From China to Israel, Where Kamala Harris Stands on Foreign Policy

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to restore U.S. global leadership should he unseat President Donald Trump in November, accusing the president of leaving America's image in "tatters" and undermining the U.S.-led international order.

If Biden does win the election, California Sen. Kamala Harris—the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket—will become his vice president.

Harris' pick crystalizes the center-left establishment foreign policy platform Biden's campaign has sought to build, breaking with Trump's unilateral, combative, "America first" worldview and seeking a return to what American voters will see as more normal international relations.

Though not traditionally a prominent voice on foreign policy, Harris' Senate record, presidential run and past interviews suggest she is an internationalist who values America's traditional alliances and leans towards multilateralism to address global challenges like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, Harris 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."

This is "part of the strength of who we are as a nation," she said in a November 2019 presidential debate. American strength lies with the fact "not only that we have a vibrant military, but that when we walk in any room around the globe, we are respected because we keep to our word, we are consistent, we speak truth, and we are loyal," she explained.

This fits with Biden's draft platform released last month, which accused Trump of having retreated on the world stage, allowing adversaries "to fill the void." The president, Biden said, has "hollowed out American diplomacy, shredded international commitments, weakened our alliances, and tarnished our credibility."

Harris has pushed for human rights and the promotion and protection of democratic values worldwide, prioritizing diplomacy to push back against authoritarian regimes including those in Russia, China, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

As a senator, Harris co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which allowed the U.S. to impose sanctions on individuals and entities accused of human rights abuses in the former British colony, where Beijing is working to crush a popular pro-democracy movement.

She also co-sponsored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020—signed into law by Trump in June—which imposes sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in what activists say is a "cultural genocide" against Muslim minority communities in China's western Xinjiang province.

She told the CFR last year that Beijing's human rights record is "abysmal." She explained: "Under my administration, we will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won't allow human rights abuses to go unchecked. The United States must reclaim our own moral authority and work with like-minded nations to stand up forcefully for human rights in China and around the world."

Harris has also spoken out against Russia, expressing her continued support for the Ukrainian government, which is still fighting Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country. She also vowed to "consistently stand up to Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law," if elected president.

This is something Harris will continue as vice president in a future Biden administration seeking to break away from alleged Trumpian Russophilia.

Harris has also been involved in efforts to improve electoral security in the U.S., following Moscow's meddling in the 2016 race. Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and others are all accused of interfering in U.S. elections, and 2020 looks set to be no different.

Such meddling feeds into wider cybersecurity strategy, which will be an important element of every future confrontation with foreign nations. Harris wrote in her 2019 book The Truths We Hold: "Cyberwarfare is silent warfare. I sometimes refer to it as a war without blood: There are no soldiers in the field, no bullets and bombs. But the reality is cyberwarfare aims to weaponize infrastructure and, at its worst, could result in casualties."

Harris has taken aim at traditional U.S. allies engaged in human rights abuses and alleged war crimes. She voted to clock arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Harris also voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, which has created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Biden has vowed to end U.S. support for the war, which has become a proxy conflict in the wider Saudi-Iranian regional battle for supremacy.

She even suggested to CFR that the U.S. could downgrade ties with the Saudis to push the kingdom towards more acceptable behavior, expressing a desire to "fundamentally reevaluate our relationship" with Riyadh, though noted the importance of cooperation in areas including counterterrorism.

As with past administrations, balancing pro-human rights and pro-democracy ideals with international realpolitik will make the Saudi relationship difficult. Regardless of the kingdom's myriad human rights abuses, the country remains a key U.S. ally in a turbulent region.

The same is true of Israel, where recent right-wing governments led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have enjoyed unquestioning support from the Trump administration despite international condemnation for passing alleged ethnocentric legislation, continuing to support settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, and killing unarmed protesters during demonstrations in the Gaza Strip.

While progressive Democrats have been calling for the U.S. to re-evaluate ties with Israel—which they and other activists say has lurched alarmingly to the right—Biden and Harris will continue America's traditional backing for its long-time ally.

Harris told CFR that as president she would "start by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Israel's security and prosperity, while simultaneously working to rebuild the broken relationship between the United States and the Palestinians."

Harris said Israel remains "a critical ally and friend and its security is a top priority," and is a supporter of the two-state solution—something many observers have already warned is de facto defunct thanks to Israeli settlements in and military control of West Bank territory.

She was criticized by progressives in 2017 for meeting Netanyahu during a visit to Israel, and last year hosted members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—an influential lobbying group accused of pushing for American support for far-right-wing Israeli politics—in her office.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel remain important U.S. bulwarks against a belligerent Iranian regime, one that has been a key target of the Trump administration throughout his term. Biden and Harris have both said they would rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—i.e. the Iran nuclear deal—from which Trump withdrew, with Israeli backing, in 2018.

Harris has described the withdrawal as "beyond reckless" and Trump's subsequent "maximum pressure" campaign as "saber-rattling with no endgame." She said she would support the JCPOA if Iran returned to total and verifiable compliance, plus would push back against Iran's malign regional activities and ballistic missile research.

In other nuclear negotiations, Harris stands behind Biden's plan to engage with North Korea and pursue Pyongyang's denuclearization, regardless of how unrealistic some experts now consider such an approach.

Harris has said the U.S. "can't accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state," but also warned that "simply demanding complete denuclearization is a recipe for failure."

She told CFR she would "consider targeted sanctions relief to improve the lives of the North Korean people if the regime were to take serious, verifiable steps to roll back its nuclear program."

A Biden administration may see the mammoth U.S. military footprint shrink, given the former vice president's commitment to cutting the national military budget and increasing funding for the diplomatic corps hollowed out by the Trump administration.

Harris voted against Sen. Bernie Sanders' June proposal to cut the military budget by 10 percent, though said after: "I unequivocally agree with the goal of reducing the defense budget and redirecting funding to communities in need, but it must be done strategically."

Biden's draft platform said the U.S. "can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less," something Trump and the GOP will be looking to use against him.

And on climate change, Harris also supports Biden's plan to rejoin the Paris accord—from which Trump withdrew the U.S.—and fully engage with international partners to try and avoid predicted environmental disaster.

She has described climate change as a "public health emergency" and in her 2019 book wrote: "The hard truth is that climate change is going to cause terrible instability and desperation, and that will put American national security at risk."

Kamala Harris, foreign policy, Joe Biden, 2020
Presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris is pictured at the Hotel DuPont on August 14, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Getty