FASKIANOS: Good evening, everybody. If you could take your seats, that would be great. We’re going to get started now. Thank you very much.
Good evening. Welcome to the 2023 CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We’re delighted to have you join us in person here in the room and virtually via livestream.
This workshop has been held on an annual basis since 2007 with the purpose of providing a multifaith forum for discussions on the forces shaping international relations and the role of the United States in the world. We are grateful to the Ford Foundation for their support over the years.
I’d like to take a moment just to say a few words about CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program. Founded in 2006 under the leadership of CFR President Richard Haass, we serve as a resource for all of you—congregational leaders, seminary heads, scholars of religion, and representatives of faith-based organizations—by offering nonpartisan and authoritative analysis on global issues to inform your work and foster dialogue within your communities. In addition to this annual workshop, we offer two webinar series: the Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series; and the Social Justice Webinar Series, which we started during the pandemic. We also publish a monthly bulletin with CFR resources of interest to the religion community. Of course, if you would like to participate please email [email protected]. And always you can send suggestions, comments, feedback; we love hearing from you.
So we have an exciting agenda planned over the course of this workshop, which as a reminder is on the record. We encourage you to tweet at @CFR_religion using the hashtag #CFRReligionWorkshop.
And with that, I’m delighted to introduce my colleague Shannon O’Neil, CFR’s vice president, deputy director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin American studies, and author of The Globalization Myth. She’s moderating tonight’s discussion on “Global Hot Spots” with a very distinguished panel of experts: Esther Brimmer, Thomas Graham, and James Jeffrey. She will introduce them, but I would like to invite her and the panel to the stage. And following their discussion, Reverend Rafael Capó, who is on our Religion Advisory Committee, will offer a blessing before dinner is served. So we’ll first have the discussion, question and answers, and then we can have our dinner. So, Shannon, over to you.
O’NEIL: Thank you. Great. Well, welcome to CFR. It’s great to have you all here. As Irina said, I’m Shannon O’Neil. I am the vice president of Studies, so that’s the internal think tank here. And I am very lucky today to have three amazing scholars—two of our own and one ringer that we brought in from the Wilson Center—(laughter)—to guide you through the global hot spots.
JEFFREY: I’m a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
O’NEIL: And of course, a member, you know? (Laughs.) I will give you the very brief taglines of who each of these people are, but their whole bio is in your packet and well worth a read because they’re all very distinguished. We wouldn’t even get to the hot spots if I went through all of their achievements.
So at the end here I have Tom Graham. He is one of our own. He is a distinguished fellow here at the Council.
I have Esther Brimmer, also one our own, who is based in D.C. She is the James H. Binger senior fellow for global governance.
And then our ringer here. I have Ambassador James Jeffrey, Jim Jeffrey. He’s the chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and the Slater Family distinguished fellow. Let me get the names right for those who support all of us here in think-tank land.
All right. So we will have a conversation up here between the four of us for about thirty, thirty-five minutes, and then I am going to turn to all of you. So we have no shortage of global hot spots to deal with. We’re only going to start to delve into those areas, so then I will depend on all of you to either take us further into some of those areas or bring up some of your own interests and passions or things that keep you awake at night. So be ready for that when we open up.
So let me start in things that keep many people awake at night. Let me start with the one that’s headlines in the news, and that is Russia and Ukraine and what’s happening there. So I’m going to start with Tom, who thinks about these things deeply. And I’d love it if you could give us a sense—we’re a year-plus on into this war. Give us a sense sort of where we stand—not so much the blow by blow on the battlefield, but as you look forward into the spring, into the summer, into this next year, what are the probable or possible paths forward? What is an end? Do you see an end? And what does an end look like? Or, what would victory for either side actually look like?
GRAHAM: Good question. (Laughter.) If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I think I’d be working someplace else.
Let me just start and briefly describe sort of where we are in the conflict. I think this year is really a tale of two offensives.
A Russian offensive which has just ended, basically fizzled out, ongoing for about two or three months. The Russians gained very little territory, but at tremendous cost in casualties and loss of equipment.
We’re on the cusp of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Great expectations, I think, in Europe and the United States as how this counteroffensive will play itself out over the next several months. Many people thinking that this will lead to some sort of decisive turn in the conflict, move it towards a resolution along the lines of the ones that the Ukrainians are seeking and we in the West are seeking.
I want to disabuse you of that notion at this point. This is going to be important, but it’s not likely to turn out to be decisive. If the Ukrainians succeed beyond our wildest expectations at this point, there is absolutely no indication the President Putin is prepared to concede. And we need to remember, in a conflict like this you’re only defeated when you admit that you’re defeated.
President Putin believes this conflict is existential for Russia. We can debate that. It’s certainly existential for President Putin himself. He also believes that the Russians are much more resilient as a people than either the Ukrainians or certainly the West. And he believes that the West is going to crack over time and will not be able to support the Ukrainians going forward, and therefore time is on his side—no incentive at all to negotiate.
If the counteroffensive doesn’t go that well, by the same token President Zelensky of Ukraine has no incentive to negotiate at this point. There is overwhelming support among the Ukrainian people—the polls have shown this consistently over the past year—for total victory, and total victory is defined as retaking all the territory that Russia has seized from Ukraine not simply during the past fifteen months, but since 2014 when it annexed Crimea.
If it goes really bad for the Ukrainians, he’s still not going to negotiate, and we in the West will have to face a tough decision of the extent to which we’re going to support the Ukrainians going forward. The president is framing this as a historic struggle between democracy and autocracy. We’re moving into an election year. It is hard to imagine the president deciding that we shouldn’t continue to back the Ukrainians as much as possible to move this—to help them change the conditions on the battlefield.
So this war is going to continue for some time, and we need to prepare ourselves for that.
How does it end? Well, conflicts like this end usually in two ways—that is, both sides are exhausted and realize that they have to sit down and negotiate, or at least stop fighting; or both sides come to the conclusion that they have achieved all that they possibly can on the battlefield and a continuation of the conflict is just going to be a loss of resources. And that may move it to simply a tacit ceasefire, or what we hope is a peaceful set of negotiations to settle the conflict, to settle the territorial issues and provide a foundation for European security going forward.
Now, I can go into all of those details, but we only have thirty to forty minutes to talk, and we actually ought to get on to some other hot spots. But—
O’NEIL: Yeah. Well, we’ll bring you back. I’m sure we’re not going to let go of this one.
In fact, Esther, I’m going to turn to you next and just expand the geographic aperture just a bit. So, as we look at great-power competition, and not all that far from Russia, not all that far from the United States is a big, expansive place that you do a lot of work on, which is the Arctic. And so how is, one, this conflict, or some of the tensions that we’re seeing in Russia and Ukraine, is it affecting the Arctic? And what are the real issues there that matter?
BRIMMER: Well, first, thank you for the opportunity to talk together. I’m looking forward to our comments and questions, and delighted to be on this panel with this distinguished group.
Let’s take a moment and talk about the Arctic. In one sense, the Arctic is an idea—the idea that we look at the top of the globe as a region. We didn’t always do that. That said, that region contains eight countries, each with their own territorial waters. It contains at its center, actually, the Arctic Ocean as well, so there is actually ocean high seas in there as well.
For the past several decades, the Arctic has benefited from being outside of normal geopolitics. Since the 1996 creation of the Arctic Council, we had a region where you saw countries cooperating. The Arctic Council that brings together eight countries, including seven countries and the Russian Federation, focused on a variety of issues including scientific exploration and a variety of other things beneficial to the people in the—the four million people who live in the Arctic.
However, geopolitics is now in the Arctic. And it in a sense brings together two of the great phenomena that we are grappling with. Indeed, the first is, as I said, there are eight countries in the area. Since I do global governance, I’ll say the informal mechanism is the Arctic Council, where you had great cooperation. But of course, since the Russian Federation invasion of Ukraine, the Arctic Council has been on pause. It just so happened that Russia was the chair of the Arctic Council until last Thursday. I commend CFR on the timing of this event. (Laughter.) So I can now say that Norway is now the chair of the Arctic Council. The Norwegians, of course, longtime NATO members and a country with longstanding leadership in the Arctic region, has set out to try to revitalize the Arctic Council as a mode of cooperation.
That said, we recognize that the Russian Federation is increasingly, of course, having to look for new markets now that they’re, of course, under sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine, which means that a lot of that petroleum that is sitting in the Arctic is now being sold to China, India, and others. And most recently—and quite a surprise, I think, to many analysts—in the past week or so that the Russian coast guard and the Chinese coast guard have signed a letter of cooperation. We’ll see what that means, but that’s a new factor.
One of the interesting issues of geopolitics is the expansion of the Chinese role in the Arctic, which brings us to the other major phenomenon, which of course is the huge impact of climate change. Unfortunately, this is a hot spot. The Arctic is heating up at least three times faster than the rest of the world, which has huge implications for the people who live there, the animals that live there, and for the possibility of navigation in the area as well. So in the Arctic we’re seeing great-power competition and we’re seeing climate change.
And you have to remember also that the United States has an enormous coastline in the Arctic. We have—about half of all the United States’ coastline is in the state of Alaska. So on top of that, we have sovereign territory in the area as well. So it’s one of the few areas of global intersection where we also have citizens literally sitting on the front lines.
O’NEIL: A heating place, but a potential hot spot for all this.
Jim, let me turn to you, and again expanding the aperture out just a little bit geographically from Russia and Ukraine and bring in Turkey.
O’NEIL: We just had elections on Sunday, and while Erdoğan did not win outright he came in, I think, better than many expected. He won a majority in the parliament. He was at least ahead in the elections. You’re the expert so I’m going to turn to you, but it seems people think that he’s going to serve another term. But talk a little about is that right, that sort of conventional wisdom that you read in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or whatever your favorite paper is. And if it is right, what does that mean for Turkey, but what does that mean for the EU, for NATO, for these other sort of great-power competition, and what role might Turkey play or not play?
JEFFREY: Absolutely. Shannon, again, thanks for having me here.
First, as you said, there will be a runoff. Erdoğan is within half a percentage point, at 49.5 percent of the electorate, that in the second round, where he’ll be in a runoff against his primary competitor, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, he’s almost certain to win. First of all, it’s not that hard to recoup less than half a percent of the vote, particularly when people all think that momentum is with you, which people do. Secondly, as you said, his coalition won in parliament—not by much, but enough—and that means that Turks, who have a big distaste of split government unlike us Americans, I think, will—that was a joke there. (Laughter.) It’s true, too. But anyway, are going to be interested in having a parliament that will work well with Erdoğan, so that suggests they’ll vote for Erdoğan. On the other hand, the Turkish lira is sinking and markets are showing their skepticism, for good reason, of continued Erdoğan rule because of late his economic rule has not been good. That’s why he actually lost about 7 percent of the vote he got last time, in 2018. So this is no triumph for Erdoğan, but a win is a win is a win, as we know in American politics.
What does it mean? For the Turkish people, it means a leader who is increasingly autocratic and dismissive of rule of law and balance of power and institutional freedom. And that has an impact to some degree on the daily lives of all Turks, and we saw this in the response to the earthquake, which was another area that hurt him. And secondly, his management of the economy, particularly the Turkish lira, the what we call monetary policy, is very unorthodox. When inflation rises—which it’s been rising precipitously until recently in Turkey—he thinks interest rates should be reduced. That’s not how the Federal Reserve looks at it or any other central bank. So that’s going to be a problem internally.
Externally, it’s hard to say because Erdoğan’s bark—which is awful, and I know I’m on the record here, and they know I feel this way—his bark is worse than his bite. Turkey, with or without Erdoğan, sees Russia as an existential threat, and Iran secondarily as an existential threat, and the last thing they want is to see Ukraine crushed by Russia and the Black Sea become a Russian lake with Turkey squeezed at the bottom. So, therefore, I would say that next to the U.S. no NATO country has done more for Ukraine in this conflict. I’d also that no—(laughs)—NATO country has done more to still be helpful to Putin in a variety of ways in this conflict. (Laughter.) So for us analysts, this is the problem in trying to deal with Turkey if you’re in the government, if you’re advising the government, or just writing about it from the outside. It’s very complicated. It’s very much a glass is half full, a third full, two-thirds full. But we’ll get more of that.
Now, he’s been moving towards rapprochement certainly with Israel and the Arab states in the last couple of years, which is good. He’s got a relatively good relationship right now with Washington. Again, his rhetoric will remain harsh because that’s his nature. But we’ll probably be able to continue to do transactional deals with him, and it may be helpful in Ukraine and elsewhere. But again, anything’s possible.
O’NEIL: So let me come back to you, Tom. Esther brought up China very briefly in saying that China was operating in the Arctic. But as we look around and you read the newspapers, or at least here in the United States, China seems to be a creator of hot spots, right? That seems to be, at least from the U.S. point of view. And China has been intricately involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, long on the Russian side—a partner and the like—but recently reaching out to the Ukraine and meeting with Ukrainian officials, or Chinese officials meeting. So in this whole conflict, is China a peacemaker, or is it a spoiler, or what more nuanced view might you see as China’s role that they could play?
GRAHAM: Right. It could be all those at the same time, right? (Laughter.)
From the very beginning, I mean, China has been supportive of Russia, certainly diplomatically. They have to a lesser to extent financially, in part because they find it in their interest to have a closer relationship with Russia.
In many ways the status quo—the continuation of the conflict—plays into Chinese interests. It makes for a weaker Russia, and that means that China can get the resources it needs from Russia at discounted prices. It’s done that with the oil and gas over the past year, but there are abundant resources in Siberia that the Chinese also have their eyes on. At the same time, Russia continuing the conflict in Europe distracts our attention. This is an administration that clearly would like to spend all its time focused on what they call the pacing challenge, right—China.
