Vice Presidents and Foreign Policy: A Forward-Looking Review of the Record


Despite the vice presidency’s status as “the most insignificant office” for most of American history, since the late 1970s, vice presidents have emerged as important and unique advisors and surrogates to the president — particularly on national security affairs. Besides the president, only the vice president and the White House chief of staff can bring politics and national security together, as Clinton administration national security advisor Tony Lake explained to me.

In his classic essay, “Two-Level Games,” Robert Putnam illustrates how politics and national security interact. According to Putnam, when leaders engage in international negotiations, they are playing on two boards simultaneously. On one board, the leader is playing with domestic constituencies, while on the other the players are the other countries, each of whom has their own domestic board to play. A good move on one board may be disastrous on the other board. Putnam writes, “The political complexities for the players in this two-level game are staggering.”

Vice presidents can be uniquely helpful in these two-level games. As Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s second national security advisor, explained to me in an interview:

VPs have run for office; they are political animals. The President hears from policy people and political people and has to make decisions to balance both. The one person who has the combination of policy experience and political experience is the vice president.

Over the past four decades, vice presidents have played increasingly critical roles helping presidents understand the other players and execute moves in the two-level game.

A Unique Advisor

While vice presidential influence may have reached its apogee in the Bush-Cheney administration, the rise of the vice presidency (excellent studies have been conducted by Paul Light and Joel Goldstein) began with the Carter-Mondale administration. Carter systematically expanded his vice president’s role, giving Mondale and his staff access to the policy process, instituting private lunches between the president and vice president, and providing the vice president an office in the West Wing, steps from the Oval Office. Previous vice presidents had worked across the street in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and only rarely saw the president. The vice president’s role has continued to expand as vice presidents and their staffs take on major White House assignments.

The most important factor in shaping the vice presidential role is that over the past four decades, voters have preferred outsider candidates for president. Five of the last seven presidents had never held office in Washington before their election as president. Even though President Obama was a U.S. senator, he only served four years in the Senate before being elected president and can be categorized as an outsider.

Outsider presidents have consistently chosen figures with deep Washington experience as their vice presidents. George H.W. Bush, perhaps the ultimate insider president, had a vice president who exercised less influence than his predecessors and successors.

In office, outsider presidents often wrestle not only with difficult policy choices, but also with the complexities of policymaking and running large bureaucracies. In addressing these challenges, insider vice presidents have proven invaluable.

The specific issues addressed and roles played by the vice president are shaped by a combination of events and the president’s needs and interests. President Carter, who had been an engineer, often sought optimal technocratic solutions without considering politics . In White House discussions, Vice President Mondale was, in the words of National Security Advisor Zbignew Brzezinski, “a vital political barometer” and “a needed corrective.” In Carter’s signature achievement — the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty — Mondale focused on the domestic politics of making peace. Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic policy advisor, told me that Mondale “…played a critical part in the ultimate success by reassuring the Israelis and American Jews about Carter.”

Other vice presidents have filled different gaps for their presidents. As vice president for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush played a role stabilizing a chaotic national security process by heading the National Security Council’s crisis management group and later overseeing a task force on counter-terrorism. Al Gore added a measure of discipline to a chaotic White House decision-making process. Cheney, who had been a White House chief of staff, was granted a broad policy remit as vice president and sought to preserve the president’s time so Bush could focus on the most critical issues.

While some aspects of the vice president’s portfolio were unique to each president, certain vice presidential roles appear consistently across administrations.

Chase Untermeyer, who served under George H.W. Bush during both his vice presidency and presidency, told to me that every vice president — including Quayle — has been an advisor on Congress. Mondale, a former Senator, helped the administration set priorities in its legislative agenda and served as a critical interlocutor with the Senate, lobbying for the Panama Canal treaties and assuring the president (over the objections of the other White House advisors) that he would be able to sustain the veto of a defense authorization bill. Cheney, a former House minority whip, met weekly with the Senate Republican Policy Committee and established an office on the House side of Capitol Hill to facilitate relations. Biden became such a crucial emissary to the Senate Republican leadership that he was known in the White House as “the McConnell Whisperer.”

Congress is not the only Washington institution that can be a challenge for presidents. Federal bureaucracies are highly specialized and complex. These bureaucracies do not seek to mislead the president, but rather operate with an organizational culture and language that is not always clear to outsiders. Lake’s successor as Clinton’s national security advisor, the late Sandy Berger, told me in an interview, “Using the intelligence community is a two-way street. You have to pose the right questions and bring the right people in. Very few can do this.”

Several vice presidents have played a role in intelligence issues. Mondale, who had served on the Church Committee investigating intelligence community abuses, was “in the driver’s seat” in the administration’s intelligence reform efforts, according to deputy national security advisor David Aaron. Gore and Cheney had both been members of the House Intelligence Committee. The former sought to incorporate environmental and public health issues into the intelligence process, while Cheney was the architect of the administration’s post-9/11 domestic intelligence operations. More recently, Joe Biden mediated a dispute between the director of central intelligence and the director of national intelligence.

The intelligence community is only one of many complex agencies of the federal government. Vice presidents who have served in Congress or overseen Washington bureaucracies can help overcome this gap. Cheney, a former secretary of defense, worked with the president to obtain support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the 2007 surge in Iraq. As vice president, Biden also played an expansive role. In the early days of the Obama administration, he played “devil’s advocate” during the Afghanistan policy review process. By presenting an alternative to the Department of Defense plan, Biden helped buy the president space to make his decision.

