The U.S. Vice President and Foreign Policy

The U.S. Vice President and Foreign Policy

Modern vice presidents can trace much of their political influence to the broad reforms that Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale made to the second-highest elected office in the late 1970s.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talk at the Pentagon in 2002.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talk at the Pentagon in 2002. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty)
  • Particularly since Mondale, vice presidents have served their bosses as leading advisors, often taking on major foreign policy and national security portfolios.
  • President Biden has continued this tradition, consulting Kamala Harris on challenges such as Iran and tapping her to lead the U.S. response to growing Chinese and Russian influence in Africa.
  • Harris has also cast a record number of tie-breaking votes in the U.S. Senate, demonstrating that vice presidents can have a significant legislative impact during times of political polarization.


For most of U.S. history, the vice presidency was an office of little power or prestige. The incumbent’s chief responsibilities were to preside over the Senate, voting only in the case of a tie, and, on the rare occasion, replace a fallen president. By contrast, vice presidents in the twenty-first century, including Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, are typically integral members of an administration, directly involved in shaping policy at home and abroad. Many historians say the office has been elevated to such a status in recent decades, particularly since Walter Mondale in the 1970s, that its occupant now functions more like an “assistant president” or “super advisor.” Some political analysts say recent vice presidents have become too great a power center in the White House.

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The vice presidency was largely an afterthought at the Constitutional Convention. The founding fathers only introduced the office because a double ballot system was needed to ensure that a majority candidate emerged from the Electoral College. (Electors were required to cast two votes for president, at least one of which had to be for an out-of-state candidate.) The runner-up became vice president.

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The unexpected rise of national political parties and the slating of vice presidential running mates in subsequent elections prompted the revisions embodied in the 12th Amendment (1803), which stand to this day. Thereafter, parties typically sought running mates that helped balance a ticket geographically and ideologically. Ticket-balance concerns continue to strongly influence running mate selections.

Under the Constitution, vice presidents are not promised much power unless the president dies, resigns, is removed, or disabled. Early American leaders considered the office an appendage of Congress, and chairing the Senate and breaking the occasional tie vote was all most vice presidents were asked to do.

A Mid-Twentieth Century Shift

A number of developments during and after the Second World War began steering the vice presidency toward the executive branch, where, for all practical purposes, it resides today. (Some contemporary legal scholars claim that vice presidents should be confined to their legislative duties.) The first was that presidential candidates, rather than party leaders, began to take the lead in choosing their running mates, a trend that generally encouraged these men to assign their lieutenants meaningful tasks. President Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning for a third term, threatened to withdraw from the race in 1940 if his party did not nominate his pick for number two Henry Wallace. Roosevelt involved Wallace in war planning and dispatched him on important diplomatic trips.

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Another major step came in 1949 when President Truman signed legislation bringing the vice president into the National Security Council (NSC), a powerful new committee for managing the foreign policy bureaucracy. With a looming Soviet threat, Truman sought to bring Alben Barkley into the strategic discussion, particularly after Roosevelt, who died in office, had left him in the dark on some major wartime initiatives, including the Manhattan Project.

Dwight Eisenhower continued to empower the vice president in the mid-1950s, asking Richard Nixon to preside over cabinet and NSC meetings when he was taken ill several times. Nixon also traveled extensively as one of Eisenhower’s envoys. In 1953, he took one grand tour—38,000 miles in 68 days—to meet with leaders from more than a dozen countries across Asia and the Middle East. On another trip to the Soviet Union in 1959 he famously plunged into an extraordinary public debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the merits of capitalism.

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The vice presidents who followed—Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, and Nelson Rockefeller—also took on executive tasks, traveling as presidential emissaries and chairing various task forces, commissions, and councils. They were also brought physically closer to the White House: in addition to their Senate quarters, they were provided space at the nearby Executive Office Building. But, through the mid-1970s, vice presidents were still often denied meaningful work and considered a rival by some in the president’s inner circle.

Walter Mondale (19771981)

Contemporary vice presidents can trace much of their power and prestige to the broad reforms that Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale made to the office in the late 1970s. The pair agreed early on to make the vice president a full partner in the administration, and Mondale’s strong performance in the first ever vice presidential debate, against Bob Dole, President Ford’s running mate, encouraged this project. Their vision called for increasing Mondale’s access and authority so that he could serve as one of Carter’s top general advisors, troubleshooters, and envoys.