They thought of Russia as a persistent threat. They thought at the beginning of the administration that they could cut some deals with the Russians, basically put it on a predictable path and then park that relationship so they could devote their time and resources to China.
That, clearly, is not the case. They’re spending much more time on Russia than they anticipated and for China that is good. The problem is that being seen as a backer of Russia creates problems for China in Europe and Europe remains a key commercial partner for the Chinese.
The Chinese would like to divide Europe from the United States if they possibly could. They don’t—they have enough problems dealing with the United States, going forward. They would like that not to be the United States with the rest of the West.
And, therefore, getting into the game of trying to make peace or at least creating the impression that you’re interested in making peace will play well in Europe. The Chinese have sent a representative to Europe. He arrived in Kyiv yesterday, will continue on to major European capitals talking about a possible negotiated solution to this conflict.
A great deal of skepticism in Europe as to whether China can play that role of mediator because it had been so much on Russia’s side up to this point. Similar skepticism in Washington, although in Washington there are some discussions now about how the United States may be able to work with China, going forward, if we want to push this towards a negotiated solution.
We have leverage, obviously, over the Ukrainians. We have absolutely no leverage over the Russians at this point, and the hope is and, I think, wishful thinking that China could provide the leverage over President Putin to get him to sit down at the negotiating table. Again, I think that’s unlikely.
But China, I think, will now present itself as a player in this area. The long-term strategic issue that we need to be aware of and is going to change the way we think about global security is this is making China an element of the European security equation, something it has never been before, something that we certainly hadn’t anticipated. And in a strange way, European security and building a durable security architecture in Europe becomes not simply a matter of European concerns but has much farther global implications and China is going to be a part of that longer-term equation of security in Europe.
O’NEIL: Thank you. That’s a great point.
As China takes over the headlines and, worried about trade wars, what’s interesting is what is no longer in the headlines, and ten years ago it was ISIS and al-Qaida and the war on terror, right, not the war on China or the worries about a war with China.
And so, Jim, let me turn to you and ask why we’re not talking about these things. Is it that we won or what is happening with extremism with ISIS, with these other groups, that were such a focus of U.S. policy and particularly of sort of our focus on global hotspots five, ten years ago?
JEFFREY: Sure. As this is a seminar on religion and foreign policy I think it’s a good subject.
First of all, many of the generators of in a neutral sense, generators of Islamic terrorist movements, are still there. There’s been no evolution as we’ve seen in the twentieth century in Europe of religious views in the Middle East.
Most people in the region are still devout Muslims tending towards a more Sharia-oriented version of the religion and a small percent support violence. But that small percent has grown smaller and that’s very important, and they’re less able to engage with the terrorist groups.
I think many of you know the history. In 1979, Islamic fundamentalism, extremism, violence, came with a shock on the Shi’a version—flavor with the seizure of the embassy and the rise of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and, of course, the attack on the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia by Salafist-Wahhabi-Takfiri-Sunni extremists. And for twenty years thereafter we had to deal with the consequences of that as one of the major issues in the region, including Iran as both a revolutionary power and a nation state with hegemonic desires.
Then here in New York, of course, and in Washington on September 11, we got the terrible attacks and then we focused on, almost to an obsessive degree, with defeating what we thought was an existential threat to the region and to us.
It wasn’t an existential threat but you can’t make light of it. It was very, very serious and if they weren’t stopped they would have done more attacks like 9/11 or the Islamic states’ attacks in 2015 that killed proportionally almost as many Europeans as we lost on that terrible day.
So it was a real threat. It has been subdued in part because the juice is out of many of their feeders. The Islamic state Iran has a revolution of its own, young women against a religious issue, which is the wearing of headscarves. Saudi Arabia has seen the light and the Crown Prince has basically loosened dramatically the policy on headscarves and other rules for women that are tied to a strict form of Islam, or an interpretation of Islam, I should say.
And then as I said, the terrorist movements have been suppressed in all but the bad lands of the Middle East—Afghanistan, bits in Yemen, bits in Assad’s area of Syria, and a little bit in Libya and elsewhere in Africa. It’s still a threat to the people that are faced with these folks and something that we have to watch. But it’s not the kind of threat anymore that attracts our attention.
Now, it’s true that we also have bigger fish to fry with China and Russia. But it’s not the only thing. We would—believe me—I deal with them. I’m part of them. The counterterrorist infrastructure and establishment in the United States—I see Esther is nodding—is very, very strong in the government, in the think tank, in the NGO world, in the military, and if these guys were a threat we would be devoting resources to them. But in Syria and Iraq and a few other places but it’s just nothing like we saw before.
O’NEIL: So we kind of won. (Laughter.) Don’t say that.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I’m not. We were successful.
O’NEIL: We were successful.
JEFFREY: Victory is—
BRIMMER: As diplomats. (Laughs.)
O’NEIL: That’s a good way—yes, exactly. Exactly.
JEFFREY: We were successful, yeah.
O’NEIL: Esther, let me turn back to you and let me talk about another sort of forgotten space, perhaps, or that we haven’t quite gotten to seeing as a big global hotspot and that is—you’re into the spaces. We did the Arctic. Now we’re going to look to actual space.
Now, we do know, as we’ve talked about—you have been following Ukraine and Russia—that space does sort of matter for military things, right. We know that communications matter. Getting Starlink and Elon Musk coming in was really important and the like. We also get a sense that you need satellite photos to understand where troops are moving and then that kind of stuff.
But I venture to guess that it’s actually more important than just those things. So talk about where space plays into great power competition down here on Earth.
BRIMMER: Oh, thank you. I have the pleasure of being able to look at what we call global spaces. These are areas that are beyond national jurisdiction but which are central to international affairs and modern life.
The classic global space, of course, was the oceans. But outer space is also one as well, and what is interesting about this is that technology means that we now have access to places we didn’t have access before and so questions come up that would not have come up before.
Actually, every one of us this minute depends on a satellite. You’re probably looking at your phone. You might be making sure that you text someone to say you’ll be home at such and such time.
All of that requires an incredible delicate coordination of location and time to know where you are so you can talk with others about where they are and, indeed, we have seen a dramatic expansion of the use of space.
Let’s take a moment to think of the Earth and then I’m going to talk about that area called low Earth orbit. There’s also middle Earth orbit. There’s geostationary orbit. And then there’s greater distances.
Interestingly enough that because we need satellites in particular to manage so much of our daily life we care about what happens in space. That said, we have some important new developments. The first is that there are many more objects in space than one would have ever thought.
At this point there are six thousand satellites circulate—in low Earth orbit. Two thousand of those were launched last year. It is expected that you could have, depending on how you think, tens of thousands, some even think a hundred thousand satellites within a decade, because you have not only national governments that are in space—and we can think of the space race during the Cold War. We now have over eighty countries that have access to space.
Not all of them have launch capacity but they have access to space. They have assets in space and it’s assets that are crucial for understanding the agriculture in their country, understanding weather in their country.
But we also have the arrival of private companies. So some people liken it to the arrival in the seventeenth century of privateers to the oceans because you now have crucial companies that are important for getting those assets into space. Even NASA relies on SpaceX and so that actually at this point three thousand of those satellites in space are owned by SpaceX and they’re planning to launch more.
So now we have a situation where we have vital assets, we have national governments, we have, of course, the United States and the Russian Federation where the strains are either in space—there’s some question as to whether the Russians will continue in the International Space Station.
On the other hand, we can’t get home without them because at this point they’re also part of the rotation to get the astronauts to and from the Space Station. But you also have private companies.
So you have national governments, expanding role of China also in space, and we do not have the same channels for talking to China about space that we have with Russians, going back, obviously, to the Soviet Union, which means that the possibility for miscalculation is significant, and that’s just talking about the civilian satellites before we talk about those for military use.
So there’s a real sense that you have crucial assets, rivalries, economic interests both in space launch and in the possibility of future acquisition of minerals in space and we can talk about that. But our governance is unclear. At least in the oceans there are at least rules about who owns what. At this point, of course, space is actually a global commons. In other words, it’s owned by all of us.
The 1967 treaty, which has a long title but was known as the Outer Space Treaty, does say that all states have a right to access to space. Now, some of those will have greater ability to get there but there’s a real question as to what mechanisms should be put in space.
At this point not everybody lets the United Nations know that they’ve launched something, and if what you’ve launched breaks up that’ll create debris, which will destroy delicate satellites. Satellites don’t go up with—they’re not armored. They can be easily pierced or damaged by very small pieces of materiel.
A couple years ago, NASA estimated there were about twenty seven thousand pieces of debris circling the globe at about seventeen thousand miles per hour. Just in one year the Space Station had to move three times—the Space Station has people on it—had to move to get out of the way for debris.
We’re realizing that one of the important services the United States provides, formerly the Air Force, now soon the Department of Commerce, is monitoring every piece of debris above about ten centimeters, about that big, all of which could actually affect the ability to maintain those vital communications links that we have.
So at this point the question is how do we allocate resources in space, who gets to decide, do we need a new regime. Is that a new treaty? Now, we have real challenges. We aren’t able to ratify treaties in this country at the moment. We haven’t ratified a large number of treaties. My colleagues can talk about treaties in those areas. (Laughter.)
But one question is: What should be the mechanism? So one of the things we’re looking at is what should be the mechanisms. Should it be informal agreements? Should there be codes of conduct? What is needed?
And, ultimately, I have a question for all of you as faith leaders. Yes, we can talk as human beings on this planet about how we manage the behavior of human beings on Earth and, let’s say, our moon.
We’re already talking about the rules we’ll put in place for Mars. Can we do that? What if we’re not the only ones out there? (Laughter.) Do we get to set the rules? A lot to ask.
O’NEIL: Maybe they’ll set the rules for us. Who knows?
So I’m going to do one more round of questions before I open it up to you so please get your questions ready. We will have microphones passed around. So I’ll give you instructions when we get there, but just be ready.
And the last question I want to do to each of you and ask each of you to respond to. And part of it is because we are the Council on Foreign Relations and we look at U.S. policy, and also because all of our distinguished panelists have served in the U.S. government and have made policy, is I would like them to reflect, given that we’re talking about global hotspots, on U.S. policy in one place, a place of their choosing. And either you can tell us what you think the U.S. government is getting right or what you think the U.S. government is getting wrong here.
So you can choose whatever area that you would like. I’m going to start with you, Tom, since you’re on the end. What are we doing right or what are we doing wrong, or maybe somewhere in the middle?
GRAHAM: Yeah, we actually ought to stick with space. It’s much more interesting—(laughter)—as a way going forward.
The area that I focus on is Russia and the surrounding region, European security, and so forth. I think the problem that we have in the U.S. government at this time—it goes back many, many years. It’s not simply a problem with the current administration. Is that we really lack at this point some sort of strategic vision of where we want to go over the longer term.
The focus on Ukraine is very much in the here and now of what we need to do to provide the Ukrainians with the resources that they need in order to retake the territory that the Russians have seized over the past fifteen or sixteen months, but not a lot of serious thinking about what do we want Ukraine to look like in 2035.
We define victory, I think, broadly as regaining that territory. I would define victory as having a Ukraine that’s a strong, prosperous, democratic country anchored in Europe. That’s a long-term process that requires a different type of commitment for the United States, going forward.
The same thing with Russia. We see Russia now as a persistent threat. Certainly, outside of the administration but I think to a certain extent inside, Russia has been demonized. It’s the great other, the enemy, the evil, particularly with Putin at the helm.
Yet, Esther has talked about two issues where we’re going to have to work with the Russians at some point, going forward. The Russians control 50 percent of the Arctic coastline. You can’t come up with a framework for governance of the Arctic if you don’t have Russia’s buy-in to that. How are we going to do that, given the attitudes that we have towards Russia now?
Space is another area. One of the great spacefaring nations is Russia and has been for decades. Russia has great experience and probably second to the United States in that area. You’re not going to be able to come up with a framework for governance of space without dealing with Russia in some way.
So what do we want to do with Russia over the long term? We talk in terms of strategic defeat, weakening Russia, without asking the question whether long-term an extremely weak Russia is in our interest or not.
We need a Russia that’s strong enough to control its six thousand nuclear weapons. We need a Russia that’s strong enough to be able to play a role in the Arctic, a positive role in the Arctic, and it has a large role to play on the whole issue of climate change.
We need a Russia that is strong enough so that we can deal with it in space as well. And then, finally, we need a Russia strong enough so that it can become part of the types of coalitions that the United States may want to build over time to deal with other challenges that we’re going to face, China in particular.
But how are we going to get from here to there and do we even think about that? I don’t think that’s where the administration is.
The final point I would make, and I think the problem for the United States in general, is that our mindset is very much where it has been over the past sixty to seventy years in a world that is changing rapidly, that no longer provides us with the opportunity to exercise our power in the same way.
We’re not going to dominate the globe the way we have before. We are going to find ourselves in a situation where we have to deal as equals with a number of other countries in the world.
We’re going to be in an environment where we’re going to have to find ways to coexist with China, Russia, countries that don’t share our values and don’t necessarily believe that the world should be ordered in the same way that the United States does, and we need to be thinking about those things as well.
So what I find most disturbing when I look at the U.S. foreign policy at this point is that contrary to the way we think about our country I think we’re looking more towards the past than we are to the future and it’s the future that we need to prepare for.
It’s going to look different from the past. It’s going to throw up a different set of challenges and is going to require us to operate on the global stage in a different fashion if we’re going to advance our interests over the long haul.
BRIMMER: Interestingly enough, I think I would actually concur but for a very different set of reasons. I think that, ultimately, we need to refresh the international affairs mindset of the United States, that we need to think about the role we will be playing in a world with many other powers, many other issues.
