On October 28, Eric Patterson opened Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in Washington, DC. His talk gave an introduction to Christian realism and considered Afghanistan as a case study.

Rough Transcript

Well I had slides with a cool image from Harry Potter and a few things and it doesn’t look like those are working, so my big reveal moments aren’t going to work in quite the same way. But it’s a delight to see you today and welcome to this event. My talk is called “Christianity and Power Politics Today.” And what we’re going to talk about is how to think about power and a framework for thinking about Christian Realism, which is really an orientation towards politics that will that will go throughout the next two days of your time here with us. And then we’ll talk specifically about how to think about this in the case of the recent debacle in Afghanistan.

So Christian Realism—let me start with this: In the 1930s and in the 1940s, leading up to the 1940s, there was a situation that you all know in Europe. It’s the time of the appeasement of the Nazis in which Hitler first bullied his own people and then after taking the reins of power bullied his neighbors. He remilitarized the Rhineland, then took Austria in a bloodless coup, and then took half of Czechoslovakia. And at all of those points in that, as you know, the Western Alliance, which was very weak, just passed. They gave away the lands of other people to preserve peace for themselves. Now if we had cool slides I would have told this in the story of Voldemort as well, because it’s the same story, right? In those early books J.K. Rowling has told us she based it on that time period. In those early books you have these children and a few people warning the country that war was looming. And people were saying—like Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic – “Oh no, there’s nothing going on; there’s nothing wrong. You’re dramatizing the problem here.” Of course, that wasn’t the case. Well in the 30s a set of Christian scholars, led by a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr, began articulating an anti-utopian, anti-idealistic view. And this is really nothing new. For the past 2000 years, Christians have looked at the world as it is and tried to approach politics—the way that we live together in public life, law, society, politics, economics, that realm, the corporate realm—and they’ve applied a framework for how to think about that. And I’d like to give you eight principles of what that framework looks like that you will find in Providence Magazine if you look for eight principles of Christian Realism.

Why did they have to articulate this in the 30s? It’s because many Christian churches were pacifistic. The First World War had been so terrible that by the 1920s and 1930s many Christians said, “We will do anything to keep the peace, even if that means appeasing Hitler.” In other words, they thought that there was some sort of way to buy off the bad guys; that there was some way to appease the bullies. And whether it’s a Hitler or Darth Vader or a Voldemort, you cannot appease the bullies. So first principle of Christian Realism is a strand—for those of you who are IR or poli sci students—it’s a strand of or a way of thinking about international relations theory. That’s what we’re talking about: Christian Realism as a Christian approach to politics towards realism. And that means that it’s about power. So let’s get this out of the way. Is power a bad thing? The answer’s no. Christians are often reluctant to talk about power. It’s some sort of evil thing; it’s evil manipulation. You know, “How dare I? Aren’t I supposed to be peaceful?” Power’s not a bad thing. Now there’s three ways to think about power. I can compel you to do what I want. I can persuade you to do what I want. Or we can communicate so that the things I want—you’re persuaded that they’re good for yourself; you want them for yourself. And you can see on that continuum those different types of power—sometimes it’s the military instrument, sometimes it’s the diplomatic instrument, sometimes it’s soft power of culture and ideas—but power is not a bad thing. Here’s a simple definition of power: it’s the ability and the resources to get something done. The ability and the resources to get something done. It’s that simple. Parents, well we think we have a lot of power. We don’t always, right? Parents, firemen, doctors, teachers -there’s lots of people in your life that have power, right? It’s not some Machiavelli hiding in a castle, pulling all the strings for his own evil purposes like a Bond villain. Power is not necessarily a bad or evil thing. And that’s an animating theme that you will see throughout this conference; that is, that there are people who are called to positions of public service who have a role to play in exercising power for the common good; that is, the Golden Rule.

Christian Realism second is rooted in a Christian anthropology. What I mean by that is the idea of a realistic rather than a utopian view of human nature. and we get this from Saint Augustine first and foremost. You, me, people—we have high levels of potential, right? We’re made in the image of God. And we are fallen. And you cannot understand both the responsibility we have in this world as well as the limits and the fallenness of the world without recognizing those facts. That’s what makes it realism.

