Harris heads to Munich at pivotal moment
Vice President Harris will get a new opportunity to burnish her foreign policy credentials when she attends the Munich Security Conference this week.
The security conference comes at a particularly pivotal time, amid rising warnings of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, which could happen before Harris departs for Germany.
“Her presence there is a big deal,” said one ally close to the White House, adding that President Biden regularly attended the conference as vice president. “It sends a message that she’s at the heart of these major foreign policy issues.”
Harris has had an at times rocky start as vice president and aides have signaled a desire and willingness to get her out of Washington and on the road more.
The conference, which runs Friday to Monday, will mark Harris’s fifth foreign trip as vice president. She previously visited Guatemala and Mexico; Singapore and Vietnam; France; and most recently Honduras.
Harris is expected to expand her foreign travel this year, sources say, building on her trips from last year. One source said there’s a major overseas trip planned for this spring, with even an idea of Africa being floated. But sources in Harris’s orbit say the details for the trips are still being ironed out.
The White House signaled that Harris would use the appearance in Munich to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with NATO allies and support for Ukraine amid the growing Russian military threat.
Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, said the decision to send Harris to the annual conference is “a signal of how seriously they are taking the situation and the transatlantic relationship.”
The U.S. has issued increasingly sober warnings about the Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s border.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine, while not guaranteed, could happen at any moment as he urged American citizens to depart the country immediately.
“We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but the risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough, that this is what prudence demands,” Sullivan said.
Harris’s foreign trip will be part of a tapestry of Biden administration diplomatic engagements over the last several weeks aimed at warding off a Russian invasion of Ukraine and expressing the U.S. commitment to alliances.
The White House has not offered an agenda for the vice president, but she’s certain to rub elbows with officials from Europe, Asia and other parts of the globe at the annual conference, which is taking place in person after going virtual last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden as vice president delivered remarks to the gathering during his first year in office in 2009. He’s been a semi-regular fixture and gave a virtual address to the group last year.
Harris came into office as vice president with very limited foreign policy experience and her first year in the White House provided her with some learning experiences.
She often meets with foreign leaders before they meet with Biden at the White House.
Her first foreign trip as vice president to Honduras and Mexico proved controversial. Harris, who Biden put in charge to address the root causes of migration, was criticized for telling migrants “do not come” and for tripping up an answer about visiting the border during an interview with NBC News.
Her five-day trip to Paris last November seemed to go off much smoother, appearing to dispel any lingering doubts about the condition of the U.S.-France relationship following a spat over a nuclear-powered submarine deal.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it was important for Harris to attend the conference in Munich both to maintain focus on the Russia-Ukraine crisis and to demonstrate that she is engaged on the top issues.
“They need to get her into the top tier of decisionmaking and policymaking more than they have,” O’Hanlon said.
“She’s been an old-fashioned vice president,” he said, likening Harris’s early performance to that of Dan Quayle when he was vice president under George H.W. Bush. “And I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Harris has been viewed as Biden’s likely successor as soon as 2024 should he decide not to run for reelection, though her early stumbles and staff churn raised some questions about her political future. Biden has also said he intends to run for reelection.
Historically, foreign policy has not been a main voting issue in elections. Voters tend to care more about domestic issues, like the condition of the economy.
“Representing the United States at a high-profile gathering amid a serious international crisis moment is an opportunity to demonstrate one’s foreign policy depth and authority,” Fontaine said. “That said, I don’t know how many Americans vote on foreign policy in the average election.”
Still, Democrats believe that exercising her foreign policy prowess could be key to demonstrating she’s ready for a promotion in the White House. A turn on the world stage could help Harris demonstrate leadership and rhetorical skills.
“They really needed to up her foreign policy game,” said one Democratic strategist. “I think helping to sharpen her skills on the world stage is a good move not only for the White House but as we look to the future. It doesn’t do anyone any good to keep her on the sidelines.”
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