We cannot address the major global issues without working cooperatively with adversaries. We have the global spaces I’ve mentioned which are natural, naturally occurring global spaces such as outer space. A huge one, of course, is the oceans and we could spend a whole conversation talking about the fact we’re not a member of the major framework for managing the oceans.
Oceans are vital to everything from food security to climate change, and we’ve tended to think of the global commons often in strategic terms, quite understandably. But that’s too narrow.
Yes, you want to have command of the seas, as Alfred Thayer Mahan said. Yes, you want to have the command of the commons—air, space, and land—but you also need to understand that there are commercial, environmental, scientific engagements with these global spaces and you will have to work with the Russian Federation, India, China, others, in order to come up with frameworks that will work to manage these global spaces, and technology makes it all the more important.
Technology means that we can mine the seabed. How should we and under what terms? Again, we’re not in the room when that gets discussed. How should we manage mining of asteroids? Again, that’s going to be a global question.
So the United States has to say: How do we want to work in this world where there will be many more powers, many more issues? And in those issues that are on the front pages, we can’t get to a larger understanding of how we address things like artificial intelligence internationally without talking to countries around the world and coming up with new frameworks and new visions of the United States’ role in the world.
O’NEIL: Thank you.
JEFFREY: OK. I’d give the administration quite good marks both on their media geostrategic containment of Russia and China, and I think they’re pretty well aware of what you’ve said, Esther, of the global commons and the need to cooperate with these people, a bit more with China or a lot more with China than with Russia at the moment. But, still, they’re pretty good.
On the Middle East it’s a bit more mixed but it’s a very complicated area. These people are all veterans of eight years of miserable Middle East experiences in the Obama administration. So I’m not going to take them on on that.
But my example I’ll use is a relative success and that is Iraq. Now, that’s another glass half full half empty issue because Iraq is under significant pressure from Iran that is trying to turn it into a second Lebanon under the thumb of Iran and its vassal actors.
But, still, the country is pumping five million barrels of oil a day. That’s half of Saudi Arabia’s. That’s a success at least for the moment because we really need it. It is a functioning democracy to the extent you can get them in the Middle East. We have a pretty good relationship with it. We have troops on the ground working with the Iraqis against the remnants of the Islamic state.
So all in all, not a bad picture. Who would have thought so fifteen years ago? And this brings up a Jim Jeffry’s—because nobody else, I think, would agree with me on this so it’s my rule—iron rule of American foreign policy.
We get things wrong until we get them right because our tendency often is to go in with adequate resources. That’s not just troops, although we’ve seen that repeatedly from going into North Korea in 1950 against the warnings of the Chinese, we’re going to react, to Lebanon in 1983, Somalia from 1992 to1993—there are a lot of examples to draw from—and extremely ambitious goals for these countries like we’re going to recreate them. Turn Lebanon in 1983 from a hostile state to an ally and diplomatic partner of Israel, and on and on and on. And that was, certainly, the case, as many of you will remember, with Iraq. All but too late and thanks to the chilling lesson of the Bush administration losing both houses of Congress in 2006, Bush went with another approach.
Now, everybody knows—most people who follow it know about the surge where we pumped in a lot more troops, used the troops differently so they had a huge multiplier factor, and also recruited a hundred thousand Sunni Arabs as, essentially, our own militia to fight the al-Qaida people.
Now, they had offered that a year before and we said no, you have to join the Iraqi army. This time, chastened by the electoral results, we would grab them under whatever conditions we wanted. So there was far more resources put into it.
But the other thing is our ambitions were much reduced. We no longer wanted to transform Iraq. Believe me, you could feel it palpably on the ground with our programs and other things. Bush, in fact, agreed that we withdraw within three years, which we wound up doing in 2011. In fact, it was Barack Obama who briefly tried to keep the troops on.
Then they came back in 2014. But that’s another story because we had limited ambitions and weren’t rubbing Iraqis the wrong way anymore. What General Abizaid, our commander in the region and an Arab American, used to call the antibodies to American presence had been reduced enough that we’ve had some kind of relationship with them.
And that’s an important lesson but the question you have to ask yourselves as citizens is why do we keep on making this mistake because we do this again and again, I would argue, most recently in Sudan. Huge ambitions to turn it into a civil society and direct people participation democracy at a time when to me it looked like a typical warlord-broken failed state with all of the neighbors putting real skin in the game like troops and money and jet planes and investments and other things that we weren’t.
The reason is other countries have run this collective security system in one or another way over history—Rome, China, the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century—but unlike us they were part of Eurasia. We’re on the other side of the globe.
We’re the most powerful country in the world with, as we’re seeing right now, the Ukrainians are showing us the most powerful weapons systems in the world—they really work—and all of that distance with us we have options that the UK, China, and Rome didn’t think they had.
They figured they had to be the alpha state in the region or somebody else would be and nobody would want that in their country. We have the isolationist option. We have the values option. We have various things.
So we debate among ourselves. Institutionally, we have a powerful Congress—I know of no other country whose legislature plays such a strong role in foreign policy—and we have a public sector that is very, very much involved in foreign policy.
The result is we debate mainly among ourselves. It’s primarily political and the only way you’ll get action on any place often is over promising and under resourcing, kind of like much of our domestic politics, and when you try that overseas against a serious foe you wind up often in trouble.
So let’s hope we have people like JFK, who, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, put tremendous resources—i.e., risk and presidential engagement and military force—into not just a limited result, low ambitions, the missiles go away. We also threw in we’d pull missiles out of Turkey at the same time. So, technically, the Russians gained from the whole crisis but the Russians didn’t think that way and neither did the rest of the world.
That’s the kind of good thinking we’re capable of but you need to encourage your leaders to remember how JFK did it, not how well any number of them have done it. (Laughter.)
O’NEIL: Right. With that, I’m going to throw it open. So if you have a question, please raise your hand. I will call on you. Although a mic will come over please stand up, state your name, and then state, if you can, a brief question so that we can get a bunch of them.
So let me go straight to the back right there. The gentleman with your hand up. Yes. And the goatee. There’s a microphone right behind you.
LARSON: For at least three years now the—
O’NEIL: So say who you are before—
LARSON: Oh. Duane Larson, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
For at least three years now, the academic side of the military has been discussing the ethics of AI in warfare. And it seems to me, especially now that that has blossomed, as it were, much more into the public consciousness, that’s a hot spot that covers the globe. How are we addressing in terms of foreign relations—or how should we be addressing—the whole question of artificial intelligence?
O’NEIL: Great. Just a few comments—anybody want to take that? Ethics, AI, Defense? (Pause.) That’s where we are in our policy—(laughter)—right there.
BRIMMER: I would say just—and please jump in—I would say that at least one thing we see at the moment is that it’s popping up in different places. It’s not a—there’s not a concerted response, saying, we need to organize ourselves to fix this. Different countries, different institutions have a slice of it, so have the institutions that worry about cybersecurity—are worried about it. You see it popping up in the NATO alliance context. You see it popping up obviously in regulatory issues related to—oh, let’s say, what the hell—European Union, Israeli.
So it’s—I would say it’s decentralized at this point, and we don’t really have a handle on it.
JEFFREY: It’s frightening in one very specific way, and that is to the extent you let AI get its hands—or whatever it has—(laughter)—on the decision to launch nuclear missiles. And I’m pretty confident that we will be really careful, although we’re not foolproof or failsafe, as we used to say.
I am much less confident of other states, including both China and Russia. China, for the next better part of ten years will have far fewer nuclear weapons than we have, which raises the specter in Chinese eyes of first-strike capability. We don’t have one, but the Chinese might think we do, and that may encourage them to toy with this, and in the wrong circumstances, this can be existential to all of us.
GRAHAM: Can I—
O’NEIL: Yeah, please.
GRAHAM: Because I would build on Esther’s point when we were talking about governance. This is a prime example of a technology that needs to be regulated. We’re having that debate now inside the United States as how to do it, but obviously we need to have a global norm for this as well. And that gets into the question how are we going to deal particularly with China. We seem more intent on racing with the Chinese in technology than we do on thinking about how we need to control this so that it doesn’t get out of control and lead it to types of things that Jim is talking about.
O’NEIL: Exactly. Good. Who else? Right here in the front table—quickly.
GAER: Felice Gaer, AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute.
This is a workshop on religion and foreign policy, and it’s hardly pretty to say we won if you look at Afghanistan. So my question is, with the Taliban pursuing an extremist religious agenda, how does this affect not just the region, but how does this affect Turkey going in an Islamist direction? How does this affect Russia with its large Muslim population?
O’NEIL: Jim, to you want to—
JEFFREY: Yeah, I think Afghanistan will serve as a good example of what happens when a population moves in that direction because the Taliban—that’s why we lost—was an immensely popular—not immensely, but was a significantly popular movement among various parts of the population. But it is not a very successful movement.
I know of no place in the Middle East that would draw any lesson from the Taliban in terms of the population, including the devout Muslim population. I think people who have already committed to violent actions will look at how the Taliban did things, but I just don’t see—other than other failed states, and there are fortunately only a few of them in the Middle East—any particular chance for that to flourish.
But, we called this wrong once before, so—
O’NEIL: Right. Sir, right there. Yeah.
MUJAHID: I’m Malik Mujahid from Chicago.
When you were discussing, my question came when you say is it—we won the war on terror and several were successful, building on that. Yesterday, a report came out from Brown University, which was widely published, that 4.5 million people lost their life in this effort, not only several countries. So my question to you, considering it’s a gathering of religious leaders somewhat: Is there any institution, any part of our government, any department or even a desk, which wonders about the cost of our actions?
O’NEIL: I think there are a good number. Esther, do you want to take that?
BRIMMER: Weighing—there’s various different places which try to think of the implications of policy and the types of figures that we talk about. And there are all sorts of areas we haven’t even discussed, the whole international human rights framework and what that looks like, and so forth.
But also, one of the places is actually the—I’ll put in a good word for the policy planning staff, as one of many, but I will say—having served on the policy planning staff, which is where I actually first met Richard Haass—(laughs)—and actually at least two presidents of the Council on Foreign Relations have been associated with the policy place. That’s just one place, and there are different parts of the government where you have people whose job it is to think about implications, forecasting, what do we see. And so that is one.
But the assessing the human impact, whether tragic or great, that is something I think all of us, as public servants at some point in our lives, always carry. So there’s people who do it officially, but then there are also—that’s part of being a human being in an official job as well, is you are thinking about the costs of action as well.
O’NEIL: Great. Go ahead, right back there.
KNOTTS: Bruce Knotts, Unitarian Universalist at the United Nations.
My question is about a part of the world we haven’t talked about—is Africa, and it seems like both Russia and China are making a very strong play for Africa; China mostly economic and Russia, military. And are we responding? And how are we responding?
O’NEIL: Thoughts on U.S.-Africa policy or engagement?
GRAHAM: Yeah, I don’t know much about U.S. policy—(laughter)—towards Africa at this point but you’re right about Russia and China. China has been very active in Africa, but this goes back decades. This is not something new.
The Russian interest in Africa is a much more recent vintage, and is focused largely on the security side at this point. It’s part of a broader sort of vision that Putin has of Russia as leading some sort of anti-modern, neo-anti-colonial movement in Africa as an important place to do that.
I don’t think they have all that much influence throughout Africa. We’ll see how that plays out over time. I think a lot of it is extremely superficial, and the big question is about Russia’s ability to sustain it over time. The Chinese are a much greater presence, and will continue to be so given their economic interest, commercial interest and that.
The United States has played, I think, a large role in Africa. We have developed relations with countries across the continent. We provide a substantial amount of assistance for domestic developments. President Bush instituted a very important program that helped deal with HIV/AIDS throughout Africa, saving millions of lives in the process, something for which he doesn’t get nearly enough attention, in part because people focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. But Africa was a big issue for President George W. Bush, on a very successful program.
So, we’re active along with our European partners in Africa. I think we are aware of the type of challenges that China proposes. We try to provide the type of assistance that transfers skills, that helps societies develop, that allows the countries themselves to engage in their own populations and building infrastructure. So, we have an entirely different approach that has been successful in its own ways over time, and something that we need to devote more attention to, and I’m sure that the administrations will in coming years.
JEFFERY: Two words, because it gets to the resources. We have the best of intentions for Africa. Again, as Tom said, President Bush’s two initiatives—and this administration is very much engaged in trips to Africa and saying the right thing.
The problem is, again, resources. The dirty little secret is because our economy is not a command economy, the only two real tools we have to manipulate—two-and-a-half tools we have to manipulate in the economic realm in the world, is the U.S. monetary system, but that’s globally, and it’s very hard to direct that to Africa.
Secondly, energy policy, which, particularly in the early days after World War II, we were very instrumental in getting energy to support our friends and stay away from our enemies, and a little bit of trade, only that’s only at the margins. Essentially, we can’t direct fifty thousand tourists like Putin can when he was unhappy at Turkey—stop going to Turkey; go to Cuba—(laughs)—imagine the White House trying to get away with that. (Laughter.)
And the second tool is, as we saw with the Russians, military. Look, we had a major meltdown in our foreign policy over four Special Forces guys who got killed in West Africa. Right after we had a major meltdown over four diplomats who died in North Africa in Libya. You would think after all of the Afghanistans and Iraqs, what we should be doing is putting penny packages of Special Forces and diplomats out there trying to do economy of force operations, maintaining influence, chasing terrorists, building local support and such, but that sometimes leads to losing a few people, and we don’t have the stomach for it. And the U.S. military saw that, and the Congress saw that, and frankly, the State Department and the White House saw that and said, we don’t want to do this. And so they are very reluctant to engage with the kind of resources that would compete with the Russians and the Chinese.