Third, Christian Realism emphasizes political order in the pursuit of security and justice. You know, there’s a lot of political values out there. And if the top one is always peace no matter what the cost, you’ll have a lot of injustice. And so Christian Realists, going back to Romans 13 and passages in the Old Testament, emphasize order in pursuit of security and justice.

Fourth, Christian Realism emphasizes power. We’ve talked about that already.

Next, Christian Realism criticizes collective chauvinisms – hypernationalism, communism, national socialism, Aryanism. Have you have you noticed this? Individuals are sinful, but you get a group together; you get a mob together, and the restraints are off. And a big help in the 1940s and 50s from Christian Realism was to recognize that groups are actually more prejudicial, more chauvinistic than individuals. And we need to be very, very careful about that, particularly as Christians.

Next, Christian Realism, like other forms of realism, doesn’t only focus on individuals. It focuses on the three levels of analysis for politics. We study individuals, we study domestic politics, and we study international affairs. You can’t understand World War II without Hitler, right? But Hitler didn’t create everything that happened in that war. It’s not just individuals; it’s also what happened in domestic politics. For instance, the U.S. didn’t get involved in that war for almost two and a half years. Why? Because of domestic isolationist politics, right? And so you need to understand that as well. And of course at the international level, you need to understand what happens between governments. What are their security interests? What do they value? What is motivating them? And so Christian Realism doesn’t only focus on individuals. It doesn’t only focus on foreign policy. It focuses on those two and domestic politics.

Christian Realism emphasizes limits and it emphasizes restraint. What you’ll find in this literature is, “Let’s be realistic. Let’s be prudential. Let’s count the cost. Let’s worry a little bit about the unintended consequences of what we do.”

Last thing, Christian Realism typically is critical of all-embracing glorious revolutionary forms of “ism.” Whatever that “ism” is that says, “We’ve got to burn down everything from the past, and then trust us. We know how to rebuild it all sparkly and new.” Whether it’s communism, national socialism, the types of new communism that we see in China today, violent forms of Islamism—those types of systems that are coercive, that don’t allow for human ingenuity and for freedom—the Christian Realists have consistently stood against them. And when you look at the speakers for the next day and a half, what you’re going to find is that these themes undergird their talks over and over and over again.

Now you might say, “You know, Patterson. you haven’t quoted the Bible at all. And isn’t this a Christian conference?” And so let me just remind you that we have many, many examples of Christian leadership in the Old Testament. We have people who identified those types of Biblical values of living up their vocation or their calling, being good stewards, being public servants, right? David, Hezekiah, Joshua, Nehemiah, Joseph, and the list goes on and on. We have some in the New Testament too. We have lots of teaching in Proverbs about being a good and wise king. A good king counts the cost before he builds a tower. A good king listens to the council of many advisors before going to war. We see similar things in the New Testament and then in Romans 13. We have quite a bit of teaching about the importance of authorities in this life. So there are many, many Biblical foundations for this, and we can talk more about that if you like.

Well there’s a lot of ways to apply this type of thinking about the world, and especially thinking about power. I think what’s been on so many of our minds recently has been a situation in Afghanistan. So what I’m going to do is I’m just going to run through a few points that have been taken from presentations recently at Pepperdine and for the board of the National Association of Evangelicals that have a power dynamic. And then I’ll open up for a Q&A. So let me first say I’m proud of the United States and our history. There are many, many times where the U.S. has been a force for good and that’s true after 9/11. We could have bombed Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, or I guess further back into the Stone Age. We could have hated the Afghan people. We could have sent a huge invading army rather than just 25,000 troops. We didn’t have to spend any money trying to build schools, etc. And whether it’s in Afghanistan or in Bosnia and the list goes on and on, there’s so many places where the American people have put out huge sums to try to help people in other parts of the world, and that’s something to be proud of. Now the President had some choices to make. He is in power. He’s in a position of authority. He could have surged troops; in other words, put more troops into Afghanistan. He could have pulled everybody out, which is what he did. Or he could have stayed the course. Now it’s true—and he’s the one responsible to make that decision at the end of the day—both President Trump and President Biden wanted to get the troops out of Afghanistan. And so the Trump administration signed a four-part deal in February of 2020 with the Taliban. And of those four points, the Taliban kept none of them. They kind of kept half of one and they violated the other three. So the question, really, is had a different administration been in office, would they have really pulled out when the other side had violated all those? And I don’t know. What I can say is that the Trump administration’s policy was also to have a significant over-the-horizon armed presence to strike against terrorists or nefarious activity in Afghanistan. And the Biden administration is committed to having far less of that. Now you all know, you saw it on TV—whatever you want to call it – I would call it an abandonment. We raced out of there, surprising our Afghan allies and most of our European allies in the middle of August. And so when one power leaves there’s a vacuum and there’s a place there for other powers to step in. And so how should we think about that?

