Biden could have gone another way. If he had chosen Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, he would have empowered a large section of his party that is seeking a break from its foreign policy past. Progressive Democrats are pushing for smaller defense budgets, less foreign intervention, more respect for sovereignty in other countries and the withdrawal of U.S. troops abroad. Biden and Harris are promising a robust U.S. foreign policy in which America re-invests in multilateral organizations, confronts adversaries including Russia and China aggressively, and pushes the promotion of liberal values such as democracy and human rights.
In her senatorial and presidential campaigns, Harris doubled down on a foreign policy vision she says is rooted in her upbringing and identity. When she gets on the debate stage with Vice President Pence, Harris will be poised to challenge him on the Trump administration’s handling of Russia, an issue she helped investigate as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“She’s been a huge asset to the committee during our years-long bipartisan investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections,” committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) told me. “As a former prosecutor, she brought incredibly useful experience to the table for an investigation of this kind.”
She co-wrote a bill with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) on election security. During her campaign run, she promised to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Harris has committed herself to confronting Russia’s aggression if elected and similarly has promised to stand up for oppressed Uighurs and Hong Kongers suffering at Beijing’s hand.
“Unlike the current occupant of the White House, I will consistently stand up to [Vladimir] Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law,” she told the Council on Foreign Relations. “The greatest U.S. foreign policy accomplishment has been the post-war community of international institutions, laws and democratic nations we helped to build.”
Those close to Harris describe her as a “Truman Democrat,” a nod to her willingness to use American power to promote American values and interests. She is on the board of the Truman National Security Project, a center-left foreign policy advocacy organization. She has run afoul of progressives in her party by not signing on to their national security initiatives. Harris voted against a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to slash Pentagon funding, saying she supports cutting defense budgets but wants to do it “strategically.”
After one primary debate, Harris famously called Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) an “apologist for an individual, [Bashar al-]Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches.” Like Biden, Harris supports withdrawing U.S. troops from the Middle East, but not right away.
Harris has tried to carve out a foreign policy identity that meshes with her personal story as a woman, the child of immigrants and the granddaughter of an Indian democracy and freedom fighter. After traveling to Iraq and Jordan and visiting a Syrian refugee camp, she wrote about women being marginalized and fearing rape or death in the developing world, saying, “You better believe we’ve got to change that.”
Issues like women’s rights, gender-based violence, and ethnic and racial discrimination cross the traditional boundaries between domestic and foreign policy, said former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, who knows Harris well. She noted that President Barack Obama gave his vice president considerable power over U.S. foreign policy, including a portfolio of issues to manage. That, she said, is likely to be the model that Biden will follow for Harris.
“She doesn’t have as much experience, but she brings a strong and different voice,” Flournoy said. “I see her in the strong and principled camp.”
Harris has been a strong supporter of U.S.-Israel ties and has spoken about her lifelong relationship to the Jewish community. She joined Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on a resolution condemning hate crimes. For those who want to see the Democratic Party make a starker break with the past, Harris’s foreign policy seems downright hawkish. But those close to her say she is trying to adapt a traditional approach to a quickly changing environment.
“She’s pragmatic. I wouldn’t put her in any box,” said her former Senate national security adviser Halie Soifer, now executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “I do think she’s an internationalist.”
During the Democratic primaries, the party’s growing divide on foreign policy became clear. Biden and Harris, if they are elected, will have a chance to prove that Democratic muscular liberalism is still the right approach. The party’s progressive wing will have to watch from the sidelines, for now.