But the other thing is, as Tom said, they’re not really sure the Russians or Chinese are going to get very far. These are smart countries, and neither Russia nor China is really helping them very much.
GRAHAM: Can I just add one point here? We also have a private sector.
GRAHAM: In our country some of it depends on the U.S. government, but a lot depends on what the private sector wants to do. And if you are thinking about an area of potential rapid growth over the next generation, it’s Africa—growing population, resource rich. It depends on the country creating sort of the environment in which—that will attract private investment but I know from my own experience in the private sector that you’ve got many, many private companies that are looking very closely at Africa and prepared to invest in a big way depending on how things develop.
O’NEIL: Great. Let me go straight back there. Yeah, sir.
BRADY: Glenn Brady, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, a pastor.
We’ve made our commitment to Ukraine. My question—again, as it relates to China—there’s been some speculation that China will eventually invade Taiwan. They’ve even given some dates. The ramifications, of course, with Taiwan being major chip industry, is the thought of them invading a smokescreen, or if in fact the Chinese do invade, will we have the same commitment to Taiwan as we are with Ukraine?
JEFFREY: I’ll take that. I did it in the National Security Council. (Laughter.)
We have an official commitment to support Taiwan’s defense needs, and that’s actually stronger than the commitment we have for Ukraine, although we’re actually executing a commitment that we didn’t have until roughly February of 2022, fortunately with Ukraine.
So we have—as part of a complicated set of agreements with China and with Taiwan, we have a stated official legal position of providing arms. Now we also have Joe Biden having repeatedly said that we will defend Taiwan, which of course we’re not defending Ukraine—or we’re not defending it with troops, and Biden was clearly meaning defending it with forces. And despite his staff who keep on rolling it back and saying he really didn’t say that, he really did say that—(laughter)—and I think he really means it.
I would say you want to defend Taiwan, succeed in Ukraine. I don’t think the Chinese will try a Taiwan if Russian fails in Ukraine. First of all, they’ll have a much weaker Russia to rely on, and they need allies if they’re going to do something like that. And secondly, they will just assume that we will do the same kind of mobilization of the international community and isolate them when they are doing something that militarily, frankly, is much harder than what Russia is trying and failing to do in Ukraine, right next door.
It’s a ninety-mile channel—that’s a lot further than we tried to do on D-Day, and we almost lost on D-Day.
O’NEIL: Great. Another question?
GRAVES-FITZSIMMONS: Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
During the war in Ukraine, there has been a lot of talk about Russian war crimes and violations of international law. Do you see any renewed interest in the United States ratifying the Rome Statute and joining the International Criminal Court?
O’NEIL: Esther, could I—
GRAHAM: That’s a question for you, Esther. (Laughter.)
BRIMMER: I will have to take your question in two parts. The second part, unfortunately not. In terms of actually ratifying the Rome Statute, I do not foresee that anytime in the near, say—although that would be the right thing to do, and we actually are often on the forefront of actually trying to make sure that we gather the evidence. So the first part—what’s interesting is seeing the importance that has been placed on accountability and on trying to gather evidence now for a variety of war crimes accountability efforts in the future, and that’s because this is all happening in real time, and that’s also part of it. And that’s a new aspect, I would say, of conflict, is also that international effort to try to gather the evidence and figure out what that’s going to mean. But unfortunately I do not see the United States ratifying the Rome Statute in the near term.
O’NEIL: OK. More questions? How about right here in front, Ma’am.
DOUŠA: Hi, Kaji Douša, Park Avenue Christian Church, senior pastor and CEO. Welcome to our neighborhood. (Laughter.)
My question comes from being part of a church and a church structure that is really working at decolonizing so much of our worship life, our theological thinking and so forth, and for Dr. Brimmer, I was especially interested by your question to us as religious leaders. Can you imagine a doctrine of discovery for space?
BRIMMER: Oh. That’s a very interesting question that—I actually do have a view on it that you want me to comment on. (Laughter.)
But, no, what I was trying to get at, I mean, seriously, was to recognize that there are unknowns, and that although we talk a lot about the impact of technology, we talk about the human action and the ability to set policies and be able to drive them forward and implement them. I also want to take out a degree of humbleness and say even the best minds with agreement will not always be able to anticipate everything they encounter. And so I won’t delve into—(laughs)—theological areas; I’m very respectful of the expertise in the room there, but I would say that I think that we do have to keep in mind where—especially when we’re dealing with somebody as large as the cosmos and how we interact with it, that we need to think on additional levels about how we approach policymaking.
MUZAS: Brian Muzas, Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
I’m going to pick up on your point. Thank you for setting me up. (Laughter.) No, because twenty-five years ago, I left aerospace engineering and entered seminary—(laughter)—and two issues after that, the National Space Society’s magazine had a cover of astronauts on Mars celebrating communion. And that’s twenty-five years ago now.
And so I’ll be even more provocative. When are they going to abrogate the Outer Space Treaty? How are they going to handle property rights in space? And how are they going to handle human rights in space, including freedom of religion, given that historically large movements of people have traveled from place to place in search of the freedom to worship the way they saw fit?
BRIMMER: Yeah, I think a fascinating question. I would suggest that, at this point—(laughter)—first, I’d probably have follow-up questions for you just—I’m thinking as for our own research about the intellectual transition that you just described. But you’re quite right; at this point, we’ve only just really begun to think about the physical safety of people who are not experts in space. Up to now, we’ve sent experts, as in astronauts, in space. And we have not yet really begun to think about any of the implications of having civilian populations resident anywhere else. We are worrying about what they will drink and what they will breathe, but we’ve not thought about how they will actually live.
You raise a whole area I at this point do not see on the—sort of the agenda of how we think about the future presence of—but I’m also a little skeptical as well. I mean, I talked a lot about the role of additional things in space. Sending people is huge. I mean, at the moment, the only country currently planning to send people into space in the near term is the United States, which is planning to return to the Moon in the very near term. But that said, I still think there’s a big gap between sending people and sending other things in space, and I’m not sure that most countries are really ready for all of that, going back to some of the other resources and challenges issues that we’ve seen.
GRAHAM: Right. But isn’t China also—China also has a—
BRIMMER: Yeah, China has—yes, they do.
GRAHAM: Which leads to an interesting question for you, is that you’ve got two different cultures, and how will they approach this as they’re both engaged in expanding into space at the same time. Clearly, very different ideas of human rights. Clearly, different ideas of the role that religion plays and so forth. Again, how do you reconcile that going forward? Is space big enough that—so to speak—(laughter)—that you can find your own separate rooms? Don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a—it’s a fascinating question.
BRIMMER: But are there certain principles? And so the one I start off with is life, as in rescue. Interestingly enough, one of the provisions—one of the multiple subsidiary treaties to the Outer Space Treaty is, of course, rescue. The one thing we’re doing in the Arctic still, obviously, with the Russian Federation, we have a maritime border. We have to talk to them all the time about that maritime border. There is a responsibility to rescue. We’ve agreed we will rescue people. Our space agreements are we will rescue people. Yes, the Russian Federation signed up to bring back Americans if necessary. So interestingly enough you can go all the way back to my earlier graduate work on Vattel in the eighteenth century and what becomes the Law of the Sea, which is the responsibility to rescue. That’s a very fundamental idea and that does transcend politics. So there are some elements where we say the responsibility to literally rescue someone is—transcends other politics.
O’NEIL: Going to get a couple more questions. Let me go straight to the back, sir, right there. Yeah. You’ve had your hand up.
CELOZA: Albert Celoza, Phoenix College and Arizona Interfaith Movement.
One big area of the world that’s impacted by religion is India in population. Could you address this issue as a hot spot that is really impacting global policy? Thank you.
O’NEIL: Who wants to take on India? It could be India with, its role in Russia, India—
GRAHAM: I’ll just say India is an interesting country, right? (Laughter.) No, in part because I think it’s clear that India thinks of itself as a great power, an aspiring great power. It’s just become the most populous country in the world. It has had rapid economic growth over the past several years.
And maybe Jim can comment on this more than I, but my impression is that India shies away from the responsibilities of a great power on the global stage. We’ve sort of seen that in the conflict in Ukraine, the unwillingness of the Indians to engage in any serious way to defend a set of principles. When the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which was a clear violation of the UN Charter, the Indians abstained. They refused to be part of the sanctions regime. We can understand they’ve had a complicated history with Russia. They are worried about China. They’ve always seen Russia as a counterbalance to China in their part of the world. The Russians provide a considerable amount of India’s military kit—have historically, continue to do so. But it’s this unwillingness on the part, I think, of the Indian government, Prime Minister Modi himself, to actually take key, firm positions in global affairs, to accept the real responsibilities of being a great power and acting responsibly on the global stage. So there’s a long way—the Indians have tremendous potential. Clearly, we look at and have over the past twenty years, beginning with the Bush administration, tried to develop a close bilateral relationship with the Indians, and that is much improved. But we’re still waiting to see India to play the role as a great power that we would like them to play in their part of the world.
O’NEIL: Go ahead, Jim. You had—
JEFFREY: OK. Yeah, just a couple of quick things.
One, I’m not a believer that the Global South will mobilize—Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, who am I missing; we’ll leave out Turkey for the moment—to form a third force for many reasons. I think that their tactic—and it’s not just a tactic; I think it’s deeply rooted in their experiences of anticolonialism and such—is to sit these things out but be a part of the global system, which essentially puts them to some degree on our side. It also makes them a free rider, but I’m actually OK with that. And I’m particularly sympathetic to India because India is very important for our biggest challenge, which isn’t Ukraine; it’s China. And so we cut them some slack. Believe me, we cut Israel a lot of slack on both Russia and China because Israel is so important for the number-three challenge, Iran. It’s kind of how you have to play foreign policy.
But as we’re talking about religion, this is something very interesting because I think that the Indian government, particularly the Indian prime minister’s treatment of the Muslim minority, let’s face it, it’s nothing short of deplorable. But here is the interesting thing: No two countries have made more advances in the Middle East in terms of diplomatic, trade, scientific, and other exchanges in the last few years—we just had the Indians in Saudi Arabia with our national security adviser, Sullivan, celebrating that. We have the I2U2 with the Israelis and the UAE. And it’s despite major complaints about treatment in Israel of Muslim minorities in the West Bank and to some degree even Arab Israelis, and in India of the Muslim minority. And I think that, therefore, religious identification seems to be playing less of a role today than we had seen in the past. What I don’t know is whether this is a good or a bad thing. I’m just pointing it out.
O’NEIL: I’ll give you the last short word.
BRIMMER: Oh, OK. Just quickly to say that you also have to have a question of where you look. One, yes, India is a major spacefaring country. It has actually signed the bilateral Artemis Accords with the United States on creating standards in space. And to say India plays an important role in some areas that Americans may not pay attention to. They’re one of the major contributors of peacekeeping forces. For all of those resolutions we pass in the Security Council, you need countries that are willing to send troops and they have done so.
I mean, when I was assistant secretary, yes, I did go lay a wreath on the monument to peacekeeping forces in India because it’s absolutely crucial. They train peacekeeping forces around the globe, very, very important—very important role. And then, finally, they’re also involved—for example, I know you can debate the role of the pharmaceutical industry, but both Brazil and India are important manufacturers of medicines that are crucial to many countries around the world. So we have to sometimes look in different places to see what international leadership or international role looks like.
O’NEIL: Well, first I want to thank the audience for their very small, narrow questions. Those were great. (Laughter.) And I really want to thank the panelists for their thoughtful answers, and if not an answer at least a framing for these big questions. (Laughter.) So thank you very much. (Applause.)
So I have one announcement. I just want to remind you all that you’re coming back tomorrow—you have a dinner tonight, but you’re coming back tomorrow—that breakfast is going to start at eight a.m. and that the first session will start at 8:45. And it’s “Religion, China, and Taiwan,” so that is going to answer your question that you have. (Laughter.)
And now, before dinner, I would like to call up Reverend Rafael Capó, who will offer a blessing for the dinner, if you want to come on up.
HEIMOWITZ: Good morning, everybody. It’s a delight to see you all here. I’m James Heimowitz. I’m the president of China Institute and I’ve been asked to help moderate this morning’s very interesting session. We’re already off to a very heated discussion in the room outside—(laughter)—which we’d love to share with you.
I thought I’d start off by saying, I was particularly interested when Irina—and thank you so much, Irina, for helping to organize this, and for everybody at the Council. They always do such a professional and amazing job—that they would tap James Heimowitz, an atheist who is a night owl, to come help moderate a panel on the importance of religion at the crack of dawn. (Laughter.) So, we’re off to a good start.
My own personal background—I’ll just give you two seconds—everybody’s biography is in here, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time. We’ve got three really esteemed guests here. My own interaction with China began as a small kid, actually, being sent off as an exchange student to China. I woke up this morning, I just saw a clip that got replayed from 1982, when I went there. The place was a sea of gray and blue. There was no color. There were no cars. You needed tickets to get access to food, which was rationed. People had no access or—to be able to access information, a short-wave radio was the hottest commodity that everybody was asking you to buy. And the most important thing that I noticed was that China was so different. It felt like I was landing on a different planet, not even on the same Planet Earth from where I came, which was here in New York City.
And the most striking difference—I just came back from a month in China a few days ago—the most striking distant thing that I can say about how China has developed is, now, how much it really is more similar to, and more part of our planet, than different from it.
So, with that backdrop, I’d like to introduce our very interesting three guests, like I said.
Sarah, who comes from a political background, talking at Freedom House, basically, about democracy, and how democracy is considered around the globe.
Orville Schell, who has been spending many decades—a prolific author, China expert. One of his recent novels, actually, talking about the—(inaudible)—as you’ll see in here—talks quite interestingly about this topic that we’re about to discuss today.