Here’s some observations on that. On the Tuesday of that first week of the crisis, as the U.S. is racing out and we’d had three days without a single visit from President Biden to our TV sets, the Russian ambassador to Kabul was sitting in his office smiling over tea with a senior Taliban official. the Russians were back at work at their embassy in Kabul as we were running out. And just before that a Taliban delegation had visited the Chinese in Beijing. America out—who else moves into the sphere of influence?

Second, what about on the regional stage? Now we left troops in South Korea since 1951. We have troops in Japan, still, since 1945. We have troops in Germany and elsewhere in Europe since 1945. And part of what they do is provide a presence, like a security guard does at a baseball game or other things. If the U.S. had kept five to ten thousand troops in Afghanistan with our allies for another ten years, fifteen years, would that have provided a presence, that would have not stopped all war there but would have continued slow development in Afghanistan? I would argue so because it’s a demonstration of power. What about rogue states like Iran and North Korea on the international stage? How do they feel about all of this? Well of course they’re rejoicing. And there’s a question mark out there to our other allies: Will the U.S. come to our aid if we’re attacked by one of these other states? If I was a Taiwanese right now that would be a real question to me. I think the Philippines as well and some other places, if I was in the Baltic states, if I was in Ukraine, I would wonder: Could I rely on the United States after they cut and run from Afghanistan? What about violent Islamists around the world? So Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, ISIS in northern Mozambique, et cetera et cetera, and you know the Middle East—what about them? Well they saw this as a vindication that it was God’s will to finally drive out the Americans, and there’s a lot of rejoicing and hope. Now here’s an amazing thing—if you saw the testimony yesterday at the Pentagon in a briefing by a senior general officer who’s recently retired now as a spokesperson—he said that their new estimate for Afghanistan is that both al-Qaeda and ISIS will have the capacity to strike from Afghanistan two American targets within the next 12 months. It was dead silence when he said that at first. What about the Taliban itself? Here’s one of those little power motifs during the crisis. In August many American workers who are federal workers here in D.C. stayed at home, worked from their laptops at home, wore masks when they walked down the street. And there’s the Taliban fighting a war, no masks, vigorous. I mean, the difference in the resolution about what mattered at that moment, on August 17th, 2021, the things we saw on our television screens. It truly, truly demonstrates a different type of political will about what people want and what they expect. And all of those are just observations, really, about power. Now clearly I have a view about one way to think about this, and it’s in part informed by the fact that in the 15 months before we abandoned Afghanistan, that there was not a single loss of an American military member in Afghanistan for the previous 15 months. And that evidence suggests that it was not a huge price that we were paying in terms of human life and suffering of American troops, which is what we were told in August.

Those are my reflections in a sense. It’s a way of thinking, “Okay, here’s the world as it is.” It’s a very realistic world. It’s not a utopian world. It’s not one where we’re going to see unicorns dancing around in Afghanistan or anywhere else for that matter. But it is a realistic appraisal that in a world of power politics there’s a certain amount of balancing that goes on. And the U.S. has been a major weight of balance in international affairs. That’s power politics. Now we have about five minutes for Q&A so what I ask you to do is I’ll look around and if you have a question or comment, make it brief please. Raise your hand, I’ll call on you, and our general rule is to try to call on students rather than faculty if at all possible. So stand up, tell us who you are, what school you’re from, and deliver the question. You can pop right up here or I’ll repeat it from here if you’re in the back. Anyone?

 Go ahead and you can just stand up and I’ll repeat it.

