On October 28, Megan Reiss spoke at the Christianity and National Security Conference about the role of faith and ethics in American foreign policy. In particular, she looks at whether Christians should support charitable policies that might help save millions but could hurt the US in the long term. She looks at questions about Herbert Hoover’s efforts to help save Soviets starving from the 1921–22 famine, as well as current questions about children in rural China suffering from malnutrition and on nuclear weapons.

Rough Transcript

Thank you guys so much for having me here today. Just to survey the room, how many of you all are college students right now? Excellent, you are my favorite people to talk to! (Sorry if I’m offending any of the non-college students). I came to talk to you today about faith, ethics, and defending America. Just a little on my background, I have gotten to study under – I hear Paul Miller is in the room – back during my PhD days. I have gotten to do really cool things in Texas and D.C. And I am really blessed to work in the best office in the Senate for Senator Mitt Romney at the moment. I’m going to bring in a little of my academic work into this talk, but mostly I wanted to talk to you about choices, how to live out your faith in an environment that doesn’t have an easy good or bad button when you’re when you’re working out these choices. I captured just a little bit of the speaker before me who spoke a lot on Afghanistan. And even though I’m not going to talk about Afghanistan in my talk too much, this is one of the policy areas that is just so difficult and complex. And figuring out how to really live out your faith through your work has been just such an overwhelming goal of mine in the last couple months as we’ve been dealing with the evacuation and individuals on the ground who need help and knowing that they did not get to choose to be born in Afghanistan and they should not have to suffer for the accident of their birth. So I wanted to start by posing to you some major questions, major policy conundrums that really highlight how complicated balancing national security policy with the Christian faith really can be. What do you do, for instance, when millions of people could be aided by the U.S., but that aid could theoretically hurt the U.S. in the long term? Do we as Christians still push to give the aid? And I’ll dive into that a little bit more. What about when we develop military capabilities that could lead to the destruction of thousands or even millions of civilian lives, but that capability could strengthen the U.S. in the long term? Do we as Christians support that capability? I’ll start with a historical example, then we’ll lay out two current issues that policy makers, myself as a staffer included, may be grappling with today. I’m not necessarily going to answer these questions but hopefully illuminate the difficulties of the decisions, and I will be happy to answer questions afterwards. I’m actually going to keep this talk to the 10 to 15 minute range because I really do want college students – and others – but college students to raise their hand and ask questions.

I’m going to start with an example from a hundred years ago actually. Herbert Hoover led an aid effort to the Soviet Union in the 1921-1923 famine. He is credited with saving millions of lives. And then he ended up leading the effort to give the Soviets the seeds to plant and then stop the famine altogether. But this help obviously helped an enemy country which went on to demonize the work of Herbert Hoover himself as well as the Americans at large. Not only that – this enemy country went on to point nuclear weapons at our biggest cities and still poses a threat today. We don’t know the stress that could have resulted had the U.S. not intervened, had the U.S. not given aid to a struggling Soviet Union government. There’s at least a counterfactual scenario out there that the stressors of an ongoing famine could have had profound impact on this nascent communist government and that our effort to be Good Samaritans to millions upon millions of Soviets could have possibly hurt our long-term national security interests.