And Mayfair, who I spent a little time with last night learning about—from a cultural anthropological perspective, and what the concept of religion means, and how people think about it from an anthropological perspective.
So, just as I started off, I thought it might be interesting to ask each one of our speakers to give their own perspective and thought about what it means. What does religion mean for China, and for Taiwan, and for the future?
And I just wanted to say one more thing before I put it in—the perspective that I have taken here is that China and the U.S. is the most consequential bilateral relationship on the planet today, and probably in our lifetime.
And with that in mind, I’ll hand it over to Sarah.
COOK: Sure. Thank you, James. And thank you to Irina and everyone. It’s really a pleasure to be here.
So, a lot of what I’ll be talking about is based on a project we did a few years ago that resulted in a report called The Battle for China’s Spirit: Looking at Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance in China, specifically under Xi Jinping. But even more generally, I think it’s really those three dimensions, and the way in which they interact with each other, that helps give, I think, a nuanced understanding of religion and China today, and what both believers face, how the Chinese government and Communist Party approach it.
So, just to take a step back about kind of what the landscape of religion and religious believers in China is, it’s actually a lot of people. (Laughs.) I think we think of the atheist Communist Party—and this is one of the challenges that the Communist Party really faces—as a Marxist, Leninist, atheist party, overseeing not only a country that, historically, has a long tradition of spirituality and religion, but that today, is actually undergoing a religious revival across a wide number of faiths.
And in the project, we looked at Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. We looked at Islam, both for Hui and for Uyghur Muslims, which is very different, in terms of what people experience. We look at Christianity, in terms of both Protestantism and Catholicism. We looked at Tibetan Buddhism. And we looked at Falun Gong as one of the examples of the largest Qigong practice that was banned in China.
And I think what you see is actually—pulling together as many stats as we could, because it’s not always easy to find—something in the realm of three hundred to three hundred fifty million religious believers in China. And that’s the largest proportion. Around two hundred million are Chinese Buddhists. But then you have sixty to eighty million Protestants, twelve or so million Catholics, seven—still millions of people practicing Falun Gong, twenty million Muslims, and about six to eight million Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists.
But I think what you see is that—and then you’ve got many people practicing folk religions, and other elements of spirituality. And going back to during Mao’s time, there was this fierce crackdown. Religion was just not tolerated, and temples were destroyed, and things like that. In the 1980s, the party was kind of looking at, okay, well, let’s let religion—let’s give some opening. There are official recognized religions; you can belong to a particular church or mosque. The party was kind of banking on Marxist ideology, that as the country developed economically, religion would fade, and people’s desire for spirituality and religiosity would fade.
The reality was actually something of the opposite—(laughs)—in the sense that actually—again, every person’s spiritual path is different. But when you look at surveys, and talk to people, a lot of them actually find that they start seeking out some spiritual path in order to deal in their daily life with the challenges of the very commercial, materialistic, modernizing China today.
I think that brings the party to trying to find ways to maximize the benefits that religion and religious institutions can bring to the party’s own goals, be they political or economic or foreign policy, while minimizing the risks. And the reality is actually a very complex apparatus and picture—and I want to wrap up, I can speak more about some of the specifics—but such that, depending on what community you belong in, what part of the country you’re in and even what time you—when you are practicing, if you’re somebody practicing—if you were a Uyghur Muslim fifteen years ago, your experience was different than it is today. If you were a Christian in Xinjiang in the late 2000s, it’s different than today. If you were a Falun Gong practitioner in the 1990s, it’s different than it is today. Your experience with the party, and its controls on religions, and the extent to which you feel that you have the space to practice, or you feel nonviolent controls over doctrine, or clergy teaching, or things like that, or you face some horrific, most brutal, repressive methods can really vary a lot.
So, I think—and I’ll wrap up with this point—I think sometimes you’ll see headlines that say, oh, China hosted this big Buddhist conference. And then you’ll see headlines of Uyghurs doing forced labor. The reality is that both are true. I think that’s some of the contradictions that you see, but that you also have this fundamental contradiction and challenge that the Communist Party faces, where it’s facing a quite, actually, spiritual society, about a third of the country, that really do take spirituality, religiosity, as part of their daily lives.
HEIMOWITZ: Thank you.
Orville, would you like to chime in with your two cents? One of the things that I was thinking, and what’s so interesting here, is religion is so deeply intertwined with human values. And it’s our human values that form foreign policy. So, be curious—Orville’s been watching China and the U.S. for longer than most of us. So, I’d love to hear your opening remarks.
SCHELL: Well, it’s nice to be here with you all.
You know, having toiled in these vineyards for many decades, I have to say that I think there is a fundamental dividing line, that the Chinese Communist Party understands one side of, but not the other.
And I mean, if you believe—as I assume most of you do—that men, women, human beings do not live by bread alone, that there is some ineffable, reaching-out for some sort of spiritual aspect of life, the Chinese Communist Party is not where you want to go.
This novel, which I won’t shamelessly flog, that Jamie mentioned, Mile Home, was an effort—I’ve never written fiction before—but to do exactly what I think maybe you’re trying to do here, to take a person of faith, someone who is a classical musician, who had this other world that didn’t—couldn’t really exist—coexist with the Chinese Communist Revolution, and put them in the middle of it, and see what happened. I basically wanted to pair up Johann Sebastian Bach, who is my hero—is a musician that plays with Chairman Mao. What would they say to each other? I think they would have a very difficult time, because Mao lived in the world of rearranging the furniture out there, the revolution. Everything was externalized. Whereas people of faith—and I should say Bach, as well—saw to look in, into the interior world, and try to come to terms with mortality, with being a human being, how to be a human being. These are two absolutely different worlds.
And I think if you look at it in almost a metaphoric way, it helps us understand why we have such trouble toward negotiating anything with China, because there are certain aspects that the whole experience that the Chinese Communist Revolution really don’t know quite how to factor into the equation. They tolerate Buddhism, but they have patriotic churches. They manage it. They control it. The last thing in the world they want—and this is why religion is in such a difficult position in China, although sometimes worse than others—is that it speaks of another kind of loyalty, a loyalty that is not to the state, not to something out there, but to, sort of, something in here. And that’s a fundamental contradiction.
Mao loved contradictions, wrote essays about contradictions. He said, there are two kinds of contradictions: One are what he called—(speaks in Chinese)—antagonistic contradictions. Those are ones you can’t solve, except by fighting, struggling, killing, revolution, one could go on.
The other was what he called contradictions among the people, which you could discuss and negotiate.
I fear that—although Mao never explicitly said this, but he implied it—that religion is an antagonistic contradiction with the Chinese Communist Party, and everything they’re all about. And that makes it very, very difficult to make China be able to put these two worlds together in some state of balance, and even more, makes it very difficult for China to be soluble in the so-called liberal, Western world, which actually, is a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world. Because they don’t trade in that concept.
So, these are just some kind of very cursory thoughts, but ones that I have been thinking a lot about, because I think if you want to understand why we’re having such a hell of a hard time with China, you have to understand something more than policy. You have to understand psychology. You have to understand what my friend, the great Chinese Sinologist, Geremie Barmé—he’s an Australian—calls the “republic of the spirit.” The Chinese Communist Party does not do the republic of the spirit well.
HEIMOWITZ: And it also intertwines with loyalty, as you said—
SCHELL: Completely, yeah.
HEIMOWITZ: —that conflicting loyalties—which I think is not unique to China. In any country, whether they’re religious countries or secular countries, I think you have this conflict, inherent conflict between multiple loyalties.
SCHELL: Yeah. And that implies—I should say also—to love, to friendship, to all of these kinds of loyalties that don’t, sort of, obey the primary loyalty, which is just to the state and party.
HEIMOWITZ: Well, on that—(laughter)—I think when we come back, and we think about the Council on Foreign Relations as a place that thinks about policy, and about foreign policy, and America’s perspective—my own perspective, leading a cultural organization, is that our foreign policy represents our human values, and they represent what we value and we prioritize as a nation. But it always comes back to the people relationship.
So, I can’t think of a better introduction than to ask Mayfair to tell us, from an anthropological perspective, her views.
YANG: Thank you very much. I’m so pleased to be invited to join everybody here.
So, I’m trained as a cultural anthropologist at UC Berkeley. And so, I’ve been going to China since the 1980s. And I’ve seen how the society has really changed a lot. And I do fieldwork. So, anthropologists do fieldwork, long-term immersion, and talking with whoever you’re studying. So, I chose Wenzhou, which is on the southeastern China coast, and which is a strong religious set of communities. I mainly chose rural, small-town people to study. And so, anthropology wants to try and grasp as much as possible, the native point of view. So, from the grassroots level—I am not going from above so much—as ordinary peoples’ experiences, I think they’ve seen so much change in their lives. In Wenzhou, there is tremendous resurgence of the market economy.
And the other thing about anthropology is—especially for me—is that I often adopt a perspective of the long dure, the long term, which extends—China is an ancient civilization, so you—really, to understand it fully, you really have to go back to ancient times. And I have looked at Shang Dynasty—(laughs)—all the way back in 2000 BCE.
China’s history is such that you have the major institutionalized religions, like Buddhism, and Taoism, and Confucianism, that people talk about. But you have huge diverse and dynamic, ever-fluid, shifting array of popular religion—shamanism, spirit possession, feng shui, ancestor worship, and so forth—that these institutionalized religions, over the centuries and millennia, have tried to absorb, as much as possible, into itself, but always not fully taming them.
So, what I want to emphasize in this talk is that, from the kind of elite, top-down perspective, the Communist Party is all-powerful, and all-monolithic, and all-dictatorial. But really, to really see China, you’ve got to see what people are doing at the grassroots level. And there’s a lot of disobedience—of course, not rebellion, OK? If rebellion is detected, there will be a crushing. But it’s really just, kind of, not direct confrontation. What the Chinese people are good at is just oblique ways of, OK, you have your policies, but—(speaks Chinese)—so, above, you have—come down with policies, but at every level of government, you have deflecting of policy. And then by the time it reaches to the grassroots levels, often, people don’t even hear about it. They don’t know about it. They just carry on.
So, you have to sometimes sympathize with the Chinese Communist Party—(laughs)—because they are trying to come down from above, and—what happened to our policy? It didn’t work. (Laughter.) It wasn’t implemented.
Historically, you see this. The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhū Yuánzhāng, very much like a Mao Zedong person. So, he came up through a popular peasant rebellion, White Lotus, and he knew how he came to power. So, he banned all kinds of religions, and at the price of losing your head, literally. And then after about a century, or two centuries, everything was swallowed up—so, by the enhanced market economy. So, religion and market economy go together, historically, from the Song Dynasty.
So, I want to say that what you’re seeing in China now may seem like, oh, this Communist Party is so monolithic and all-powerful. But from the long-term perspective, its powers are going to be eroded away by two forces, I think: the market economy, and now, China’s totally global capitalism; and two, by the religious forces, which go together, in my view. They really go together.
So, Chinese Communist Party is going to be—their powers, dictatorial powers, is going to be ever-enhanced, so long as they can convince people that there is an external threat. Right now, the United States is providing that very answer to their prayers. So, the more the United States kind of loosens up a bit, the better you have those grassroots forces, and market forces, helping to dissolve that power. That is my opinion that I see from the ground level.
So, today, in our—the remaining thing, I’d like to talk about the differences I see between mainland China’s religious terrain, and Taiwan. I was born in Taiwan, but I left when I was five years old, and I’ve lived in many different countries. But I chose to do my academic research in China, and I’ve reconnected with my relatives in Jiangxi Province.
And second, I’d like to talk about is—so, the colonial aspect of religion—religious colonialism that we have to be careful of in—when we deal with China, not to be seen as just pushing the freedom and rights of Christianity. Because today, Protestantism at the grassroots is a real driving force. They’re winning a lot of converts. And so, Buddhism, Taoism, even popular religions are feeling that. So, the Chinese Communist Party is going to—it’s not just the Communist Party that is concerned. It’s also other religions.
And the third thing that I’d like to elaborate on is religion as diplomacy in the history of China, and in China’s present.
HEIMOWITZ: Thank you for that.
We’ve brought up some really, really interesting topics here, and we’ll touch on some of them. But I’m going to ask maybe a couple of questions, then we’ll open it up to the audience.
I think one thing that’s very interesting—I don’t know how many people in the audience are aware, but religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution of China. So, that exists. At the same time, members of the Communist Party are asked to abstain. Abstaining is a concept that’s, I think, familiar to Western religions too, whether they ask believers to abstain from eating during Ramadan, or not taking pork, or, think about all different kinds of ways regarding marriage, or anything.
So one of the other things that I think comes up constantly when I talk to people in China is the difference between a Western perspective of what’s religion, and what’s a cult. When is a religion a cult, and when is a cult a religion? And I think this is also a fundamental difference in our capacity in the U.S. to think along that spectrum. And Chinese, if you talk to officialdom, will tell you, we’re happy to welcome religious views. But when it crosses the border, and it becomes a cult, this is something that impacts national order, security, and our sense of stability.
And I thought I’d start out asking—maybe we start with Sarah—to think about, how do we think about what’s a cult, and what’s a religion? And how should we think about it when China frames it in those terms?
What you see in China is you have the five official religions. I think even outside of that scope, you have religions like Judaism, that are acknowledged, but they’re not counted as, like, an official religion. And then you have a collection of faiths, whether they are Qigong practices, or kind of quasi-Christian or quasi-Buddhist kind of sects, that have arisen over time, and I think, globally, are generally thought of as new religious movements. I think the largest one that emerged in kind of recent, modern times was Falun Gong in the 1990s. And it actually is very, kind of an indigenous—I think, to one of the points that was raised earlier of what are kind of religions, like Christianity or even Islam, that are coming from other parts of the world to China, have come over the centuries, and what are practices like Buddhism or Taoism, that have been around for a long time.