Carter was the first to grant his vice president several privileges, including unfettered access to intelligence briefings, regular meetings, a private weekly lunch, and an office in the West Wing. He also invited Mondale to his Friday foreign policy breakfasts along with the national security advisor and the secretaries of state and defense. The arrangement allowed the two to develop a rapport that benefited them both. “To integrate our staffs was one of the wisest decision I made, and I quickly came to wonder why other presidents had not utilized the services of their vice presidents in a similar manner,” Carter wrote in his 1982 memoir Keeping Faith.

Mondale was able to have a guiding hand in a number of the Carter administration’s foreign policies over the course of his four-year term. For example, in 1977, he pushed the Vorster government in South Africa on the need to end apartheid. In 1978, he played a central role in facilitating the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. And in 1979, he rallied the United Nations to help resettle Indochinese refugees.

George H. W. Bush (19811989)

Like Mondale, Bush was an influential presidential advisor and troubleshooter, particularly on foreign policy and national security. The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and liaison to China led an important mission for Ronald Reagan even before the November 1980 elections. During the summer campaign, Reagan dispatched Bush to Beijing to perform damage control after the presidential candidate proposed restoring U.S. relations with Taiwan. He returned to China in 1982 and 1985 to soothe similar tensions. During his two terms, Bush took more than forty foreign trips.

Moreover, like Mondale, Bush was granted regular access to the Oval Office, including to Reagan’s daily intelligence briefings. He preferred to counsel the president in private, and often used his weekly lunch with him to dispense foreign policy advice. Bush “often” was “the decisive influence on Reagan,” said National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane.

Unlike his predecessor, Bush took on some regular interagency roles, chairing a national security crisis-management committee as well as task forces on counternarcotics and counterterrorism. Reagan’s selection of Bush to lead the crisis group nearly prompted the resignation of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who felt the role infringed on his portfolio.

Dan Quayle (19891993)

Bush selected Quayle as his running mate in 1988. The Indiana senator was a popular, young conservative from an electorally important Midwestern state who served on the Senate Armed Service Committee.

Quayle was not particularly influential in the Bush administration’s foreign policy discussions except when the conversation turned to Congress. He had allies in both parties and played a role in winning support on Capitol Hill for some of Bush’s important foreign policy legislation, including the 1991 bill authorizing the U.S. military operation to oust Iraq’s forces from Kuwait. Like his predecessors, Quayle had regular contact with the president, including a weekly lunch, and kept a West Wing office.

Al Gore (19932001)

In announcing Gore as his running mate in the summer of 1992, Bill Clinton highlighted as assets the U.S. senator’s record on the environment and foreign policy. Gore had just published his book Earth in Balance, which sounded an alarm on ecological threats, and he had served a number of years in Congress on committees dealing with military and intelligence matters.

Like his predecessors, Gore was privy to the president’s daily intelligence briefings and counseled Clinton across a range of issues. He was considered “a full partner in policy discussions” and a “key member” of the administration’s foreign policy team, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in her memoir, Madam Secretary.

Gore encouraged Clinton early on to conduct air strikes on Bosnian-Serb forces engaged in ethnic-cleansing in former Yugoslavia, and took a central role in managing U.S relations with Russia, Egypt, and South Africa. The vice president was also a lead negotiator in the administration’s arms control efforts, working successfully to remove nuclear materials from Kazakhstan and Ukraine, as well as its environmental initiatives, helping to secure an international agreement on climate change, among other things. (The United States signed but never implemented the Kyoto Protocol.)

Dick Cheney (20012009)

Cheney’s tenure under George W. Bush, particularly his first term, represented the apex of U.S. vice presidential power, say many foreign policy experts. A veteran of two Republican administrations, Cheney made his mark on the younger Bush’s White House from the outset, leading the transition process and encouraging appointments of some of his closest associates to top positions, including Donald Rumsfeld to secretary of defense, Paul O’Neill to secretary of treasury, and John Ashcroft to attorney general.

The vice president exerted extraordinary influence over the administration’s national security policies, particularly after 9/11. In addition to his frequent private visits with Bush, Cheney routinely attended the president’s meetings, took a seat at the NSC principals table, and had his voice (via members of his extra-large staff) heard in lower-level interagency forums. This arrangement allowed the vice president’s office, often in conjunction with the Defense Department, to dominate the NSC process. “Clearly in the first George W. Bush administration the most important foreign policy actor was neither the NSC adviser [Condoleezza Rice] nor the secretary of state [Colin Powell]; it was Vice President Dick Cheney,” said author David Rothkopf in a 2008 interview.

