It's Debatable

Is a Vice President Who Doesn’t Know Much About Foreign Policy a National Security Risk?

Pence and Harris talked about international politics at the debate, but their performances will leave voters asking if they would be ready to act as commander in chief.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate moderated by Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page at the University of Utah on Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate moderated by Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page at the University of Utah on Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Anything new to report?

Matthew Kroenig: There’s nothing going on in the world for us to discuss this week, is there? So maybe I can start by bragging about the Atlantic Council’s newest hire—welcome to our team, Emma! We were so tired of you running circles around me in these debates that we decided we would rather have you with us than against us.

EA: Thanks! I’m excited to join the Scowcroft Center. But me joining the same think tank just means that when COVID-19 is eventually resolved, I can yell at you down the hall, rather than just on here.

But oh my goodness, what a week it’s been. I started a new job, the New York Times released the president’s tax returns, there was a vice presidential debate, Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war, and the president was hospitalized with COVID-19 while the White House became a re-creation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” All equally consequential, of course.

MK: Yes. Much to discuss. And somehow I have a feeling we will not run out of things to argue about, even with you just down the hall. For example, I’m guessing you were less impressed by Mike Pence’s debate performance than I was?

EA: I was very impressed by the fly on his head, which showed great poise! It was certainly surreal to see a semi-normal debate between Pence and Kamala Harris after so many months of Trumpist absurdity.

But even if Pence’s delivery was more measured than his boss’s, the message was largely the same. He blamed China for, well, everything and kept trying to imply that Joe Biden and Harris would be weak on foreign policy. I’m not sure it worked. You were impressed?

MK: Well, like you, I was happy to see them seriously engage the issues, and I thought they both did a pretty good job.

On foreign policy, the debate moderator, Susan Page, started with a great question about America’s role in the world. Harris’s answer was also good. It is about credibility, standing with allies, and standing up to enemies. I just think her line of attack against Donald Trump was not grounded in the facts.

Pence spent much of the time trying to tell Harris that his running mate killed more important bad guys than hers. If that is what U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to, we have an issue.

She asserted again that Trump has been cozying up to dictators. Democrats are so obsessed with the 2016 Russian election interference and Trump’s strange rhetorical deference to Vladimir Putin that they are overlooking the Trump administration’s actual policies.

Trump defeated the Islamic State, placed the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran and North Korea, killed the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, armed the Ukrainians and built two new low-yield nuclear weapons to defend against Russia, and made great-power competition with China its foremost priority. That is a solid record of standing up to dictators and a tougher approach than anything Biden has shown in his time in office.

EA: It was still pretty superficial on foreign policy. It’s a sign of how desperate we have become for any sign of competence or depth on foreign policy that even the small amount of discussion in the VP debate is better than the first—and probably only—presidential debate!

I agree with you on the Russia question. The Biden campaign must believe tying Trump to Russia polls well or something, because it comes up far out of proportion to its actual importance. But I don’t think you can argue that Trump is tough on most dictators. He has a better relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan than with Angela Merkel, for example.

Can we talk a bit about Suleimani? I thought the focus on his killing was a bit strange. I’m happy I was wrong in predicting that it might lead to broader conflict with Iran. But supporters of the assassination were also wrong; Iran has not been deterred in the region by his death.

MK: I guess the high-profile killing of a bad guy is something that resonates with the public. And I think it was, on balance, the right move. I did correctly predict that Iran would aim for a token response. If they did nothing, the clerics would lose face, but if they did too much, they knew they could lose their heads. And the strike didn’t magically stop all of Iran’s malign activity, but Tehran now knows that the U.S. military option is back on the table in a way that it was not under Barack Obama and Biden.

EA: The Iranian response hardly seems token. There are rumors flying that the United States is going to pull out of its embassy in Baghdad—perhaps the most heavily fortified compound on the planet—because attacks from Iranian proxies are so bad. The Suleimani question is part of a bigger problem with Pence’s debate responses: He spent much of the foreign-policy time effectively trying to tell Harris that his running mate killed more important bad guys than hers. If that is what U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to, we have an issue.

And when asked to talk about China, and the question of how the United States should deal with its biggest potential challenge in coming decades, Pence spent his time blaming China for COVID-19. Harris spent her time blaming Trump for losing the trade war with China. Neither answered the question.

MK: Harris erred in the opposite direction. She started by saying foreign policy is about standing up to enemies, but then she never took the opportunity to explain how she and Biden would confront the adversaries we face. She did not criticize Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party, which, as you point out correctly, is our biggest potential challenge in decades. And she mentioned Iran only to advocate for diplomacy with the clerics. The performance did not inspire confidence that she and Biden will be resolute against our adversaries.

EA: Well, perhaps Pence could lend her his “resolve face”? After all, it worked so well against North Korea.

Look, neither Harris nor Pence was impressive on foreign policy. And neither has a substantial background in the field, particularly Harris. And I think we should take a moment to talk about that and about the national security implications of a White House COVID-19 outbreak that hospitalized the president and put most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff into quarantine.

The impact of the latter is minimal; the chiefs can all do their work remotely. But if the worst were to happen, I’m not sure what I would expect from a Harris administration on foreign policy. I know for sure that I wouldn’t like a Pence administration. What do you think?

MK: Not to be morbid, but actuarial tables suggest that there is a decent chance that Harris or Pence could be commander in chief in the coming years.