And Falun Gong is one of the—there’s a long tradition of these kind of self-cultivation practices in China, and it was passed down one by one, kind of quietly. And then in 1992, it spread to the public. And it’s really fascinating to look at the Chinese government’s attitude towards, not only Falun Gong, but Qigong. There was this big Qigong revival in the 1990s.
And actually, Falun Gong was spread throughout China, under the auspices of the Qigong Association. Now, what’s interesting there is that it slipped through the cracks of this massive religious regulatory bureaucracy, and that’s one way it was able to spread so widely. And if you look at Chinese government estimates from the 1990s, there were tens of millions of people estimated to be practicing Falun Gong, doing the meditation practices. And it has meditation practices, and then it has spiritual teachings that draw on—focus on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. But if you’re familiar with Buddhism and Taoism, a lot of it will be familiar, in terms of some of the underlying understandings.
Then what happened in the late 1990s was that parts of the party’s security apparatus started to get very nervous, because you had this group of people who were practicing something—as Orville said—with a loyalty above the party. There were actually party members practicing, because, again, it slipped through the regulatory cracks. So, there were—the founder of Falun Gong actually taught it in the Chinese Embassy in Paris in 1995, so think about that. (Laughs.) And I know people who learned it there at the time.
So what happened was, there was actually a real conflict at the upper echelons of the Communist Party, and without getting into the full timeline, essentially, Jiang Zemin, in the spring of 1999, decided and said, no, this is not acceptable. We need to ban this group. And he basically just pressed that button, and the party’s repressed, changed the categorization of the party’s apparatus.
If you look at the early propaganda, there actually was, actually, very honest of saying the values of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance don’t fit with the values of the Communist Party. Getting back to James’s question of the cult designation that came in October of 1999. So, actually, the laws that—and Human Rights Watch has a big thing about the rule of law veneer—the laws that technically banned or outlawed Falun Gong—and then other groups were added into that pot, I would say, later—actually happened in October 1999, after the party apparatus had already started. And the term in Chinese is—(speaks in Chinese)—so it’s like, evil religion, or heterodox religion—there was actually some rumors saying that it was maybe even a Western PR firm that advised the government to use the word “cult,” in order to kind of designate this community, and again, other banned religious groups, as such.
When you look at, I think, people who are studying new religious movements, or religion in China, they’re pretty consistent in saying that Falun Gong isn’t a cult. It doesn’t have the trappings, there’s actually no money, there’s no clergy. It’s this very kind of grassroots-y kind of more personalized, very kind of decentralized, in terms of practice sites, and things like that.
So, I think when you look in the West, and a lot of times they’re—if you look at scholars of religion, there are certain criteria of how—is thought of as what might be a problematic community, or a community that separates people, or has abusive practices. As far as I’ve seen, many of—certainly Falun Gong, which I’ve looked at the most, and interacted the most with believers from that community—but even some of the other Buddhist or quasi-Christian sects that the Communist Party kind of clumps in that category, for the most part, don’t have those—don’t click—check those boxes—(laughs)—I would say.
Honestly, I think the Chinese government uses it for its own purposes. And I think it’s had a very problematic effect, not only for believers of those communities, who face brutal torture and abuse. But it’s actually really ramped up the party’s apparatus of surveillance, and—like, so many of the lessons learned from a crackdown of that size, that’s a nationwide crackdown on a particular group, have been spread to other communities.
So, I’ll stop there.
HEIMOWITZ: Well, no, I think that it brings up an interesting point. If we were to expand that to the greater society, do you think Chinese people are appreciative of their government cracking down on what they consider dangerous, cult-like movements? Or do they view it merely as oppressive government, trying to dictate—so what’s the role?
And I think that the jury’s really out. I think it’s somewhere along the spectrum. My own perspective is that you will find a lot of support in China for creating structure and order, and asking people to sort of play in their lanes, and be socially responsible as a community. So, I think that might be something that comes up.
COOK: Yeah, I mean, I would say, I think this is where the party’s propaganda apparatus comes into play, because actually, a lot of people knew people who practiced Falun Gong, or know people who are Christians, or have had some kind of interaction. And I think you see this cycle—and, in this case—there are actual fabrications that are done, just demonization, these special CCTV reports, you see it about protesters in Hong Kong. You see it about, now they’re targeting some of the Western consulting firms, and things like that. There’s a certain recipe. And I think that was actually one of the things the party really had to do in the late 1990s, was convince Chinese people that Falun Gong was—and these were somehow dangerous.
And I think that’s really where you also see the intersection between religion, and then the information controls, and who’s allowed to have a voice. Because I think it’s such a big—it’s such a diverse country and society. The perspectives of people who are religious believers, not only from a community like Falun Gong, but somebody who is going—whether it’s to a state-sanctioned church, or an unregistered church, or some people go to both—(laughs)—it might be quite different from other people who have never had these interactions, right?
And I think to Mayfair’s point earlier, is one of the things that we found in our research was this kind of—a bit of a prickly response—even among Buddhists, the communities that we think of having a more cooperative relationship with the Chinese Communist Party—against kind of ever-increasing and intrusive controls. And then all these various ways they try to kind of get around it, and still do their thing, but without having direct confrontation.
HEIMOWITZ: Thank you.
We brought up a little bit earlier, about the concept of colonialism and the role of religion.
And I’m curious—I think that there is some people that will say that the West, particularly the United States, uses the concept of religious liberty and individual liberties almost as a form of colonialism, of projecting Western values onto China.
And I wanted to ask Orville or Mayfair, do you think that we can use religion as a force to actually bring the two sides together? Or is it structurally so challenged that they will always interpret that as something that gets weaponized?
SCHELL: Well, I think it’s undeniable that, of course, Christianity is not native to China. And it came in on gunboats, and opium war, and all the rest of it. And that created a deep and abiding relationship, actually, though, between Europe, and United States, and China, with missionaries. I mean, who among you—we all have had family members who have partaken of that experience. So, that, I think, is true. That associates Christianity with being—Chinese love to divide things up into what is inside the country and outside the country. There is these expressions in Chinese, and of course Christianity comes from the outside.
The other thing I think is worth noting is that, of course, in dynastic history, what heralded the end of many dynasties were cults, uprisings of strange—White Lotus, Red Spears, Boxers—you could go down the list. So, of course, Chinese have an innate sort of autonomic response against that.
But I think the real problem for the party is that—it’s OK if you want to go off and burn some incense at a temple, and hope you get rich, or have a baby. But where they really go off the rails is when religion organizes. And of course, this is why they’re battling with the Vatican about who gets to appoint bishops. And this is why they cracked down on the Falun Gong, because what happened was the Falun Gong—I mean, I remember vividly, in the 1980s, they were promoting these kinds of religions, or cults, whatever they want to call them now. Why? Because they were native. They were indigenous. So they were pumping them up: Go, Qigong. Go Falun Gong. This is our cultural wellspring.
But then they came out, and they demonstrated in front of the main entrance into the party complex, and that was the end of it. Jiang Zemin said, that’s it. These people are heretics. These people are—they’re out of here.
HEIMOWITZ: Well, what you said, though, is really, it’s not fundamentally, from a Chinese perspective, about religion, or religiosity. It’s about governance. And it’s when the organized structures of religious institutions begin talking about governance, as opposed to talking about—like you said—the aspects of how you partake—where the conflict arises, I believe.
SCHELL: But James, it could be—you could also look at it from a different perspective, that yes, it’s spirit versus state, as you just described it. But we’ve seen many instances in history where it’s religion versus religion.
HEIMOWITZ: Many, too many.
SCHELL: You know, Islam versus Christianity.
So, it isn’t simply the secular versus the spiritual. The spiritual entities can go to war with each other too, and not—and be very intolerant and unaccepting.
HEIMOWITZ: Well, let me ask one last question—or let you comment.
YANG: OK, yes.
HEIMOWITZ: And then we’ll open it up. And I was hoping you might be able to touch a little bit—can religion, however we describe it, be something that unites the people, rather than divides them?
Well, starting with U.S.-China relations. (Laughs.) Which I am very worried about—
HEIMOWITZ: We’ll handle that in thirty seconds. (Laughter.)
YANG: If we want to talk about religion, and U.S.-China relations, I would say, a good way for United States to conduct religious diplomacy with China would be to send over delegations, and try to increase ties and connections with interfaith United States—not just talking about Christianity and the persecution of Christians in China. Of course, there’s persecution of Christians in China. But United States cannot tie itself just to this project when it wants to reach out. It also needs to reach out to all religions in China. You need to talk about the rights of all religions, including Buddhism and Taoism, and so on.
So, these religions, of course, suffer from lack of institutional autonomy in China. In fact, the lack of institutional autonomy for Buddhism, which is the biggest religion in China, and—the Western term “religion” is tied up with the history of Protestantism as an institutionally, sort of, unique thing, that people belong to, one at a time, just singularly identify with.
In China, really, the religiosity is a terrain where you have loose affiliations. You can be a Taoist, a Confucian, and a Buddhist, and a follower of a popular religion, the local cult of the local goddess, all at the same time. And Chinese also, at the grassroots level, they’ll go to Christian churches, even though they’re Taoist, or Buddhist, and make sure they cover all their bets—(laughter)—and pray to Jesus Christ, also, and make offerings to Jesus Christ. So, the word “religion” has a really Western European veilance. And it’s been imposed across the world. And it really doesn’t quite fit. So, we have to approach that word, religion, with a grain of salt elsewhere.
So, back to religious diplomacy. If the United States could also emphasize that it has Sikhs, and Hindus, and Buddhists, and people who follow ayahuasca, down in South America, shamanism, et cetera. There are so many religious affiliations, as well as organizations, in the United States. And then you can talk about religious rights and protections. And then you send—especially Buddhism and Taoism, there are Taoist practitioners, Qigong, martial arts, and so on, traditional Chinese medicine—all can be tied up with Taoism—and you link up with counterparts in China. That is a good way to go, so that the United States can emphasize its religious diversity. Because the Chinese have practiced, over the centuries, a lot of religious diplomacy. So, Buddhism is central to this, because it links up China with Southeast Asia, before modern times, with all the kingdoms of Southeast Asia.
Let me just tell you one wonderful story that I picked up at the grassroots level at a temple, major Buddhist temple in Zhejiang Province, called Tiantai Shan, which is the source of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, which is the largest Japanese Buddhist sect.
I think it was 1975, the monk at Tiantai— because a lot of the things that you get in China are called little-road information. They never appear in the official media, or in the commercial media. They are things that are orally transmitted, things that are slightly gray-zone, not quite acceptable, but not illegal. So this is something that is only orally transmitted, this story about diplomacy. So, in 1975, a Japanese Tendai Buddhist organization sent a letter to the Chinese authorities in Beijing, requesting a mission to visit Tiantai temple, OK? This is at the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, which was so destructive for all religious organizations across China. And Zhou Enlai intervened. So, Zhou Enlai is remembered fondly as somebody who protected a lot of antiquities, even though, of course, at the same time, he did some nasty stuff, too, which is generally not talked about.
But he decided he wanted to receive this delegation. In previous times, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution—(laughs)—no, stay away. We don’t want you. But he felt that the time was ripe to receive this Buddhist delegation. And he personally allocated state funds—I forget exactly how much, but it was told to me. It was a huge amount at that time. And he sent people to the temple to tidy it up mend all the holes in the walls, and repair as many Buddhas as you can, images and statuary, and shelve the ones that are totally destroyed. And he also ordered that giant bronze lions, and big, huge urns from the Forbidden City in Beijing, which had nothing to do with Buddhism—(laughter)—be shipped by rail down there, to make everything look nice, to disguise all the destruction, and to show that Buddhism was alive and well. And the Japanese delegation came, and they were well-received, and so on.
So, this is an example that religion, which symbolizes, for most people around the world, peace, and purity, and good faith, and good ethics, can be used to tie different hostile, or contentious, conflictual nations together. And the Chinese have used this, continuing to today, to promote better relations with Southeast Asia and other places.
HEIMOWITZ: Thank you for that.
I think we’ve touched on broad, different areas of how religion can interact. I mean, it’s a big, big topic, because it’s really defines us as people.
So, now, we’ve got a remaining, about a half-hour or so. Maybe we can open it up to the audience, and let us explore some of the topics that are of interest to you.
So, why don’t we start all the way in the back—and I’ll try to get to as many as we can. The lovely lady with the glove on her hand, why don’t we—I know you’re a Confucius expert, right?
TUCKER: Thank you. Mary Evelyn Tucker at Yale. These are broken wrists; this is not—(laughter)—fashion.
HEIMOWITZ: I thought it was—
TUCKER: No, but thank you. Thank you for this wonderful panel.
And my question—I have an interest, with many other people, in the religions of China, in terms of the environment and protection, and so on, particularly Confucianism, which is my own area.
So, I would just love to have anyone who wants to comment on the efficacy of these religions, which do have use of nature, and a sensibility quite different from the Western religions—to see what your sense is, of their possible efficacy and so on. Pan Yue, the minister for the environment years ago, was very, very positive about this possibility.
So, a revival of religions for environmental protection and so on, love to hear your comments.
HEIMOWITZ: Who would like to grab that? Mayfair, OK.
YANG: I’m sorry to intervene, because I edited a book called Chinese Environmental Ethics.