Today we face similar decisions. Specific, targeted aid can do a massive amount of good to innocent civilians. And I’m going to give the the example that I’ve been struggling with over the last couple of months – China has rampant Vitamin D deficiency, anemia, and intestinal worms in rural populations. Dr. Scott Rozelle, an academic at Stanford, found an even more concerning problem. In rural populations, more than 50 percent of babies show developmental delays at about a year and a half of age. And these babies are not all suffering from malnutrition. Some of them are but a lot of them are not suffering from malnutrition. What they’re actually suffering from is a failure of parents to interact with their babies. In their culture, parents who otherwise love and care for these children – so these are not parents trying to abandon children; these are people who want to be good parents to their children – these parents are not talking to their babies. The babies hear far fewer words a day than babies in urban China. And 70 percent of babies are part of the rural hukou system – basically a rural-based location in China – or else they’re part of a rural-to-urban migrant family. So this issue is affecting a huge, huge percentage of children. The small difference in talking or not talking to babies puts their learning and development further and further behind their peers, so that millions of children in China are not reaching their initial potential at birth. We know some of these issues in China, and there are inexpensive but profound ways to help. We could help in ways that increase the wellness and lifespan of the poor in China. But we also know that this aid, this trying to help these millions of children, could potentially increase the speed of China’s ascendancy. This is the conundrum that we face in current policy, both as Christians and as policy makers. As a Christian I want to and feel obligated to help as many kiddos as possible. And as a policy advisor I actually see massive value in a rural Chinese population that recognizes the charitable contributions of the U.S. were the U.S. to give this type of aid and support to these Chinese populations. But I also see the overwhelming and profound threat that China poses. China wants to be the world’s superpower and to supplant the international order. The U.S. remaining the leader, preaching freedom, versus China pushing to be the leader, preaching repression, must play into these calculations in determining interventions and aid. The last example I’m going to give you before we launch into questions is perhaps the most difficult to me – it’s how we approach nuclear weapons. I think there’s actually maybe too much reflexive support for nuclear weapons in the Republican party, but I’ll tell you this: In my archival research I specifically looked at how individual leaders thought about nuclear weapons, whether leaders were profoundly fearful or not that nukes would be used and whether leaders believed that their spread would increase the likelihood that the unfathomable would happen, that they’d be used. And I’ll tell you there are some notable exceptions, but when U.S. leaders are faced with being the decision maker, the person,the potential results of their actions weigh very heavily on their decisions. And they did what they could over and over to avoid a conflict that would lead to the use of nukes. I went to Hiroshima when I was 16. I saw the terrible destruction of the people who turned to only shadows on sidewalks. And I very much hope and pray that we and other countries will never use nuclear weapons, but I also fundamentally support U.S. nukes and nuclear modernization. I consider this consistent with my Christian faith, and I continue to grapple with how I hold these things in my head together. Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars argues that not just the use of nuclear weapons but even deterrence through nuclear weapons is immoral. Whereby deterrence is threatening evil through the moral exception of supreme emergency, where evil can be threatened or used when in a supreme emergency, so you can you can threaten; you can deter. However, Walzer argues that deterrence makes the supreme emergency condition permanent, and thus nuclear deterrence as a permanent feature cannot be moral. If you’re, here you’re already grappling with how Christianity and realism and foreign policy intermix. And to be honest, Dr. LiVecche will do a better job than I do going into just war theory. But I can tell you the U.S. goal in the use of nukes would be to use nukes to the best we could in following jus bellum and jus en bellum. We’d hopefully resort to force only when necessary, focus on proportionality, limit civilian casualties. I can tell you that I trust the U.S. to follow just war principles of using nukes as a last resort, that the leader would have just intentions, that all the alternatives would be exhausted. But my support of nukes and modernization instead rests primarily in their deterrence capability, the thing Walzer calls immoral. And deterrence capability is only real when it’s backed by a credible threat and a willingness to use nuclear weapons. And this is the issue – you have to be truly willing to use overwhelming destructive nuclear force to have a credible deterrent. And this is really difficult to struggle with as a Christian. This level of gaming out deterrence was serious business in the Cold War. The ‘72 ABM treaty, for instance, guaranteed that the U.S. and the Doviets could have ballistic missile defense for its capitals, but assured that other cities would remain vulnerable to nuke attacks from the other side. I think this is a point that sometimes gets lost today. During the Cold War, we specifically chose to make our cities and our civilian population centers vulnerable to Soviet attacks, simply because we believe that deterrence – it was better to deter the actual use of nuclear weapons. So we accepted threat in order to deter. In my view, nuclear weapons especially in large numbers, force policy makers to make choices to reduce conflict because the consequences are so great. It weighs on them. They know that the consequences are huge. Without nukes, without nuclear modernization, the risk of force in my view is actually higher. We would be making it more likely that civilians would suffer. I would, of course, love a nuclear-free world, but working in the reality that we’re given we have to make a judgment call about whether the risk of reducing the number of nukes would lead to fewer innocent civilians at risk. Whether Walzer’s concerns about deterrence, as logical as they seem, hold up in the reality of an adversary like Russia who’s bent on doing what they can do to alter their nuclear arsenal so they can have lower yield nukes that they would be more likely to be able to use, undeterred by a comparable response from the U.S. This can just lead to perhaps unjustifiably larger and deadlier nuclear weapons. We’re making judgments based on history, law, psychology, economics, all of these traditions to try to do what I see is the goal of living out my faith and work, reducing the likelihood of civilian casualties and conflict. As a Christian I believe everyone is made in the image of the Creator, and the accident of being born in an authoritarian country does not change my desire to help and aid a person. We’ll have to continue to balance the current threats with the long-term good of people, which can seem all-too speculative when judged against immediate benefit, as was the Soviet famine case, but we could all be wrong. And this is the weight that we must carry as we make decisions. I’m going to leave you with this: These are complicated decisions, and likely you and I will probably never be the ultimate decision maker. We often won’t get to choose whether or not we have to make the decisions. But we do get a choice in this place. We get to decide who we work for. So I recommend moving forward, just as the last statement, when you do get the choice of who you work for, choose to work for someone who will similarly weigh decisions through an ethics and a moral lens.

