Kamala Harris: Woman of the World

An Indo-American with African-American roots, the Californian can build relations that will strengthen America. Here’s how.

California is waiting to be welcomed back into the national conversation after four years of disrespect and neglect from the White House. In a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration, not only will California’s favorite daughter bridge the widened — and widening — federal-state divide, she will team with a President Biden to rebuild America’s powerful role in the world.

In fact, Harris could be key to building new strategic global relationships and alliances. (Disclosure: My wife and I are Harris’ longtime friends.) While Biden shores up NATO, reaffirms multilateral agreements and Zoom calls his close foreign-leader friends, Harris will also bring unique foreign-policy advantage to the table.

As a globally aware Indo-American with African-American roots, her heritage opens up possibilities to grow America’s relationships in new corners. Likely receptive nations to future Harris overtures include the ever-important “Quad” partners — in particular, India.

The tightening Quad partnership is made up of four key Indo-Pacific democracies: the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. They are working together regionally to defend democracy and free markets where China is a persistent and growing threat.

Presidential campaigns simplify candidate narratives, and the one around Harris focuses on her Black heritage and electoral appeal. Her Oakland-Berkeley upbringing is emphasized, as is her attending Howard University, where she joined the African-American Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

There is less public attention and understanding of her potential to expand a dialogue and deepen relations with the world’s largest democracy. India is where Harris spent summers as a child. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, came from an intellectually achieving and privileged class in Chennai and she came to the United States to work and study.

Harris’ personal story means that she viscerally understands and appreciates India. Further, as a Californian, her formative experiences and orientation are westward toward the Pacific Ocean. The Indo-Pacific is home to Harris.

India will always be a reluctant international partner, however. A staunchly independent country, India has rabidly avoided alliances. Since the early days of the post-colonial nation’s history, it has asserted its voice and power to lead other non-aligned nations and to navigate deftly between rival superpowers.

In 1983, I met with India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Athens, Greece. We spoke about her nation’s tight Soviet relationship and her unwillingness to criticize Moscow’s 1979 Afghan invasion or the tragic shooting down of Korean Airliner, KAL 007. She was unapologetic in her defense of the USSR and responded to my pointed questions by attacking American foreign policy. Gandhi was adept at actively using the Cold War’s superpower rivalry to balance Soviet ambitions with American interests.

In the 21st century, Moscow no longer is as influential on the Asian subcontinent. Instead, the looming regional threat comes from China. India is actively looking for good, reliable friends to balance strategically against Beijing, especially following a recent border clash that killed Indian soldiers. Further, Beijing supports India’s main adversary, Pakistan. As China pushes India closer to the Quad, Harris can help pull Delhi closer to America.

American foreign policy is not dictated by our ancestral affiliations, but they do make a difference for the parties seeking to be seen and heard. In the same way that Clinton and Kennedy and Reagan could be heard in Ireland because of their roots there, Harris has access to the cultural and ethnic links that associate her with her ancestral lands. Bill Clinton — who claimed Irish heritage — partnered with legislative lion George Mitchell, a Lebanese Irish-American, to cajole and wrangle warring parties to come to an unprecedented peace accord: the solidly lasting Good Friday Agreement.

Harris, the mixed-race vice-presidential candidate, can leverage her Caribbean roots and understanding to improve America’s regional presence and leadership. Her time in French-speaking Canada as a high schooler will be a real advantage toward rebuilding the traditionally strong but recently strained Washington-Ottawa relationship.

Her grandfather P.V. Gopalan was a high-ranking Indian civil servant in Zambia, where he managed a refugee influx from the south into what was once Northern Rhodesia. Africa, Canada, the Caribbean basin, and the Asian subcontinent are integral parts of Harris’ person and personality.

A Biden-Harris administration would differentiate itself from the Trump administration in several ways. President Trump prefers one-on-one agreements with nations — bilateral agreements. However, he has had more luck breaking agreements than getting new ones signed and delivered.

Biden and Harris promise to restore respect for multilateral institutions and accords signed by previous presidents. They value global partnerships. The Biden-Harris team shows a strong preference toward building alliances, knowing that America can get more done and is more powerful when it works together with other nations.

What will certainly help America is that Kamala Harris has good friends and admirers not just here at home, but around the world.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.