So, Chinese religions have a great deal to offer the whole world. And so, Buddhism is especially ripe with—all of the religion, Buddhism and Taoism especially, I’d say, and also Confucianism. Confucianism is a bit more human-centered. But Buddhism and Taoism, they start with this whole idea of Buddhism, endless tulpas, and reincarnation, and especially vegetarianism, because our giant factory food farming of meat. So, the latest figures was United States is one of the top three or four nations with the consumption of meat annually, a hundred kilos per capita, per year. China is somewhere in the middle, forty-five kilos. India is the lowest, is three-point-something kilos a year.
So, Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism—not all Buddhisms are vegetarian. But Chinese Buddhism very much is vegetarian. The monks and nuns have to be vegetarian. And then there is a compassion towards all sentient beings, because this cycle of reincarnation to six paths of sentient beings in the afterlife. So, all sentient beings are usually thought of as animals—not so much plants—all sentient beings could be one of your ancestors. They are kin.
So, there’s this notion of kinship amongst all sentient beings. And there’s been a revival of the ancient Buddhist ritual of releasing animals, releasing life, where you go to the marketplace, you purchase some—a wild-captured animal, like a bird or a fish, or a turtle, and in a Buddhist ceremony, you release it back into the wild. Of course, these days, it creates all kinds of problems, because it’s globalized. So you may be purchasing a nasty snapping turtle or fish from Latin America or Africa, and you release it into Chinese waters. That creates a lot of problems. So there needs to be better ecological education, scientific education. So, the two can get married together, religion and science. And that’s good, I think.
So, that’s an example.
HEIMOWITZ: OK. Just as a reminder—we’re not at a regular council meeting—introduce yourself and say what organization you come from.
We went to the back; why don’t we go somewhere in the front. This gentleman.
KNOTTS: My name is Bruce Knotts, and I represent Unitarian Universalism at the United Nations.
I spent a lot of time both in Korea and Taiwan, and in China, and I actually worked a lot on same-sex marriage, to get it passed in Taiwan. And I faced a great deal of opposition from the Christians in Taiwan. And I also am very aware of Christianity in Korea. And it seems to be Christianity of the 1950s, seems to be what applies in both Korea and Taiwan.
And I’m wondering if the Christianity that China sees on its border, i.e. Taiwan and Korea, if that gives them a certain impression of Christianity that might be quite different, had they been able to understand Christianity in the United States, which tends to be more liberal.
COOK: It’s going on today in the United States. What are you talking about? (Laughs.)
KNOTTS: Well, this is true. Yes. Yes. All right. Point taken.
But I’m just wondering if there’s any interchange between the countries, when it comes to religion.
HEIMOWITZ: Want to take that? Do you know, or?
COOK: Between Taiwan and China?
COOK: I mean, I honestly don’t know as much in terms of the Christianity side of it, as much as the Buddhist. I mean, one of the big Buddhist foundations in Taiwan often goes, for instance, to offer a leaf after earthquakes, and things like that. I think if you talk about soft power, it’s very effective—(laughs)—right, and really, I think, ties those links together, also in terms of Fujian Province. So, I don’t know as much.
When we were doing our research—actually, Hong Kong, in terms of Christianity, was very interesting, because back then, of course, Hong Kong was freer than it is now. But you would actually have—because of the restrictions—this is one of those, black-market, how that works, right—restrictions on who can become clergy in China, and how many people can study to be a clergy member—people actually would start doing online courses from Hong Kong—(laughs)—and I think that’s something now that the party has kind of shut down. But I think, in terms of maybe how some of those interactions happen in that influence that might be—I don’t know as much about Taiwan and Korea, especially in terms of Christianity.
HEIMOWITZ: Can I interrupt and say, so you specifically mentioned about same-sex marriage. And I think government sees itself as trying to represent the values of society. And, like every other government, it’s struggling with that, and trying to come to grips with changing values and mores, and what it means. But I don’t necessarily see it deeply intertwined with religions, per se, even though religious organizations may have their own views.
Sorry, we got all over. How about the gentleman right here in the maroon. We’ll try to get to as many as we can, so we’ll keep the—
GANDHI: Thank you. I am Homi Gandhi, from Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. And thank you for brilliant research, which you guys have done and presented over here.
My question relates to Zoroastrian faith. Has that been practiced, or have you seen it’s been practiced in the past in China? Because the recent artifact, which was sent back to China, reflected a Zoroastrian motto in that. So, have you seen anything which has happened in the past?
YANG: Zoroastrianism was brought into China. There used to be many temples. And actually, the Ming Dynasty, which means brilliance, brightness, is most likely named after Zoroastrian ideas. So, I know that in my area of fieldwork, Wenzhou, there is still a temple. I never visited it, but there is a temple of Zoroastrianism. But it’s not very big at all. It’s very marginal, very tiny, tiny. Yeah.
HEIMOWITZ: OK, we’ll try—how about this gentleman here.
GOPIN: Mark Gopin, nice to meet all of you. And thank you for your wonderful research.
Dr. Mayfair, I just want to ask you—but also maybe Sarah—there’s an agenda globally on human rights and persecution. So, the frontline here question, where the rubber hits the road, is why has Tibetan Buddhism been so severely persecuted and displaced? Why particularly the Uyghur people? And what can we do differently, diplomatically, both people-to-people, as well as states, than the current, why are you doing this to them? Because clearly, it has the opposite effect, very often.
Just as an example, I was once in Dubai, and I was at a wonderful interfaith conference. And there was an ambassador from China. We’re having this deep conversation on Confucianism, and all of these things. And then I happened to mention an idea I heard from the Dalai Lama, when I was on a panel with him. I turned around, and he was gone. It was like—(laughs)—as soon as I mentioned the Dalai Lama’s name, he disappeared. He literally ran out of the hall.
So, what is this? And is there some way around this, based on your knowledge, the two of you especially—
HEIMOWITZ: —about religion or—
GOPIN: —on what to do differently than we’re doing now, in terms of that persecution?
COOK: Yeah. Do you want me to take it first or do you want to go first?
HEIMOWITZ: Why don’t we let Orville go? He hasn’t had a chance.
COOK: (Laughs.) Yeah.
HEIMOWITZ: And then we’ll—
SCHELL: I think the problem that Tibetan Buddhism ran into was the ambiguous status of Tibet, that during the interregnum of the Second World War, it gained a relatively high degree of, sort of, independent status, so that when Mao Zedong came back into power in 1949, one of his primary goals was to reunify the empire of the Qing Dynasty, which meant Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
So, the Dalai Lama got wrapped up in this independence movement. And that sort of, I think, tarnished Tibetan Buddhism, because it became the kind of spiritual engine of the whole Tibetan, sort of impulse. And the party has cracked down very, very hard.
I’d say that Tibet is sort of drifted off from being, sort of Ground Zero, now that Xinjiang has taken up—it sort of sucks all of the air out of the room, there. They’re beating up on the Muslims, not the Tibetans. But the Tibetans are pretty well brought to heel. And it is, I think, because of the ambiguous status of Tibet as a—as a high degree of autonomy, or possibly independence, which they pin on the Dalai Lama. They won’t believe what he says, that he’s not for it. But they just believe that’s where he’s going, just like, I think Taiwan is wanting, covertly, to be independent.
HEIMOWITZ: And then, again, is it a question of religion? Or is it a question of—
SCHELL: I think it’s—
HEIMOWITZ: —using a religious organization for—or religion—political structural—
SCHELL: I think these things conspire together. And it’s very neuralgic for the Chinese Communist Party to have bits and pieces of its real estate want to spin out into some state of autonomy, or independence.
COOK: I mean, I would say that—I think it also goes back to Orville’s previous point about the loyalty, and if you place any kind of loyalty above the Communist Party, and I think just the devoutness.
As repressive as Tibet is, I think you see these little bits of—people still know who the Dalai Lama is, and people do have faith in him, and information kind of seeps in. And again, it varies depending on if you’re in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other parts of China.
In terms of looking at the regulation of Tibetan Buddhism, this is where the CCP is trying to do this thing, where it’s trying to, like, X out the Dalai Lama, and that influence from Dharamsala, but still allow practice of Tibetan Buddhism, lighting of incense, and having the temples.
And actually, if you look, there are a number of kind of Tibetan Buddhist seminaries that have become—became very popular among Han Chinese, Larung Gar. And actually, what we’ve seen these abbots with 2 million followers on Weibo, and things like that. That’s one space where the Chinese government has been cracking down in the last few years. So, again, there’s always those cracks.
To your question about how do we deal with this internationally, look, when you look at it, there are so many different incentives in the incentive structure. And so much of what the CCP is trying to go from the top, and create these incentives, down to what Mayfair was saying. And I think the question is, and the challenge that peoples from these communities face—and I think U.S. policymakers, or a group like Freedom House—is, how do you adjust those—how do you tweak those incentives in a way that maybe protects, or makes people think twice, or has cost-benefit analysis? And personally, I think that these individualized sanctions against particular officials, particular companies, can be very important, as well as—and this is a tricky one because you have so many religious prisoners in China—but naming individual names. Because having talked to people who got out, they were protected. And sometimes, not only were they—maybe they weren’t released early, but they weren’t tortured the way somebody else was. And in some cases—it was forced labor—one fellow who came out of a labor camp in Beijing, because he was on an Amnesty International list, asked for protective gear, and they gave it to him. And they gave it to everybody in the workshop. Those are small wins, but that saves lives.
And when you talk to people who are—one of the things where you see this kind of interaction between the diaspora, and people, believers, in China, they’ll be—and people will pick up the phone, and call local officials. The Christians do it; the Falun Gong practitioners in Taiwan do it. And the local people in China will say—and both when U.S. sanctions and when Xi Jinping purges these top officials from the security apparatus, they tell the local officials, look, your boss just got punished. Who’s going to protect you? Actually, again, anecdotally, people get released, or they turn a blind eye, or there is that variation at that local level, and some maneuverability. And anything that can be done to push things in a direction that protects peoples’ space for practice—and really, again, saves lives—is very potent. I think more than symbolic statements, or other sometimes more inflammatory rhetoric that we hear, but some of those elements can be very impactful.
HEIMOWITZ: Oh, did you want to make a comment?
Just briefly, I do think it’s primarily the Tibet—the hot-button place is Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. I think it’s primarily territorial sovereignty. So, it’s about land, real estate, and the building-up of the nation state.
So, before the modern nation state was introduced into China from the West in the nineteenth century, China was an empire. So, empires are not very particular about the boundaries and the borders. And so, Tibet had a great deal of autonomy. Chinese did interfere in Tibetan affairs, and tried to affect the selection of the Dalai Lama, or the Tibetan king. But the boundaries were not—it was fluid.
And so nation-state creates lots of problems. We see in the Middle East, right, with the state of Israel, and so on, before, a lot of people were living barely—basically coexisting peacefully. But once you have the nation state, you have national identity, national loyalties, that are demanded, and unification of the language, unification in many places, of religion, in developing nations, and so forth. So, a lot of new problems crop up with modern nation states.
The other thing about—so, modernity, these issues are introduced—I wanted to address your dividing line, between the heavy-duty atheism and materialism of the Chinese Communist Party, and the general human needs for spirituality. Got to remember historically, that this whole materialism was introduced from the West. Marxism, Leninism, was introduced from the West. Chinese who visited United States in the 1980s for the first time were just shocked. How come you have so many Christians here, still living—Christianity is still going, and so many churches. Because they thought the United States was the most modern. How come you haven’t gotten rid of all this stuff? So, now, Chinese are much more cosmopolitan, and globalized.
And so, if you can remove the external threat that the United States poses, and not be so overbearing, I think you remove a lot of that instinctive, kind of old, Maoist, kind of extreme atheism and belligerence. So, that’s what I have to say.
COOK: I would just say—one last thing, is that I think the Xinjiang situation does pose a real—because we’re talking about crimes against humanity, and even possibly genocide. And it’s happened so quickly. I mean, it’s long been repressed. In between when we did this research in 2016, 2017, and the situation now—and I think that poses a particular challenge and level of severity, especially when you’re then also talking about a permanent member of the United Nations, and things like that.
So, I think again, there’s a lot of religious freedom, and space to practice in a lot of parts of China. But I think one of the challenges, when we’re looking, is also when the abuses are so severe, and they kind of tip a certain point what, as an international community, should we be doing to try to stop it?
YANG: But United States has to organize, and communicate with other Islamic nations to do this challenge.
COOK: Mmm hmm. Yeah.
YANG: If the United States just steps forward and talks about Xinjiang, it seems, to the Chinese, very disingenuous. Oh, all of a sudden, you care about Islam. So it’s best—(laughter)—
COOK: Yeah, absolutely.
YANG: You’ve got to talk with all those Islamic nations. Like, Turkey is very important, because Uyghurs—their language is 75 percent understandable in Turkey. They originally were Turkic people. So, you’ve got to talk with Turkey.
COOK: And you have the Uyghur diaspora speaking to people in Malaysia and Indonesia. I mean, I think that’s where you get other types of CCP influence, that there’s a battle in Indonesia, in terms of the Muslim organizations. Are they going to speak out against the Uyghurs, or are they going to talk about—because again, there are also Muslims in parts of China that have more freedom. It’s getting tighter for the Hui, but it’s—again, it’s very complicated.
And so, that’s one of the things, if you talk to Uyghurs, or Uyghur-Americans, including people who have family in the camps, they’re very disappointed with the parts of the Muslim world, including, not just the Arab world—and Saudi Arabia had these agreements—I mean, the Uyghurs get deported from the UAE back to China, right? Pakistan, back to China. These are Muslim countries that are deporting refugees back to China.
I would say, places in Southeast Asia that are Muslim, and there’s a real effort, I think, by the diaspora, to try to get them to be more outspoken.
HEIMOWITZ: Let’s go to the middle. I’ll try to—OK, sure. Yeah.
WHITNEY: Larry Whitney, National Museum of American History, and the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston.
