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Pelosi flexes power with world tour that could be swan song

The Hill logo The Hill 9/28/2022 Mike Lillis
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Call it Nancy Pelosi’s legacy tour.

The House Speaker has spent much of this year — which many expect to be her last atop the Democratic Party — traveling the globe, visiting war zones and other political hot spots on a circuit that’s brought new attention to old conflicts, simmering diplomatic disputes and human rights atrocities, past and present.

In the process, Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made some history, invited some controversy and raised plenty of questions about whether her world tour is pure diplomacy, power politics or the swan song of a historic Speaker who may be readying an exit from Capitol Hill.

“It’s a combination of all three,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a 24-year veteran and former member of Pelosi’s leadership team.

Larson praised Pelosi’s aggressive foray onto the international stage, saying it’s both a clear affirmation of Congress’s authority to influence U.S. foreign policy — a function typically left to the executive branch — and a testament to the powerful role women can play in world affairs.

“She has asserted herself as the Speaker of the House, and I think that’s a good thing, always. And I do think that part of it is her legacy,” Larson said.

“And part of it is for the rest of the world to see a woman of her age, stature, maturity and what she’s been able to achieve,” he continued. “She is a great representative of the possibility for women in democracies all over the world.”

Pelosi is no stranger to overseas travel. As the leader of the Democrats for almost two decades, she frequently leads congressional lawmakers on official trips designed to advance international relations and guide U.S. foreign policy.

But this year, Pelosi has gone out of her way to visit some particularly volatile spots: Ukraine, amid a shooting war with Russia; Taiwan, in the face of retaliatory threats from China; and most recently Armenia, where she took clear sides in a long-standing conflict with Azerbaijan that the Biden administration has approached much more delicately.

The high-profile trips are part of a much longer arc for Pelosi, 82, whose congressional career has featured a record of confronting authoritarianism, particularly in China. Indeed, her visit to Tiananmen Square in 1991, just two years after Beijing’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy advocates, churned international headlines and infuriated diplomats at home — dynamics that have also accompanied some of her travels this year.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who has worked as both an official in the State Department and an advocate for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, which monitors global conflicts, said that given Pelosi’s history, her recent travels to disputed regions should surprise no one.

“The first time I was aware of her taking a stand on an issue was when she went to China in the 1990s after Tiananmen Square. And when I worked for Human Rights Watch, I frequently engaged with her and her office on international human rights issues, particularly with respect to China,” Malinowski said.

“As Speaker of the House, she obviously — like all of us — has to focus first on America,” he added. “But this has always been a passion of hers.”

Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University, said Pelosi’s choice of destinations also represents an effort to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the abrasive and unconventional approach adopted by President Biden’s predecessor, former President Trump. With an ally now in the White House — and with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate — the window has opened for such an opportunity.

“As she reaches the last phase of her congressional career, I do think there is part of Pelosi that wants to move forward on initiatives, both at home and abroad, that have been important to her over the decades,” Zelizer said in an email. 

“The last presidency was a disastrous period for Democrats,” he added. “There is part of the Speaker that feels the party needs to move forward on all fronts during this moment of power, particularly with the uncertainty of what happens after November.”

Pelosi may have an ally in Biden, but her recent excursions have not always been a welcome development in the eyes of the administration.

When the news broke that the Speaker was planning an August visit to Taiwan, for instance, Biden revealed that the Pentagon was opposed to the idea, concerned about the potential blowback from Beijing. Yet the president never voiced his own criticism, and when Pelosi stepped off the plane in Taipei on Aug. 2, she became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the disputed territory in 25 years.

Through it all, Pelosi has made no apologies, using the international stage to draw attention to China’s long history of human rights abuses, including Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China’s far northwest. Pelosi has called it a genocide.

“I have said it again and again: If we do not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out about human rights any place in the world,” Pelosi said last month in Tokyo, just after the Taiwan visit.

Controversy also surrounded Pelosi’s visit this month to Armenia, where a decades-old feud with neighboring Azerbaijan has flared violently in recent weeks, prompting a fragile intervention from top State Department officials urging a cease-fire.

Pelosi, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Armenia since it broke away from the Soviet Union 30 years ago, was more terse, placing the blame squarely on Azerbaijan.

“This was initiated by the Azeris,” she told reporters during the visit. “There has to be recognition of that.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally who joined her on that trip, welcomed the Speaker’s decision to defend Armenia, even if it clashed with the administration’s more diplomatic approach. 

“She’s using her power in a way that I think is very effective,” Speier said. “Armenia — most people wouldn’t know where to find it on a map. They wouldn’t have been able to find Ukraine on a map. So I think it elevates Armenia, its issues and its legitimacy to retain a democracy in a bad neighborhood.”

Malinowski, a former diplomat, also downplayed any tensions between Pelosi and the Biden administration related to her recent travels, suggesting there are political advantages to those public disagreements.

“Sometimes the executive branch is OK with the tension — behind the scenes — because it helps them for Congress to play the bad cop,” he said. “That then enables them to play the good cop and say, ‘Wouldn’t you rather deal with us than with these people in Congress who are liable to do anything?’ ”

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