U.S. Foreign Policy: Pence vs. Harris

Getty Images/Financial Times

By: Anya Moturi and Yoran Henzler

Though the Vice President of the United States may appear to have little power, the President’s second-in-command plays a larger role than assumed, especially in matters of foreign policy. Up until the late 1970s, vice presidents were largely figureheads, but President Jimmy Carter changed this at the beginning of his term by expanding the role of Vice President Walter Mondale, giving him the authority to affect policy and moving his office into the White House. Since then, successors to the vice-presidential office have continued to take on responsibility and expand the role’s importance.

The exact tasks of a vice president are dependent on the wishes of the president they serve, but recent vice presidents have become more hands-on in foreign affairs, traveling the world as representatives of the United States and advising the president on foreign policy. Because of their proximity to the president and their ability to influence foreign affairs, a vice-presidential candidate’s opinions on world politics should not be overlooked. As voters prepare to head to voting booths in November and as others begin sending in their mail-in ballots, they should consider the foreign policy agendas of each vice presidential candidate. Glimpse from the Globe will break down the foreign policy positions of the 2020 vice-presidential candidates, Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris.


Over the last decade, China has rapidly expanded its economic power and global influence to become one of the world’s superpowers, arguably on the same level as the United States. China’s status, combined with its communist, one-party political system, has long worried U.S. leaders, who fear the country is getting too aggressive and powerful. With the steady breakdown of relationships between China and the United States ‒ the trade war started by President Trump and rising anti-China sentiments since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic ‒  the United States’ dealings with China moving forward will greatly differ depending on which party wins the presidential election. 

Pence has long been critical of China, accusing the country of meddling in U.S. elections in 2018 and denouncing its economic aggression, human rights violations, and intellectual property theft in a speech in late 2019. In this same speech, he also declared his support for the Hong Kong protestors. China is not too fond of Pence either, as they responded to Pence’s denouncements by stating that the Vice President lied and needed to focus on fixing issues within the United States. As vice president, he has been supportive of sanctions against Chinese companies and high-ranking government officials, and would likely maintain this hardline stance should he keep his position. 

Senator Harris has similarly expressed that U.S. foreign policy toward China should consider its human rights record. According to Harris, the surveillance and repression of Chinese citizens as well as the reeducation camps for the Uighur Muslims were abysmal infringements on human rights. Further, she explained that the United States should stand with the people of Hong Kong, following China’s disrespect of Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy. While Harris agrees with Pence on the human rights issues, they differ in regard to the trade war. In 2018 she wrote a letter urging the Trump administration to reconsider increasing tariffs and reiterated this view in the vice presidential debate, where she noted that the trade war has cost the U.S. economy hundreds of thousands of jobs and raised the prices of consumer goods in the United States.

North Korea

U.S. relations with North Korea have remained largely static over the past decades, with the U.S. failing to curb North Korean nuclear proliferation. As time passes and North Korea’s stockpile of missiles and nuclear weapons grows, the regime is likely to grow more emboldened, and the influence the United States has on the country will decrease. Both U.S. political parties have made several attempts to negotiate with North Korea and promote its denuclearization, yet have so far been unsuccessful, making this a notable issue in U.S. foreign policy.

Pence has an unyielding attitude towards North Korea, differing from President Trump’s repeated attempts at establishing a friendly relationship with Kim Jong Un. After stating in 2018 that North Korea had not made any concrete steps toward ending its nuclear weapons program, he warned that the situation could “only end like the Libyan model if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.” In the early 2000s, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear arms program for sanctions relief but was later killed and overthrown by U.S.-supported rebels. North Korea has repeatedly cited Libya as an example of why it needs nuclear weapons, and took Pence’s words as a threat, to which he responded with: “It’s more of a fact.” Pence believes that continuing to pressure North Korea through sanctions will eventually force them to back down and lead to total denuclearization.

Harris also believes in a more firm stance towards North Korea and has openly criticized Trump’s engagement with North Korea, explaining that by prioritizing photo opportunities with Kim Jong Un and ending military operations with South Korea, he has compromised the ability of the United States to keep tabs on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Unlike Pence, she has conceded that appealing for complete denuclearization is unlikely to end in success but believes that a strategy aimed at cooperation with North Korea, such as by maintaining friendly relations and offering targeted sanctions relief for verifiable actions to scale back the nuclear program, is the best way forward.

Israel and Palestine

The territorial dispute that Israel and Palestine have been engaged in since the mid-20th century has continued to be violent. Israel in particular has grown more aggressive over the past few years, and though President Trump drafted a new plan for a two-state solution, he did so without input from Palestinian leaders and has been vocal about his support for Israel. Tensions in the region continue to rise.

Pence has always been open about his pro-Israel views, which stem from his religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian. The Vice President was a key supporter of President Trump’s controversial decision in 2017 to reverse almost 70 years of foreign policy and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an action that triggered criticism from around the world. Pence has also publicly backed Trump’s decision to cut funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) by over 50%, causing the organization to scramble for funds to continue providing its vital services.

