote democracy and rights elsewhere. Countries from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to Nigeria have enjoyed warm relationships with the US due to economic and security interests, despite often-horrific records on democracy and human rights.
Harris’s arrival in the White House, like that of Barack Obama 12 years ago, will not magically perfect our union or its actions in the world. It will, however, restore a degree of credibility when the new administration urges countries toward representative democracy or opposes the abuse of their citizens.
The vice president-elect has already demonstrated support for global human rights and freedoms. For example, she has expressed support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and she voted to block the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (A UN report implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing; bin Salman denied any involvement.) In a questionnaire she answered as a presidential candidate last year, Harris wrote that “China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country.”
Her previously expressed views and the fact that she, as a woman of color, will hold this office point to an opportunity: The new administration, with Harris in a leading role, can conduct a foreign policy that prioritizes American openness and human rights. This offers a framework for approaching a number of foreign policy challenges, such as standing up to China’s repression of ethnic Uyghurs and crackdown in Hong Kong; leveraging US aid to push for democratic reform in Egypt; restoring American leadership in alliances and multilateral institutions, and resetting policies related to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
Harris, a member of the US Senate Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, has already exhibited a firm grasp of international affairs, including an affinity for global alliances and for standing up to nefarious actors. Although Biden’s national security team, which will be led by a president with vast foreign policy experience himself, will undoubtedly be strong, it will be even stronger with Harris’s active participation.
As the Los Angeles Times notes, Biden has apparently already given Harris a prominent role in their appearances and decisions since the election. The sheer scale of the demands the new administration will face at home and around the world argues for this to continue after the two take office.
Biden could, for example, make Harris a primary voice on international issues that connect to her personal and political experience, such as the operation of the US intelligence community, immigration policy, and the promotion of rights and freedoms abroad. Moreover, Harris, as the administration’s only directly elected figure besides the President-elect, can ably represent the United States on issues that do not demand Biden’s urgent personal attention. These might include maintaining alliances outside presidential summits, as well as dealing with thorny but relatively small conflicts.
Not long ago, Biden himself occupied the vice presidency, taking on a significant role in foreign policy as the US sought to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression and conducting direct diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It would be fitting for Biden, himself a senator before he became vice president, to pass on a similar role to his own VP.
More generally, Harris’s election will help the US in a new chapter of global ideological competition, as it arises between democratic Washington and authoritarian Beijing. An America whose diversity is visible at the highest levels, whose commitment to a more-perfect union has been renewed if still not fulfilled, whose openness to the best and brightest of all backgrounds extends once again to the White House—that America is more confident and attractive than any authoritarian competitor.
Harris’s swearing-in on Jan. 20 will constitute a watershed event perhaps unprecedented among the world’s major democracies, one that will boost America’s credibility and moral authority around the globe. The more Harris occupies an international role, the more the administration—and the country—will benefit.