EA: Right! That’s what freaks me out.

MK: And even if Trump and Biden remain healthy, we could see Pence and Harris squaring off again at the top of their parties’ respective tickets in 2024 or 2028.

I think what we saw last night is that—despite claims that Trump has fundamentally transformed the GOP—a Pence administration would be a return to normcore Republican.

EA: I think that’s probably right. Pence was a George W. Bush neoconservative in the mid-2000s. In fact, he was far more extreme; when he was a congressman, he sponsored a bill that would have prevented Bush from withdrawing any troops from Iraq. So while Pence pays lip service to Trump’s more unusual foreign-policy choices—like meeting with North Korea—I suspect that’s for show.

A Pence administration would continue Trump’s harsh approach to China, and Iran, but probably ramp up tensions again with North Korea and potentially commit more troops to the Middle East.

A Pence administration would continue Trump’s harsh approach to China, and Iran, but probably ramp up tensions again with North Korea and potentially commit more troops to the Middle East. It’s out of step with public opinion, but that has never stopped Pence from supporting unpopular policies. What about a Harris administration?

MK: Harris did seem shakier on foreign policy, even deferring in the debate to what Biden has taught her on the subject. And it was the only issue of the night in which she occasionally stumbled in her word choice.

EA: Yes, with the presidency almost unilaterally powerful in foreign policy these days, it’s not exactly ideal to have an older president and a vice president with no experience. But I interrupted you.

MK: Well, I am worried about the coronavirus outbreak and quarantine at the highest levels of the U.S. military command structure. Combined with our likely domestic preoccupations in the coming weeks, this could be an ideal time for an adversary to present us with a fait accompli, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

China has not ruled out the use of military force to retake the island, it has stepped up its military activity in the Taiwan Strait in recent weeks, and there are doubts about whether the United States can successfully contribute to Taiwan’s self-defense. A good piece in Foreign Policy a couple of years ago even explained why the local weather conditions would make October the perfect month for an invasion. So, Beijing might see this as its window of opportunity. And while Taiwan and the Pentagon have made some progress in strengthening the island’s defenses, Taiwan is still not ready for this kind of attack.

I would add Russia to the list of possible opportunistic aggressors, but it looks as if Moscow has its hands full. Their near abroad is in tumult, with the protests in Belarus and now unrest in Kyrgyzstan and conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

EA: Wasn’t that the plot of a Tom Clancy novel? The idea that other states will use presidential illness to engage in strikes against the United States or allies seems about as probable to me as the idea of successfully hiding a Soviet submarine defection.

But there’s a grain of truth to what you’re saying about some of these conflicts. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, and under Trump, America has almost entirely ignored conflicts around the world where once Washington might have acted as a mediator, tamping down conflict.

Under Trump, America has almost entirely ignored conflicts around the world where once we might have acted as a mediator, tamping down conflict.

I do worry about Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s the longest-running territorial dispute in the former Soviet sphere, and like most of these so-called frozen conflicts, it has the potential to get quite ugly when unfrozen. Already, as many as half of the region’s residents have been displaced by fighting.

MK: I take two lessons from these events. First is the limits of Russia’s great-power status. Putin dreams of resurrecting a sphere of influence over the territories of the former Soviet Union, but we are seeing that these are poorly governed and difficult to control places. There was even a Rand Corp. report from last year recommending democracy promotion in Belarus and stirring up trouble in the Caucasus as a way of overextending Moscow and deflecting its attention away from NATO. The U.S. government wasn’t behind these latest developments, but recent events will have this effect nonetheless.

EA: Russia may well end up overextended here. The country has always aimed to keep these regional conflicts tamped down. This is typically to its own benefit, whether it’s in Moldova, Abkhazia, or the Donbass, but it also tends to keep the conflicts frozen in place. In this case, however, Russia has an interest in supporting Armenia, and there’s another interested party—Turkey—with the will and the potential to support Azerbaijan.

Turkey and Russia are often at odds: a few years back, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that entered its airspace. More recently, Putin publicly humiliated Erdogan by filming his wait for a Kremlin meeting and playing it live on TV—complete with a countdown clock. And the two have come to indirect blows in Syria, with Russian-backed regime forces killing Turkish forces. In short, tensions are high, and the situation is ripe for further proxy or even direct conflict between the two.

Wait, what was your second lesson?

MK: The second lesson is that democracy’s appeal remains. With Freedom House showing a decline in democracy around the world in each of the past 14 years and the supposed success of authoritarian state-led capitalism, many are pessimistic about the future of open government. But the people of Belarus and Kyrgyzstan don’t like living under corrupt autocracies, and they are demanding change.

EA: Sure. But again, there’s a lot of chaos in the streets in both places and no obvious path to resolving the crises. I’m not saying the United States needs to solve every global problem; I certainly don’t believe that. But it would be nice to see even just some thoughts from U.S. leaders on these issues or a phone call to relevant world leaders.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Russia and a NATO member might be about to trade potshots in a second country, and I’m not sure the Trump White House even knows where Nagorno-Karabakh is on a map. I’m confident neither Pence nor Harris knows much about it. That doesn’t bode well for the future.

MK: Yes. In Washington, it is really only wonks and desk officers who know much about conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh. Let’s hope the aspiring veeps are reading our column.

EA: I guess we’ll find out when the president tweets about us in all caps.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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