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VP Harris heads to Munich national security meeting at a critical time

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. Staying with this - Vice President Harris leaves tomorrow for Germany. A senior administration official says she'll meet with 13 heads of state as the U.S. and its allies are on-edge about Russia. Harris will be speaking at the Munich Security Conference. That's the annual gathering of the who's who of global security leaders. This is her fifth trip overseas and by far the one with the highest stakes. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Vice President Harris is relatively new to international diplomacy. And in her first year on the job, it didn't always go smoothly.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: What happens abroad is of priority to the United States of America, and that is why I am in Guatemala today.

ORDOÑEZ: On that trip, her first, she fumbled a question about her strategy on migration and why she hadn't been to the U.S. border.

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HARRIS: And I haven't been to Europe. (Laughter) I mean, I don't understand the point that you're making.

ORDOÑEZ: Her subsequent trips have been a lot smoother, including one to Europe, meeting the major leaders at a big summit in Paris.

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HARRIS: This week and this visit included many conversations with many foreign leaders. I believe there are at least 30 heads of state who have attended the various meetings that we have been having.

ORDOÑEZ: And she has also been in the room for some of Biden's biggest national security decisions - the evacuation of Kabul and the U.S. raid that killed an ISIS leader.

HALIE SOIFER: The vice president, who is increasingly playing a larger role when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

ORDOÑEZ: Halie Soifer was a national security adviser to Harris in Congress. She says Munich is a real opportunity for Harris to showcase her leadership.

SOIFER: She's delivering a message from President Biden. And she is, in her own right, the leader from the administration who really is serving as the point when it comes to national security.

ORDOÑEZ: That message is expected to be about the U.S. support for Ukraine. Biden says he's looking for a diplomatic resolution with Russia and wants allies to be united.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The source of our unbreakable strength continues to be the power, resilience and universal appeal of our shared democratic values - because this is about more than just Russia and Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: Harris will deliver remarks to the Munich conference. And she will also meet one-on-one with some leaders to make sure everyone is on the same page about what to do if Moscow does invade.

IVO DAALDER: We are potentially at the cusp of the most significant military operation in Europe since World War II.

ORDOÑEZ: Ivo Daalder served as a U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Obama administration. He says there are a lot of diverse interests in NATO, so it's crucial that Harris seize this moment to show the U.S. can bring everyone together.

DAALDER: And it is very important that in order to either prevent it or to respond to it, NATO and all of our allies speak with one voice.

ORDOÑEZ: There's been a lot of uncertainty in Europe about how much the U.S. still cares about European security.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: Look - I think people in Europe, you know, know that America is on the cusp of really significant demographic and political changes.

ORDOÑEZ: Constanze Stelzenmuller writes about transatlantic issues at the Brookings Institution. She says there's little doubt where Biden and his generation stand, but Harris can help define what it will look like for the future.

STELZENMULLER: This is an opportunity for the vice president to step onto the stage in Munich and to say, I am the face of the next America, and this America cares about its place in the world, and it cares about peace in the world and rules and democracy. And we will stand by our allies.

ORDOÑEZ: Because, she says, the crisis is as much about confronting Russia as it is about establishing whether Europe matters to the next generation of Americans.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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