Kamala Harris Is a Soft-Power Boon for America’s Global Image

The vice presidential candidate’s foreign-policy takes are conventional, but her identity is transformational.

An art enthusiast paints  the face of U.S. vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris outside a drawing school in Mumbai on Aug. 13.
An art enthusiast paints the face of U.S. vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris outside a drawing school in Mumbai on Aug. 13. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images

Kamala Harris wants to “cooperate with China on global issues like climate change” but not “allow [its] human rights abuses to go unchecked.” She wants to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and end U.S. support for the war in Yemen but maintain the counterterrorism partnership with the kingdom. She supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, eventually.

Judged by her statements so far, the foreign-policy agenda of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate is profoundly middle of the road. That’s not surprising for a candidate who made her bones in state-level politics and has never held a foreign policy-related role, beyond membership in Senate committees like intelligence. Nevertheless, if she and Biden win the presidential election in three months—as they are heavily favored to do, as of now—and Harris becomes both the first Black woman and person of Indian descent ever in the White House, she would immediately transform America’s face to the world.

The purely symbolic cachet would come first. Think of the rapturous reception of Barack Obama after eight years of George W. Bush, who started two unpopular wars and maintained a somewhat anti-cosmopolitan affect otherwise. The palpable relief in the international community in 2008 was so acute that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting elected. (He accepted it nearly a year after authorizing his first of many drone strikes.) But a similar breath of global relief seems inevitable in the case of Harris. For the international community, having someone with any kind of multicultural background helping to lead the world’s richest country is sort of an unalloyed good in an age of ceaseless migration and hyperglobalization.

“I think having a Black woman in the White House as vice president might serve to repair America’s current image and once again portray it as a society with opportunities open to all races and backgrounds,” said Linda Heywood, a Boston University professor and editor of the book African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy. The contrast with the current president could not be starker. Whereas Donald Trump has projected his vision for a homogenous, white nation-state in actions including the so-called Muslim ban and the suspension of work visas for foreigners, Harris is herself the child of two immigrants, from Jamaica and India.

“After four years of regression and the promotion of white nationalism, this is an awakening for the nation and the opportunity for women and women of color who … work hard in policy and politics, and who dream of leading, to know that this is in the realm of the possible. As a Jamaican American Black woman, attorney, policy wonk, member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., former Hill staffer, and former government official, it is amazing to potentially see someone whose experiences—both positive and negative—resemble mine in the White House,” said Camille Stewart, a cybersecurity expert and New America fellow who served in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during the Obama administration.

Harris’s identity as a Black woman could also bolster one of the most surprising American soft-power exports of the year: Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement. The immediate global resonance of the George Floyd protests against police brutality, from France to Indonesia to Australia, shows how America’s social justice vernacular still sets a global agenda, even during a year dominated by the country’s singularly disastrous pandemic response. Under a potential Vice President Harris, the goodwill created by these flashes of global solidarity could be actively harnessed for diplomatic ties in the many countries where Black Lives Matter has resonated abroad.

That being said, a single politician’s identity is far from a skeleton key for smooth diplomacy. “The American notion of ‘race’ does not travel well [everywhere],” said Ibrahim Sundiata, a scholar of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University. Obama, he noted, found that he had little pull in Kenya, where his father was from, because “his father’s [ethnic] Luo identity was more definitive in a Kikuyu-dominated polity than any imported notion of an all-encompassing ‘Blackness.’”

Sundiata posited that “Harris’s Black identity will greatly help her in Western Europe, where ‘people of color’ immigrants are demanding the same reforms as people of color in the United States. In Africa, her ‘Blackness’ may be more questioned. … And in Latin America, the reaction may be mixed. In Brazil, thousands of young ‘Black and brown’ women will doubtlessly be inspired by Senator Harris. At the same time, pundits on the left and right will point out that this upper-class woman from California has little in common with the phenotypically Black women of Brazil’s favelas.”