Thanks. Any questions?

Q: So you mentioned that there was potentially an issue with providing aid to China. In the same way China does provide aid to African countries that are impoverished, and they exert influence that way. If the U.S. potentially provided aid to China, would that in a sense be exerting some form of influence? And China would see that as helpful? Would the U.S. essentially be exerting some form of influence or are China and the U.S. too ideologically dissimilar?

Reiss: It’s a great question. So giving or helping aid a country that’s an adversary – that’s your question. Like if we choose to do that, is there a way that we could do it that would actually make it more beneficial to the U.S.? I think that a lot of adversarial countries have massive concerns about any alternative reality or alternative narrative. And so what happens is more difficult countries actually prevent information like that from getting out. So I personally would not be optimistic that that is an alternative. That is something that of course you’d want to happen but current realities both in China and some other places as that’s not really an option on the table. But the other part of your question is kind of noting that China is really effective in selling its BRI aid. And the U.S., I think, especially on the Hill, has recognized that we have actually been failing to kind of tell people about the many, many good things that we do abroad. And so there is a concerted effort growing that we need to actually be better about telling the people on the ground, whether or not their governments want to hear it, that we are being active through USAID or DFC or some of these other programs that are really investing in people, not just to get their leaders on board with something but to make it so that the people have a sustained ability to pursue their best interests going forward.

Q: I’m Greg Webel. I’m a graduate student at the University of Dallas. A question that’s been kind of weighing on my mind even in relation Mr. Patterson’s speech was the idea that basically we’re Christians and we view the world in a more realistic sense. But I feel like the concept of Christians essentially wanting the U.S. government to create reform in other countries through stationing troops or through providing social work over there comes off as almost just as idealistic as more far-left ideas of also using the U.S. government to do things. You could argue that, as Christians, wouldn’t we be better to do it in a more private sector, with private charities and stuff like that? Because when it comes to the U.S. government I feel like it manipulates its appearance.

Reiss: I’ll try to repeat that question. Basically, you’re asking about whether or not the use of U.S. power through aid and troop stationing abroad is the best venue to do this or if these goals are best fulfilled through the private sector. So the U.S. government generally shouldn’t be involved if the private sector is going to take care of an issue. I don’t know if this is a Republican-leaning group or not, but my political views tend to lend themselves to that that perspective. I fully am on the side that the U.S. presence abroad actually has a stabilizing ability, that we tend to use our aid in ways that are often conditioned and say that a foreign government gets this aid but has to make sure that they have some transparency measures or some pro-democracy measures. That’s not all the time but there’s also a concerted movement to make our aid more linked like that. And as far as true presence, there’s obviously a massive debate in the Republican party right now, but my view is true presences are stabilizing not just where they’re located but have an outside effect that go span into the regions. Again, none of these things should be happening if the private sector is able to take care of those things on their own, but we’re not seeing the private sector do it. So what I think a lot of us who share some of those instincts that the private sector should be doing as much of this as possible, for instance investment in certain parts of Africa, there are things that the government can do to be involved in ways that link to the private sector that help those investments happen in the first place. So you can do things like, for instance, have a floor for production in order to get the industry moving in a certain region that is a contract that only lasts for x number of years. But that will help investments come in so that the private sector can then start pushing forward on those. I agree with you, it should happen in the private sector when it makes sense, but when it doesn’t that is when government can be involved. And I think the U.S. is usually a force for good in these places.

Q: I’m Rohan from Wheaton College. And I’m thinking a lot about China sending aid to countries in Africa. And could the U.S. essentially coerce China to not sending aid there? And would that slow down their global impact? And are there pros and cons to the U.S. doing that?

Reiss: I’m going to be a little direct. The U.S. is not capable of stopping Chinese aid. The U.S. has been investing in parts of Africa for a very long time. We have not done as good of a job in selling it as perhaps we could, although I will say PEPFAR has been a massively successful program and the U.S. gets a lot of kudos for it. Africa is not a unified place. It’s like lots of different countries with lots of different tribes and lots of different views. So I’m going to be a little over expansive here as I say this, but there are issues specifically with the way that we link our aid to reforms that China does not do. And the different African governments will come to the U.S. and say things like, “The Chinese will give us a road; you will give us a five-year plan on how to change.” And so this is just a recognition that our laws do not allow us to simply give them a road uninhibited. That being said, China doesn’t just give a road either. Often these are loans that people have to pay back. Usually this is the difference between short-term versus long-term politics. It will help me get re-elected next year if I give this community a road that is funded by Chinese money. This Chinese money will not be due for 10 to 15 years at a massive markup, but I will no longer be in office so it doesn’t matter to me. And that’s the difference between U.S. and China aid. So what we’re doing right now is trying to actually educate these governments about how to process this through long-term thinking and then also really try to provide alternatives, when it makes sense and is in the best interest of the U.S., to that pure Chinese – what looks like pure Chinese aid….