Vice presidential expertise at balancing policy with politics also applies to dealing with foreign governments. On the campaign trail, candidates promise to be tough negotiators who will be better able to advance U.S. interests. Yet the actual process of influencing other nations requires specific knowledge of that nation, its leadership, and the options for exercising influence. One vice presidential national security staffer explained to me how insider vice presidents have helped outsider presidents understand these options:

Things don’t automatically occur to you on a Chinese menu, you have to understand each instrument. Very few people walk into office understanding the economic, political, and military instruments available to the president. There are two ways to get this knowledge. One is to walk in the door with it. The other is to have them explained to you.

As vice president, George H.W. Bush, through his national security advisor Donald Gregg, developed a back-channel source of intelligence through the Finns. They told Bush that a rising star in Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, would change the Soviet Union. Gore oversaw bilateral committees with several critical nations including Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of the mechanics of policymaking: how to prepare the federal budget, submit a legislative agenda, or communicate with the media. Vice presidents with Washington experience have also had cadres of experienced staffers who can also provide vital assistance in managing Washington processes.

As vice president, George H.W. Bush’s largest single contribution to the Reagan administration was his friend and confidant James Baker becoming White House chief of staff. Leon Fuerth, Gore’s national security advisor and a former House Intelligence Committee staffer, was the architect of the administration’s sanctions regime against Serbia. Biden’s national security advisors — Jake Sullivan, Anthony Blinken, and Colin Kahl — emerged as advisors to Obama in their own right.

This brief overview of ways in which vice presidents have helped make their presidents more effective indicates broad trends. But the specific role that the next vice president plays will be shaped heavily by the needs of the next president.

Implications for a Potential Pence Vice Presidency

If he becomes vice president, Mike Pence will be serving the most outsider president in U.S. history. Presidents learn in office and develop knowledge of the critical processes, issues, and institutions that confront them daily. Initially, however, the administration would face a steep learning curve and knowledge deficits in many critical areas.  None of this is meant as a comment on the candidate per se, but rather to note that without prior experience, learning to establish and implement a legislative agenda or diplomatic initiative is a non-trivial endeavor. As vice president, Pence would effectively become a backstop to the chief of staff and national security advisor on virtually every issue.

The challenge Vice President Pence would face in office evokes the observation attributed to Marine General “Chesty” Puller: “We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem…”

Kaine and the Quayle Model?

If Pence’s challenge as Trump’s vice president is simple to describe but difficult to execute, Kaine’s challenge is the opposite. Just as Trump would be more of a Washington-outsider than any president in U.S. history, Hillary Clinton would be more of a Washington-insider than any president since George H.W. Bush. For historic perspective, it is useful to turn to Bush 41’s vice president, Dan Quayle, the outlier among recent vice presidents who served an insider president.

Quayle’s time as vice president is generally seen in an unfavorable light, although he was a capable U.S. senator and served on the Senate Armed Service Comittee. According to Jack Lechelt’s analysis of White House papers, Quayle had regular access to the president. His real problems were found in the president he served. Bush had served two terms as vice president, been ambassador to the United Nations and China, and run the Central Intelligence Agency. One of Quayle’s aides told Paul Kengor: “… President Bush could have had George Marshall or Henry Kissinger as his vice president and it would not have mattered.”

With limited opportunity to work on the critical national security issues in the Middle East and Europe, Quayle made useful trips to Latin America and Asia, along with overseeing the Space Council. Preoccupied with the fall of the Soviet Union, German re-unification, the Gulf War, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the president and his foreign policy team had few resources to devote to other regions. Quayle could fill some of this gap. Quayle’s second national security advisor, Karl Jackson, explained to me why he switched from being the national security senior director on Asia to national security advisor to the vice president:

… working for Bush on the NSC, I had to get through Gates and Scowcroft to get anything done. It was more efficient for getting things done with Japan to go to Dan and have him take it to the President.

Kaine has developed national security expertise, having served on the Senate Committees on Armed Services and Foreign Relations. Like Quayle, however, Kaine will be serving a president who, as a former secretary of state and senator, possesses her own deep well of national security knowledge. Vice presidents for outsider presidents might focus on areas where the president and his team lack expertise. Quayle’s experience shows that when serving an insider president, the vice president could instead identify areas that require attention but which the president lacks the time to engage.

Quayle’s experience also offers some very specific guidance for Kaine. Clinton will enter office with a full agenda of major foreign policy concerns. Latin America is often lost in the shuffle and appreciates high-level attention from Washington. Right now, Latin America presents significant opportunities and potential crises that can quickly become domestic issues because of the region’s proximity. Venezuela is sliding into economic collapse, which will have grave security consequences. The Zika virus requires international attention and cooperation. The ongoing crime and violence in Mexico and Central America are intimately linked to U.S. domestic affairs. On the positive side, there is opportunity to establish a new relationship with Cuba. Kaine, a fluent Spanish speaker, would find a full docket of issues to attend to in Latin America that otherwise might not receive White House attention until they became full-blown crises.


Politics, to paraphrase Machiavelli, is the art of the possible. As a high-level political counselor and surrogate, the vice president can play an invaluable role in helping the president achieve the politically possible. Either as an all-purpose fire brigade backstopping the president across the board or as a utility player taking on specific tasks, the vice president can be a force multiplier for the president. Given the panoply of foreign policy crises around the world, each of which has intricate domestic resonance, the next president of the United States will need all of the help he or she can get.


Aaron Mannes is a AAAS Policy Fellow and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy where his dissertation was on the evolving national security role of the vice president. His further thoughts on presidents and vice presidents can be read at “Veep Critique. Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of any organization with which he is or has ever been affiliated.