Despite Senator Harris claiming she would offer a two-state solution and work toward repairing U.S. relationships with Palestine, her past suggests that her involvement would also lead to pro-Israel outcomes. Her very first foreign policy vote in the Senate in 2017 was to condemn a United Nations resolution that called for Israel to stop expanding its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Speaking for a lobbying group that pushes for better U.S.-Israel relations, she endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself in 2019. Furthermore, she has been a fond supporter of the Jewish National Fund since her childhood, an organization that is known to have helped push out Palestinians in the 1940s, also ensuring 750,000 of the refugees could not return. This is very different from presidential candidate Biden, who opposes Israel’s plans to continue annexing Palestinian territory.


President Trump started off U.S.-Iran relations in 2020 with a bang by ordering the successful execution of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. This move resulted in retaliation in the form of missiles fired at bases housing U.S. troops, but there were no casualties and the situation did not escalate further. Nevertheless, dealings between the two countries remain strained, and the United States remains committed to ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear capabilities.

In terms of U.S. foreign policy with Iran, Pence believes in a policy of deterrent aggressiveness towards Iran and was very vocal about his approval of President Trump’s decision to launch the airstrike that killed Iran’s top military general, Qassam Soleimani, in early January. Following the airstrike, Pence stated that, though he wants to end conflict in the region, he has no desire to remove the U.S.’s military presence from the area in case they are needed to settle other disputes in the future. The U.S. pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal in 2018 under the Trump Administration. The JCPOA was an agreement to lift sanctions on Iran, should they comply with international nuclear standards. Pence has urged European nations to pull out of the deal too, describing Iran as a ‘murderous revolutionary regime’.

Harris has also outlined that she does not condone Iran’s nuclear weapons program. On the other hand, she has made clear that the Biden administration would rejoin the (JCPOA) deal that Trump withdrew from, so long as Iran verifiably complied. She is a firm believer that an allied approach through the UN Security Council is the right plan of action, both to strengthen the nuclear deal and to push back against Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region. In response to airstrikes, Harris asserted that Trump’s reckless approach has caused nothing but further escalation over the past two years. 

Climate Change

As a world leader and the second largest contributor to climate change, any action (or inaction) by the United States can influence the effectiveness of efforts to counter climate change. As the time the world has to reverse global warming passes by, the winner of the presidential election will determine whether or not the United States leads, or refutes, the fight against climate change.

Pence has been a climate change denialist long before becoming Trump’s running mate. As the host of his own radio show in the early 2000’s, Pence claimed that global warming was a ‘myth,’ and that temperatures were warmer 50 years ago. As an Indiana congressman, Pence supported President George W. Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol, a pledge by nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also voted against limiting those emissions twice. As the governor of Indiana, he refused to implement Obama’s Clean Power Plan in 2015. During his time as vice president, Pence worked with Trump to reverse environmental protection rules put in place by the Obama administration, including the hydraulic fracking rule, the methane rule, the stream buffer rule, the Clean Power Plan, and the Paris Climate Accord. While CO2 emissions fell 11% during the Obama Administration, they fell about 0.5% during Trump’s first three years in office. In this way, Pence’s actions have benefitted companies involved in the non-renewable energy sector such as coal, oil, and gas, therefore receiving political support from those tied to the sector.

There is no doubt that Kamala Harris has been a vigorous advocate for the fight against climate change. She has frequently confronted the fossil fuel industry on fracking as California Attorney General, and is vocal about holding polluters accountable. She created an environmental justice unit as San Francisco District Attorney. During her presidential campaign, she pledged not to accept any fossil fuel money, to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and to invest $10 trillion in public and private funding to save the worst climate impacts, through her drafting of the Climate Plan. More importantly, Harris drafted the Climate Equity Act with Rep. Ocasio Cortez, as part of the Green New Deal. This bill aims for environmental legislation to be judged by the impact on minority communities. Harris strongly supports the Green New Deal but has had to compromise her position on it due to her partnership with Biden. The need to appeal to voters in swing states where environmentally damaging fracking takes place has meant that both Harris and Biden have backtracked on their outright calls to ban the fracking industry. 

To Conclude

Interestingly, the foreign policy goals of the two vice presidential candidates do not stray too far away from each other, disregarding climate change. However, Harris’ approach starkly contrasts to the rash and whimsical Trump administration. Harris has placed a much greater emphasis on internationalism, outlining the U.S.’ need for dependable relationships to restore its lost credibility and the liberal world order. She seeks a more comprehensive and allied approach on issues of global security, as seen through her aims to rejoin the JCPOA and the Paris Climate Agreement. Pence’s arguments on foreign policy during the vice presidential debate were that Trump had successfully limited ISIS and carried out air raids in Iran, as well as helped move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. While Pence has been essential in buoying relationships with allies through a less erratic approach than his President, he was a key driver of the criticism and indictment of China and Venezuela.

Without a doubt, the role of the vice president has grown in importance in recent presidential terms, with the nominations of running mates having the power to swing elections or appeal to a key demographic. The efforts of both candidates at the debate stage having a tangible effect on the ballot box remain to be seen, although polls following the debate indicate that Harris’s favorability ratings increased by 7%, while Pence’s stayed the same. 

With Pence being the more composed counterpart to Trump, Harris widening Biden’s target demographic massively, and both Trump and Biden being of higher risk groups for COVID, it is undoubtable that the elected vice president will carry a dominant role in determining foreign policies.