When it comes to actual policy, Harris is likely to stick to well-trodden paths. That’s partially because she’ll be constrained not just by the famously ill-defined office but also by the so-called “Blob,” as the Washington foreign-policy establishment and bureaucracy came to be called during the Obama years. As Foreign Policy reported last month, the Biden campaign has assembled a working group of over 2,000 people to advise on foreign policy, and there are countless Obama veterans in the mix. Harris herself has been advised, during her presidential bid, by veteran officials like Matthew Spence, former deputy assistant secretary of defense; Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy; Dana Shell, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar; former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen; former State Department official Philip Gordon; and Matthew Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Still, even the Blob has changed its contours since the last Democratic administration, as shown in part by Biden’s campaign pledge, in January, to “end the forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s no question that the Overton window [of mainstream discourse] is shifting,” said Stephen Wertheim, a historian and deputy director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-interventionist think tank. “Many Americans, left and right, now say that the biggest foreign-policy problem is that their own country is waging endless war. … In a recent poll, around three-quarters of Americans favor bringing troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s staggering.” It’s significant that Biden has staked out such a position, given that he himself once voted for the Iraq War. And what it illustrates at large is that Biden, a party man at the end of the day, is essentially receptive to public opinion and that a Biden-Harris administration has some leverage to accommodate other popular demands.

This is surely part of why Harris has embraced climate change as an agenda item, co-sponsored the Green New Deal, and pledged to rejoin the 2015 Paris agreement. Nearly 90 percent of Democrats consider climate change a “major threat to the nation,” according to a Pew Research Center survey from March. (Her home state is also among those most severely affected by global warming.) Harris has also been vocal about white supremacist and right-wing terrorism, which she has called the top domestic terrorism threat in the United States today, a position that seems to correct for the excesses of the so-called global war on terrorism, which focused on Islamist fundamentalism and extremism.

Given the pervasiveness—and the traditionally dominant whiteness and maleness—of the Blob, it would be important for a Biden-Harris administration to diversify its foreign-policy team, Wertheim said. Biden’s working group is amorphously large as of now, but it seems significant that his campaign has already established a working group to promote diversity in national security, which is chaired by a veteran female Black diplomat and the first transgender veteran appointed by the Obama administration to a federal agency.

Of course, Harris is not only a Black woman. If her ticket wins, she would also be the highest elected official of South Asian descent in American history. She has placed somewhat less emphasis on her Indian heritage to date—she once said, “I was born Black. I will die Black.”—and attended a historically Black university, but it is already becoming commonplace to note that her mother was an intrepid, progressive scientist who immigrated from southern India to the Bay Area and who regularly brought her family back to Chennai during Harris’s childhood. This heritage would doubtless be a powerful, and unprecedented, card to play in U.S.-India relations.

And it raises the possibility of the United States speaking out more authoritatively on human rights concerns with the Indian government, from which U.S. administrations have largely refrained in recent years; last year’s bipartisan congressional hearing on Kashmir was an exception that proved the rule of noninterference. Whereas Trump has cultivated close ties with right-wing, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Harris has been vocally critical of India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status in 2019. (She did, however, nominally welcome Modi’s visit in 2017—before his administration acted on Kashmir and a massive drive to strip people in the northeast of their citizenship—and tweeted about the “unbreakable bonds” between the United States and India.) As her uncle in Chennai told the Hindustan Times this week, Harris won’t give a “free pass” to India’s human rights record despite her heritage. Up to a point, that is. It’s unlikely that a Biden administration would too seriously censure India, whose strategic importance in Asia would increase if Biden continued his hawkish stance against China.

A Vice President Harris would mean a lot of things to a lot of people around the world, but at home, her impact would be most keenly felt if her presence helped diversify the foreign-policy ranks downstream once again. There would be even more openings than usual if they take over from Trump, who has left a huge number of diplomatic posts unfilled to this day. “During the Obama administration, particularly the second term, the national security and foreign-policy apparatus became more diverse, but there was and is a lot of work to do,” said Stewart, the former DHS official. “That diversity was often at the lower levels, a common problem across industries … but the Biden administration seems to be taking this seriously [so far].”

And all these caveats aside, many people of color involved in American foreign policy seem to not be able to help a cautious optimism. This is already a “proud moment for America,” Sundiata said, “one which could usher in a new era of inclusivity.”

Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikavaragur

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