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17 February 2022

What Kamala Harris can achieve at the Munich Security Conference

Harris must remember one thing above all: at stake is not her future political career but European security.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – Joe Biden ran for president in part on his foreign policy credentials. In his years in the Senate he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; as Barack Obama’s vice-president he was known as the point person on Ukraine and was a staunch advocate for support for the country.

By comparison, Kamala Harris’s previous portfolio was largely focused on domestic politics. As Biden’s Vice-President she has been handed some foreign policy issues, but the results so far have been mixed. A visit to Paris to smooth things over after the surprise announcement of a military pact in the Indo-Pacific that excluded France seemed to go well. But her handling of immigration and the US’s southern border has, at least so far, been most memorably characterised by her telling would-be migrants, “Do not come”, which was neither a foreign policy solution nor especially well received at any point on the political spectrum.

It is somewhat surprising, then, that the Biden administration announced that Harris would lead the US delegation at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. The subject will undoubtedly be the current crisis in Ukraine and the tens of thousands of Russian troops on the country’s borders. That will be doubly true if Russia does indeed invade, as the United States has been warning it is poised to in the coming days (though, admittedly, Washington has been issuing such warnings for weeks).

Harris will be in Munich with Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, among others, but Harris will make a speech and she will meet allies and partners. Harris will be the face of the Biden administration, and of the United States. Eyes will be on her.

This has been billed in some corners as a sign of Biden’s trust in Harris, or as a chance for Harris, seen as a bridge between Biden and younger generations and as a potential successor to the president, to reset and relaunch herself and her image after a rough first year. Some will certainly hail a strong performance or pick her apart if she does fumble.

But the single most important thing that Harris can remember is that, for America’s allies and partners, the stakes of this visit are not her future political career, but European security. Washington pundits and authors of pieces like this one have the luxury of debating what her visit to Germany will mean for the 2024 presidential election, but Baltic ministers, for example, will probably be more concerned with the near-term future of their own countries.

Or, to put it another way: there is tremendous pressure on her, but that pales in comparison to the pressure and tension this week in international relations. Harris is expected to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, on Saturday. If she stumbles she will come home to embarrassing press and perhaps further diminished American credibility. Zelensky, on the other hand, is staring down a potential Russian invasion and, along with the rest of the world, has read British intelligence suggesting that the Kremlin hopes to replace him with a Ukrainian president who is more sympathetic to Russia. Harris has a hard few days ahead of her, but not compared with some others attending the conference.

Was Harris the right choice for Biden to send? If she can deliver a consistent, coherent message; reassure America’s allies and partners; and put the focus not on herself but on Ukraine, Europe, and transatlanticism, then she will have proven herself to be so.

[See also: Ukraine forces Biden to rethink foreign policy goals]
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