When Joe Biden was vp, his first journey overseas was a cakewalk.
That is, it was a breeze in comparison with Kamala Harris’ debut on the world stage this week in Latin America, the place she tried to ship a troublesome message on corruption and immigration to an unfamiliar crew of balky male leaders.
Less than three weeks after President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Biden attended an annual security-policy convention of world leaders in Munich, Germany, the place he spoke to a pleasant crowd that knew him effectively from his many years as a senator and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And Biden delivered a message his viewers longed to listen to: After eight years of President George W. Bush’s go-it-alone overseas coverage, Biden advised European allies he got here to “set a new tone.”
Harris’ task would have been powerful for anybody, even an skilled diplomat, to execute: coping with a polarizing, intractable drawback many years within the making, whereas assembly with leaders of a unstable, usually violent area. It was a trial by fireplace for somebody with comparatively little expertise overseas. The strain was intensified by the inevitable scrutiny that comes from being each the primary lady and first lady of coloration within the position.
“It was a much tougher task: She walked into the lion’s den, whereas he walked into a clubhouse with some of his best mates,” mentioned Ivo Daalder, the Obama administration’s ambassador to NATO. “It would have been difficult for Biden to make a misstep. … He was sending a message, ‘We love you.’”
Biden has usually mentioned that he desires to mannequin Harris’ position in his administration on his personal relationship with President Obama, who promised Biden he’d be the “last person in the room” advising him on massive choices. And Obama delegated a full portfolio of home and overseas coverage points to his vp. In that spirit, Biden gave Harris accountability for an particularly nettlesome, politically delicate drawback of the best order: how one can deal with the foundation causes — poverty, violence and corruption — driving folks emigrate from Central America in numbers which have induced crises on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The distinction between the 2 vice presidents’ maiden overseas journeys underscores among the primary variations between their vice presidencies — the overseas coverage challenges they face, the abilities they convey to the job, and the importance of their place in U.S. management.
Harris launched into her journey below the limelight that at all times shines on a barrier-breaker. She impressed intense curiosity about how she would carry out on her two-day journey to Guatemala and Mexico, international locations the place racism and sexism stay commonplace. Major and minor information shops swarmed, bringing klieg lights, persistent reporters and big-name anchors to seize a second in historical past they anticipated to disclose a lot a couple of political determine that Americans are nonetheless attending to know. Everything she mentioned and did was put below a microscope, magnifying her missteps like a slipshod reply on why she had not but visited the U.S.-Mexico border. She responded defensively, saying she had not visited Europe both.
“It was a much tougher task: She walked into the lion’s den, whereas he walked into a clubhouse with some of his best mates.”
Ivo Daalder, the Obama administration’s ambassador to NATO, evaluating Kamala Harris’ and Joe Biden’s inaugural vice presidential journeys overseas
Biden’s first vice presidential journey overseas was additionally necessary, however rather more ho-hum. It obtained critical media consideration, however it didn’t crack the entrance pages of main newspapers such because the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. The protection was not marbled with judgmental observations about how the brand new vp was dealing with himself. He was a recognized amount to Americans, and to the folks attending the safety convention, an annual affair that he attended often as a senator. His journey was extra like a fraternity assembly than a coming-out social gathering.
His duties on the journey had been weighty: He was delivering the administration’s first main overseas coverage deal with at a convention with a high-altitude visitor listing, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
He was talking at a time when U.S. relations with its allies had been strained below the Bush administration. European leaders had been at odds with the Bush administration over the Iraq warfare and its often-unilateral strategy to world affairs, together with the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on local weather change and the International Criminal Court.
“There was a hunger in Europe for a recommitment to the alliance, to working together,” mentioned Daalder. “The whole effort was to make this pitch that we wanted to rebuild our alliances with Europe.”
Harris’ message in Guatemala and Mexico was much more difficult — providing U.S. assist and monetary help for addressing root causes of migration whereas upbraiding leaders for corruption, providing sympathy for migrants together with a stern admonition: “Do not come.”
By distinction, Biden’s speech in Munich was music to the ears of European allies. Even earlier than he spoke a phrase, he obtained a rousing ovation.
“I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration and an administration that’s determined to set a new tone, not only in Washington but in America’s relations around the world,” he mentioned.
Somewhat extra controversial was his effort to strike a extra conciliatory be aware than the Bush administration on relations with Russia.
“It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia,” he mentioned.
The “reset” idea now appears like wishful considering, as Biden prepares to satisfy with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva subsequent week. Tensions are excessive on account of Russia’s hacking and interference in U.S. elections, its army aggression towards neighbors, and the arrest of a high opposition chief.
On the twelfth anniversary of Biden’s Munich speech, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in February put out a press release saying: “The Russia reset was not just a failure, it was ill-conceived and counterproductive from the start.”
Biden’s greatest early task within the Obama administration was centered on home coverage — rounding up votes in Congress for laws to shore up a ravaged economic system, after which overseeing its implementation. But Biden, freed from this 12 months’s pandemic restrictions on journey, nonetheless managed a number of different worldwide journeys after Munich inside the first six months — to Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica and Kosovo. Throughout his administration, Obama delegated many overseas coverage points — together with the warfare in Iraq — to his vp.
Indeed, Biden was finally assigned the identical portfolio he gave to Harris — to deal with the foundation causes of migration from Central America. But when he travelled to Guatemala on that mission in 2014 and 2015, there was not one of the hoopla that attended her journey.
Some of the scrutiny she drew might have had a component of sexism and racism, mentioned Amanda Clayton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, who research gender in politics and finds that ladies — particularly ladies of coloration — are below extra strain than males to ship a flawless public efficiency.
“White men are given the benefit of the doubt,” mentioned Clayton. “Biden is a case study in gaffe after gaffe, and people forgive him.”
If Harris’ Latin America journey was a troublesome ceremony of passage into world affairs, it’s a reflection of 1 factor her vice presidency has in widespread with Biden’s: She is attempting to carve a extra consequential position than the largely-ceremonial model of the job that has usually prevailed, inspiring the saying that the workplace is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
“We now live in an age where we expect the vice president to do heavy lifting,” mentioned Joel Okay. Goldstein, a legislation professor at St. Louis University who’s an knowledgeable on the vice presidency. “If you’re going to be the ‘last person in the room,’ you are going to draw tough assignments.”