So the question for the group was about is there some risk to American citizens in these places. And second, a related question has to do with are we doing a certain sort of cultural imperialism at times that is particularly what I call hard left types of anti-family, anti-traditional-marriage, anti-life types of imagery like rainbow flags and things when we’re jamming that down the throats in other countries. And there’s a great talk in two hours that’s on public diplomacy and I saw the notes from that person last night because it’s my wife, and I’m going to let her answer some of that to you. I will say two things first. Just briefly, I do think that there’s Americans who are more vulnerable today because of this pull-out than they were—Americans who are still on the ground in Afghanistan, Western humanitarians. I think that the model that the administration was working from was Joe Biden doesn’t want to be Jimmy Carter and have a Tehran hostage crisis on his hands. I think that was, in my opinion, that was in the thinking. But when you show weakness, that makes other citizens targets in lots of other places. Now when it comes to the public diplomacy piece, my short answer is absolutely. It’s a terrible thing to jam. Some of those images were doctored but I know for a fact that we did that in Jakarta and flew the rainbow flag in a highly religious society. It was just a slap in the face. and that’s not very smart diplomacy. Diplomacy in part is respecting, learning about your interlocutor and respecting them even if you disagree.

There’s a hand right here somewhere; go ahead and then we’ll go to the back…. So Johnny’s question was about can a country have too much power and is there a way to limit that. so I’m going to give you the Reinhold Niebuhr answer to that and the Reinhold Niebuhr answer was that the value of democracy is not in some sort of idealistic utopian view that everyone’s equal and we all get along. His view of democracy was democracy is the best thing that we have to balance power. If you think about how the Framers set up the U.S. Constitution in our constitutional republic. We had the states electing Senators but people electing members of the House of Representatives. We had federalism—different levels of government with a small federal government with very, very limited power. We had checks and balances and separation of powers within the federal government. And there’s actually some other institutional checks as well. All of that is the way to check power and so the first part of the can a country have too much power—a country can be very, very powerful but what you want it to do is to have lots and lots of institutional checks, and most importantly is free citizens and a truly free and robust press. Those are the biggest checks of them all. So you can have powerful government but checks are the way to get at that.

There was a hand all the way in the back… You know what I’d really like to do is just hand this one off to Paul Miller, and especially for our Providence crowd you know why. The question had to do with was there a plan for Afghanistan, could there be a better plan for Afghanistan, etc., right? I think that the simple answer to that was you’re talking about four Presidential administrations, 20 years. and something that started really as a counter-terrorism operation. The first few years in Afghanistan, just to give you a sense, we had about 25,000 troops on the ground. It wasn’t a “We’re going to reconstruct this entire society.” We had that same number of troops in Kosovo for a population of under a million for seven years. We didn’t invest early on, if—this is the big if—if it was going to be a full nation-building, etc., in my opinion we didn’t invest like that from the beginning. Of course we had European allies there as well, but it wasn’t that type of operation. And conditions on the ground change. Let me just mention one: there were no suicide bombers because it’s totally foreign to Afghanistan – none in ’01, none in ’02, none in ’03. That’s an imported idea that came the first time in the middle of 2007. So we were also responding to changes of conditions in the country.

Mark, how much time do we have? One more? Okay. Well again, there’s a presentation in about two hours; that DIME is a part of it. In fact, Mrs. Patterson, I’m so glad that we talked about DIME last night. Here’s the thing: you’re exactly right. As someone who’s worked at the State Department and just retired this year after 24 years in air national guard and has kind of watched this inside these agencies, the U.S. has not invested the big investments in diplomacy, in foreign aid. Those are the first things, actually, that we cut. And I would agree with what I think is your pre-sentiment here that we need a huge investment. We need a dramatic increase in foreign service officers. We need a dramatic increase. The ones we have, they’re among the smartest people that I ever meet and they’re great public servants much of the time. But we have quite a bit of work to do. I would say one last thing on this. You know, one of the forms of power, as you said—there’s four elements to national power. Write this down – DIME: diplomacy, information, military, and economics. And if you’re in the military now there’s some other acronyms like PMESII and stuff, but DIME’s the way to go. And we have, for good national security reasons, we put so much money into the “m,” but we need to really think about how we invest in those other three elements, not just giving money away but how do we invest specifically in smart diplomacy and smart information operations of all types. And there’s a couple of presentations that are going to get at that

Listen, I’ll be around. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. I wish you the best. I’m glad that you’re here for this conference. Thank you.