The vice president’s office set in motion several controversial counterterrorism policies, including detention, interrogation, and electronic surveillance programs. He was also a lead architect of the administration’s preemption doctrine and the Iraq war. Although he traveled overseas less often than some other recent vice presidents, he visited Iraq and Afghanistan many times. His first trip overseas as vice president was a mission in early 2002 to the United Kingdom and several Arab allies to rally support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Cheney’s power ebbed notably in his second term. Cheney argued unsuccessfully for air strikes on a Syrian nuclear plant in 2007 and against nuclear diplomacy with North Korea in 2008.

Joe Biden (20092017)

The long-serving U.S. senator from Delaware joined the Obama ticket in the summer of 2008 after receiving assurances that he, like recent predecessors, would be among the future chief executive’s top advisors and troubleshooters. Biden had a prominent voice in most of the administration’s major foreign policy debates and is often credited for speaking frankly and playing devil’s advocate. For instance, he was the leading skeptic of the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009.

The president tasked Biden with managing interactions with several strategically important countries in times of crisis, particularly with Iraq during his first term and Ukraine during his second. In many cases, his diplomatic efforts built on close relationships he had with foreign statesmen as a leader (or ranking member) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2001-2009). For instance, the then-senator visited Afghanistan several times to meet with President Hamid Karzai.

Reflecting on the role of the vice president in U.S. foreign policy, Biden told an audience at CFR in 2016 that "the job is so complicated now as president, that you really need someone whose judgment you trust." That person, he added, should come "with some genuine substantive knowledge and experience" and be "able to take on big chunks of what is on [the president’s] plate."

Mike Pence (2017–2021)

As Donald J. Trump’s running mate, Pence brought to the Republican ticket extensive political experience, a staunch conservative record, and Midwest appeal. Pence’s professional profile featured one term as Indiana governor and six terms in Congress, including stints on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and leadership roles in the Republican caucus.

Like Cheney under Bush, Pence wielded considerable influence from the beginning, leading the team Trump tasked with filling top jobs in the executive branch. Pence continued to be viewed as one of the most powerful and knowledgeable members of the administration, particularly on foreign policy issues. Analysts said the vice president often played an essential role in reassuring U.S. allies that were shaken by some of Trump’s sharp critiques. For instance, early in his tenure as vice president, Pence visited Asia, Europe, and Latin America to buoy relations with U.S. allies and partners.

At the same time, Pence was the administration’s point man in delivering high-profile rebukes of U.S. adversaries. His speech on China in late 2018, which many experts considered an extraordinary indictment of Beijing, was a prime example. Pence was also a lead critic of President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela and highly influential in driving the Trump administration’s policy there, including the recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido. In February 2020, Trump tapped Pence to chair a White House task force charged with coordinating the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kamala Harris (2021– )

Harris is the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to serve as U.S. vice president. She came into the role with more than twelve years of experience as a leading prosecutor—first as district attorney of San Francisco and then as attorney general of California. She was elected U.S. senator from California in 2016. As senator, she sat on several committees that dealt with foreign policy issues, including the Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees. 

Biden has continued a practice of other recent presidents by making his number two a top member of his national security team. He has included Harris in his top-secret daily briefings and consulted her on major foreign policy challenges, such as China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Iran’s support for militant groups, and growing Chinese and Russian influence in Africa. Harris attends regular private lunches with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and has taken more than a dozen international trips to speak with foreign leaders in an effort to strengthen important U.S. alliances.

In one of her first high-profile assignments as vice president, Harris was tapped to lead the Biden administration’s response to the surge of migrant children at the southern U.S. border. Serving her first term, Harris has also already set the record for the most tie-breaking votes cast by any vice president in history.

Recommended Resources

In The White House Vice Presidency, Joel Goldstein describes how Carter and Mondale transformed the second office into the power center it is today.

Jules Witcover’s The American Vice Presidency reviews the experiences of each of the forty-seven men who have held the office since the nation’s founding. 

The World That Wasn’t by CFR Senior Fellow Benn Steil examines the rise of Henry Wallace and how he approached foreign policy during the early period of the Cold War. 

Kate Anderson Bower’s First in Line includes more than two hundred interviews that pull back the curtain on the complicated relationship between presidents and vice presidents. 

Rhea Basarkar, Jessica Moss, and Avery Reyna contributed to this Backgrounder.

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