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Kamala Harris plans to prioritize cybersecurity and global health in foreign policy platform

Vice President Harris' foreign policy role
Vice President Kamala Harris steps into new foreign policy role 06:37

While the White House tackles domestic crises stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Vice President Kamala Harris is looking beyond U.S. boundaries to develop her foreign policy portfolio. Harris aides have declined to detail her top domestic areas of responsibility, but two top White House officials told CBS News she has at least two broad priorities that she plans to make her major focus on the international stage.

The officials said Harris has her own particular interests, in addition to the administration's top agenda items. She plans to make her top two priorities cybersecurity and technology, and global health. Those close to Harris say both interests come, in part, from her days as California's junior senator and her experience as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

President Biden and Vice President Harris not only took office amid a deadly pandemic but also began their administration during a major cybersecurity breach. Intelligence and White House officials are pinning the SolarWinds hack on Russia. 

The president has vowed that his top international priority is reassuring allies that the U.S. stands with them. Already, Harris has been an integral part of this effort. She has held calls with world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Her first call with an international leader was with World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, after the Biden administration reversed the last administration's U.S. withdrawal from the organization. Harris has a number of other calls with world leaders lined up, too, the officials said, but did not specify which ones.

"You can't do all of the other issues of interest without partners, and that is the theme of this administration," a top White House official said. "Global health, cyber security, China, climate, the regional issues: you can't do them unless you have strong partners. And I think that's the way the vice president is thinking about it and why she's putting a priority on doing her part to repair those ties."

This week, Harris took part in Mr. Biden's first bilateral meeting with Trudeau.

Those close to Harris say she's also shown a deep interest in and knowledge of technologies dealing with 5G and broadband access, which is not surprising in light of her Northern California origins. Some global health issues that especially resonate with Harris, in addition to addressing the pandemic, are maternal health, children's health and food and water insecurity.

When he was vice president, Mr. Biden came into the job with decades of foreign policy experience, having served as a longtime member and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. President Obama assigned several regions and territories to Mr. Biden, including Iraq. Aides to Harris say she has not received a specific region to oversee yet, since the administration's top concern is controlling the pandemic.

"Over time, with every president and vice president, relationships evolve and priorities emerge. And so I suspect that that will likely occur," a White House aide said, adding, "right now, we have these priority agenda items that are working across the board. And the first one is rebuilding our alliances."

Neither Harris nor the president are scheduled to make any foreign trips during the first six months of the administration.

What does Harris bring to the table — especially with a president with this much foreign policy experience? Sources close to Harris and experts say her recent history in the Senate will be pivotal, especially her experience on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"The Senate Intelligence Committee has earned a reputation for being one of the most serious and bipartisan on Capitol Hill. We do most of our work quietly, and behind closed doors, then-Senator Harris was no exception to that rule," Chairman Mark Warner, a close friend of Harris, told CBS News in a statement.

"She impressed both Democrats and Republicans alike with her sharp questioning, focus on national security, and attention to detail, and she was able to work productively with Republicans on critical, politically fraught issues like election security," Warner said. "Her four years on the Committee definitely provide her with a sophisticated and thoughtful understanding of the most pressing foreign policy and national security issues facing this country right now, and I expect the country will see that clearly over the next four."

Almost every day, Harris sits in the Oval Office with the president to receive the President's Daily Brief. Lindsay Gorman, a Fellow for Emerging Technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says that Harris' service on the Senate Intelligence Committee offers a "perspective at the intersection of technology and national security at a time when these two areas are critically entwined."

"Technology is at the heart of geopolitical competition with China and global authoritarianism," Gorman said. "Whoever succeeds in building the technologies of the future will write the rules for their use. And that has very significant national security and foreign policy implications in a way that was not clear 10 years ago."

Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, believes that Harris' fresh approach to foreign policy can help add a new perspective to balance Mr. Biden's decades of experience.

"Part of both the challenge and the opportunity is that the president has a lot of the obvious bases covered," Alterman said. "But there's also a sense that the old ways of doing things won't service as well as they need to and we have to do things in different ways."

Though the president has been in office for just about a month, many in Washington are already looking ahead to 2024, worried about who could head a Democratic ticket if Mr. Biden, who would be 82 years old, were to decide not to run again.  Some see Mr. Biden's approach of including Harris in aspects of foreign policy as a way of mentoring her for the highest office in the land.

"The president is going to essentially open up opportunities or cut off avenues for the vice president to either gain or wield power in terms of how the president perceives that person," said Dr. Lara Brown, director and associate professor at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. "It's very clear to me that President Biden does not see Vice President Harris as a competitor and instead is looking at how he can both delegate to her and mentor her into both a foreign policy role and a senior executive role."

The task for Harris will be pointing to an accomplishment on the international stage if she's to become the face of the Democratic Party in upcoming elections.

A former Democratic Senate aide noted, "To win an election for president, she's going to have to demonstrate — if not skill, then at least a high level of confidence in the national security field — which is partly about getting stuff done, and it's partly about not making mistakes."

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