The question is: Has the nuclear weapons system led to conflicts being removed from developed countries into developing countries as a result of the proxy wars between great powers? This is, I’d say, a theoretical discussion that we can definitely get into. I probably don’t have the capacity to answer this in this talk. My view is it’s actually like limited conflicts, but this is also a lot of alternative history. You can’t 100 percent know what would have happened had nukes not led to a stabilization between Russia and the U.S. at the start of the Cold War. So I fall in the side of they’ve been generally stabilizing. It’s worth pointing out some of the most deaths in the world since the start of the Cold War have happened are not part of the Cold War conflicts, right? So Mao, between 30 and 70 million deaths as part of the Great Leap Forward, that had nothing – I mean it had to do with the Cold War in the sense that he was trying to like basically impress the Soviets that he didn’t need aid and still give food away to Eastern Europe. But also like the Great War in the Congo, right? That was one of the most casualties we’ve seen in a conflict, and that wasn’t part of the Cold War.

Q: I’m Catherine; I’m from Liberty University and I had a quick question. So if a country were put in a national security situation where they had the option to ally with a bad actor in order to stop a worse actor from going in power, what would your ethical approach be to that?

Reiss: I would want to know more information. I mean, the first things that come to mind, right? So the question: you have a bad actor, you don’t want to be friends with them, but you have a worse actor over here and maybe if you’re friends-with-them-ish then you guys can better balance against the really bad actor. Basically what you’d want or what I would want to do – not everyone, there are different views on this – but what I would want to do is to figure out does this bad actor over here, the like slightly less bad one, do they need something from us, right? Because if they need something from us, as we potentially go into this relationship, are there things that we can get out of it that would push them into a situation where we would in the end feel a little bit more comfortable. Like if there were a theoretical country in a certain part of the world that didn’t let women do certain things, but they really wanted our weapon system, maybe we could pressure them that once they made these certain changes to their laws, then we would be more willing to allow a certain foreign military sale that would actually be in our best interests as well, because it would come with training of their military. We could, for instance kind of help them learn and understand and follow the law of armed conflict in a way that maybe they wouldn’t do before. We’d get a better outcome for women in the country and we’d have better balancing against a worse actor. So that’s how I would try to process it. It’s possible that you just would choose not to not to partner at all depending on what that country is doing. If that country was committing genocide I feel pretty comfortable saying that we have to figure this out with different partners. But if it’s a way that we could balance this a little bit better, then that’s what you’d pursue or that’s what I would want to pursue.

Q: Hello, my name is James. I work at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. And I’m wondering, going back to the questions about Chinese aid to Africa – well as we know, the Chinese don’t just give away a road for free. What I’m wondering is there must come a point where the African nation will say, well we like this aid, we like these roads, but if like what happened in Sri Lanka with that before the Chinese developed. Now it’s China’s property. The African nations surely, you know, they didn’t want European colonialists; I assume they don’t want Chinese colonialists as well. At what point do you think they’re going to stop accepting aid from the Chinese even if it’s nice for them because it’s too much of like a weight on their national pride or something to be controlled by another country far away.

Reiss: Yeah, absolutely. I think it depends on the country and their individual circumstances regarding that Chinese aid. There’s a particular country, I probably shouldn’t call out, that basically, they have a very small industry within their country. It has to do primarily with wool. What happened was a massive Chinese company came in and invested, and then their parliament basically said that this Chinese company now more or less owns this industry. And then they stop paying people, and then people started starving, they started moving, and – yeah this is a true story guys – they started moving into some of their neighbors. Parliament, in something like a nine month period of time, had to rescind the law, basically kick out the company. In the meantime, the population had gone through a very traumatic thing where a huge percentage of the population hadn’t been paid in a really long time. That country now has a lot of things in place to guard against Chinese aid. That’s a very dramatic example; there are other countries that are dealing with things in a similar fashion and in some countries you’ll see you’ll see the civilian population is starting to get very wary before the political class, who is often paid off, is becoming wary. And so it’s going to be a process and it’s probably going to be a process in many individual countries before there is ground swell. I think it’s happening though.