Obviously, early in Chinese communism, a very strict repression and removal of Confucianism was undertaken. Much more recently, there’s been a change in the Chinese Communist Party to a real embrace of Confucius, and Confucianism as characteristic of Chinese culture, and the source of Chinese culture.
It’s challenging because Confucianism doesn’t look like the other religions. It’s an implicit form of religiosity. If you go to China and ask people whether they’re Confucian, you’ll get a few tenths of a percent of people saying yes. But then if you ask other questions—as Anna Sun has done in her surveys—about ancestral rights, and filial piety, and things like that, you get huge numbers.
So, Confucianism is obviously a big player. It’s now being embraced by the Chinese Communist Party. How does that change the analysis in China, both with respect to Marx’s materialism—and how that’s meshing with, and maybe adjusting that—and in terms of how it could signal changes of the Chinese Communist Party, with respect to other religions?
But then also, how does that play, in terms of how we, in the United States, look to interact with China around issues of religious freedom, given this is a really implicit form of religiosity, which doesn’t map to our conception of religion here?
HEIMOWITZ: Again, what defines religion? And who gets to define that?
SCHELL: Yeah, I mean, I think Confucianism is a kind of a strange form of religion, in the terms of, I think, what you all, probably, your faiths, it is a very secular—and I think the party did try to destroy it, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, because it was, in essence, a protectorate of the family and the clan, which was—as we suggested earlier—a different kind of—the loyalty to the family and clan, that the party wanted to see transfer to the revolution and the party.
But since then, they’ve sort of tried to create a simulacrum of Confucianism, brought it back, put the electrodes on the corpse, and see if they can make it sit up. It hasn’t been tremendously successful. In fact, there’s a kind of a joke that Confucius believed in harmony. And when the party wants you to shut up, the Chinese say they’ve been harmonized, and they use this Confucian term. So, I don’t know whether we’re really going to see Confucianism come back full-tilt.
But that’s not such an issue for China, because it’s also native. It’s theirs. I think where we run into real trouble is not so much around Buddhism—even Taoism, if you want to be Taoist, fine—it’s Western religion and Islam, are the big bogeymen that they’ve got to deal with, because they have massive global structures. And once you get that needle in your arm in China, you have real competition. You’ve got structure-to-structure competition going on.
HEIMOWITZ: And I also think that it’s totally compatible to speak in China of Confucian values as part of Chinese culture, the way that you often hear people in the West talk about Judeo-Christian values, separate and different from the religions and the structure of the—religious structure.
SCHELL: Except, James, just a quick footnote. I mean, Confucian values are harmony. Marxist values are struggle. There’s an antithesis there that is undeniable.
HEIMOWITZ: Well, we have complex issues that contradict each other. And we have to live with those contradictions, right?
COOK: I would just say, I think it’s one example of this kind of opportunistic use of religion, when it’s convenient to the party. I think that’s where you could see that—and there’s so many examples of—they host a Buddhist conference, and things like that. The party’s approach is to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks that religion entails, for the party. And that’s the lens through which it sees it. And I think this is one example.
YANG: I think that there are many kinds of Confucianism in China today. Historically, Confucianism was aligned with the state. It became a kind of state religion. And to begin with, Confucius was already fairly, like a pre-modern, secular form, kind of like Protestant Reformation, in some ways. But except that it was highly ritualized, very into ritual, and all of the Confucian classics are about ritual.
But it was absorbed into the state, and it combined with a statecraft philosophy called legalism, which is highly utilitarian, and it’s all about punishment and power. So, it then combined with the state and lasted for two thousand years, and until modern times.
But then, now, what the Communists are doing with Confucianism, you have official state Confucianism. But you have grassroots Confucianism, where ordinary people are voluntarily starting up Confucian schools to circumvent the public school system. I visited one of these schools to look at grassroots Confucianism in action. It’s quite different from official Confucianism, which is kind of like a top-down, namely emphasizing doctrine, OK? Whereas the grassroots, they understand the true spirit of Confucius, which is about ritual. And this school was actually teaching students how to do ritual. These students come across China to the hometown of Confucius. That’s where I went. And they teach how to do ritual, how to do archery, how to play musical—traditional Chinese musical instruments. It’s the full works, plus ethics. And most of the parents are concerned with the public schools. Their ethical systems, they said, are really not good.
So, they want their students—so, this is grassroots Confucianism, which is quite different. Yeah.
HEIMOWITZ: Come, why don’t we start with this lady, here.
FLANNERY: Frances Flannery, BioEarth. And we are a 501(c)3. It says LLC. I’m not sure why. (Laughs.)
But what happens with China in terms of climate crisis is going to have an impact on the entire globe. And I’m wondering if you could say something about this tangled knot of China’s view of climate change, its responsibilities in terms of development. Of course, it’s become a leader in some areas of green energy. But how does religion fit into this already very complex Gordian Knot? And I’m interested—not just in what China wants to do in China, which of course, is huge, but also as Chinese interests in Africa grow. If you could speak to that, that would be so helpful. Thanks.
HEIMOWITZ: And I think it’s important, as we have this context, that whether we like it or not, in this room, China is here, and it’s going to be part of the future of the planet. So this is really an important question. So, who would like to take that?
SCHELL: Well, listen. Climate change is the issue of issues, isn’t it? And how it dovetails—and China is the largest carbon emitter; we are the second-largest carbon emitter. This creates an incredible imperative. How religion plays into this is a kind of a very difficult and elusive topic. I mean, obviously, I think for many people in Western civilization, the idea of God’s creation of the planet—how lovely is thy dwelling place, Lord God of hosts—is meaningful.
I don’t think that’s exactly the way most Chinese would approach it, although there is that Taoist tradition, insofar as it still survives, which probably venerates nature. But of course, the Promethean spirit of China’s sort of development energy to surpass the West, is very powerful. And I would say that trumps almost everything. And that’s why, at the same time, they’re making tremendous strides in renewable energy and whatnot, they’re also building more coal-fired power plants around the world. And I don’t see any great big spiritual movement in China which is going to mitigate that.
COOK: I think the tricky—the thing I would add is that you end up with this intertwining, because, of course, the Tibetan plateau is very important. And some of the altercations and repression that happened don’t have to do with religion. It has to do with locals trying to protect certain parts of the environment. You end up with this extra-complexity, if we’re talking about green energy, because actually, some of the solar companies are apparently using Uyghur forced labor. So then you end up with the other element, which is the CCP is—because we need to talk to China about this, but there are also things that the Chinese government is doing that we find unpalatable, the Chinese—they’re just very good at combining issues, right? They use the leverage where they have it, and they’ll get you to not say this, to undo this on that, that they don’t want you to do related to human rights, or related to something else. Otherwise, they won’t even, maybe, sit at the table.
And I think that’s a tricky thing that, honestly, not just the U.S., but I think Western governments——it’s a very real challenge. And I think being as cognizant as possible of trying to find the leverage, and to allow for that is very important. Just to go back to James—where we kind of started—if you look long term, there actually is a lot of commonality of values between people in China, especially religious believers, but not only. I mean, one of the most popular, and then rapidly censored, movies was Under the Dome, that a young woman created and went viral, and then got censored on these kinds of issues.
But you do have the Communist Party in charge there. And I think that’s the real challenge—and that’s who controls it. That’s who’s going to come to international climate meetings. They’re going to make sure that only the civil society of the groups that can join are the GONGOs, right, the government-organized, non-governmental organizations. And you see this at the UN.
I think that’s one of the real challenges for—and priorities for governments, and for others, is to try to find ways to bring in these other voices from China that are not just the Chinese Communist Party. But even here in the United States, there’s a Uyghur-American Association. There’s a lot of Tibetan organizations. There’s Chinese Christian churches. There’s Falun Gong for meditation sites, and things like that. Some of that is from the diaspora, and it’s more easily accessible than people in China.
But long term, and when you talk to believers who, some of them have faced horrific persecution, or are the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile—they talk long term. They’re like, in fifty years, we’re going to still be around. Is the Communist Party going to be around? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, we’ll see. (Laughs.) They just had their centennial.
But I think sometimes, it’s very inspiring, actually, to think about the long-term view, and the commonalities, especially if there were to be a China that did not have the Communist Party.
HEIMOWITZ: Well, I think we could go on.
HEIMOWITZ: We have touched on so many really interesting topics. And there’s so many more questions I wish we could get to. But that’s the thing. We’re sort of sparking more interest and more discussion.
And we have about ten or fifteen minutes now where we can all go to break, we can interact with each other and discuss—continue informally. But some of the things that we talked about—the next session: Climate, Food, and Water Security—is going to be back here in fifteen minutes, at 10:15. So I encourage you all to grab some more caffeine, and we can continue the discussion informally.
And a big thank you to all of you, and to the panelists. (Applause.)
SENGUPTA: Good morning, everyone. I want you to just admire my ancient cane that I will put somewhere over here. Thank you for your patience. Took me a few extra minutes to come up these stairs.
I am Somini Sengupta. I’m the global climate correspondent for the New York Times, and I anchor our climate newsletter, which is called “Climate Forward.” Shameless pitch. Feel free to sign up. You will get a letter from me twice a week in your inbox.
So I am delighted to be here today for some real talk because the subject of our session is climate, food, water. Food and water. I mean, the most basic aspects of human life now increasingly up ended in various ways, first by COVID, then by war, and then, of course, all the while with climate change sort of pressing a heavy thumb on the scale, supersizing and multiplying threats.
So I’m delighted to introduce an all-star panel, really.
Patricia Parera to my immediate left, originally from Cordoba, Argentina, now a research fellow with the Center for Climate and Security at the Council on Strategic Risks. She describes herself as an on-the-ground person. She’s been at the World Bank. She’s been at the Food and Agriculture Organization at the International Fund for Agricultural Development. So looking forward to your on-the-ground observations and analysis.
Next to her, Lauren Herzer Risi comes to us originally from Orange County, close to my heart since I’m from Southern California. Lauren is now the program director of the environmental change and security program at the Wilson Center in Washington, and the managing editor of New Security Beat. It’s a series of podcasts exploring the unintended consequences of climate risks, climate responses.
And, finally, Caitlin Welsh to my far left, comes to us from Erie, Pennsylvania, originally, and now is the director of the global food security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, has a decade of experience in the U.S. government, including in the National Security Council and the State Department’s Office of Global Food Security.
So welcome to all of you. Welcome to all of you. We’re going to do a round of questions, really, a conversation with the panel and then open it up for what I hope will be a robust discussion with all of you. So please prepare your questions—emphasis on questions, please.
So, Patricia, I would love it if you would set the scene for us. How is anthropogenic climate change—human-made climate change—affecting food and water security in a place you know? Take us to a part of the world that you know, tell us what you see on the ground, and tell us how you see communities adapting.
PARERA: OK. Great. Thank you to be here and very honored to be here.
I want to start first with some numbers. Eight hundred and twenty-eight million people are suffering from food insecurity right now. That means four in every five in the world are hungry. In Afghanistan, six hundred million people are one step away from famine.
So it doesn’t look—(laughs)—good. And actually, we have—(audio break)—down and regarding the Sustainable Development Goals, we were better off when we started in 2015 than we are right now. And of course, that is the impact of war in Ukraine, other instability/insecurity in other regions, the food price inflation, and the triple increase in fertilizers.
If I have to think about the impact of climate change in an area I have most of my experience, I lived for almost six years in Nicaragua working for the World Bank there. I lived in Jamaica and other places, work in Guatemala. So I have worked a lot and with the poorest of the poor. That’s my focus, or was my focus until now that I work for the Center for Environment and Security. And what I see there are people, small farmers mostly and indigenous peoples, they don’t call it climate change. Some of them probably do, but they do know that something really bad happened because they cannot program. They cannot follow their traditional ways of cultivating, harvesting, et cetera. They know that they have too much water or no water at all. The women, especially women and girls, know that they have to walk further and further to get that water, which that brings also other issues of consideration like violence against women.
So it’s getting harder for them and it’s not new. I think all of this, if we look at it now, yes, we have this great concern about climate change. But I think we should have a holistic look at what’s going on and it’s environment, sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability. And I think the social sustainability part is the one that has been left behind a little bit. And with that important—and especially now that we are in this forum but is religion and foreign affairs.
When you think about it, if you don’t have social cohesion, if you don’t have inclusiveness, if you don’t have empowerment, agency for women, it’s very difficult to try to implement—to decide and implement policies that are going to be accepted by people, especially if they don’t take into consideration their cultural norms, their systems of beliefs, et cetera.
So what I see is people suffering more increased hunger and difficulties. Just to give you an example, in Nicaragua—I don’t know how familiar you are with Nicaragua, but Nicaragua has a central government and has autonomous regions on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and that’s mostly made by Mayagnas, Miskitos, and other indigenous groups.
SENGUPTA: Indigenous groups. Yeah.
PARERA: So, for instance, to go and visit people there, first of all, they don’t have access to electricity, to water. It’s very scarce and when they have it it’s contaminated, et cetera. But it will take us up to six to seven hours in a canoe to get to those villages. They don’t have health centers. So it’s extremely, extremely difficult for them.
In spite of that, they’re happy. (Laughs.) They have this sense of community that is so important but it’s—I don’t think policymakers in general grasp the reality that these people have to face on the ground and I—
SENGUPTA: I’m glad you raised water because that is how many communities around the world are already experiencing climate risks. Too much water, too little water, water at the wrong time which washes away the crops, which then leads to higher food prices, food insecurity.
PARERA: If I may say something.
PARERA: Now it’s becoming very popular, this thing, is: Water security equals food security. Food security equals national security. Without water, you can’t have food—(laughs)—or health. So interconnectedness.
SENGUPTA: I want to come back to that. Yes, I want to come back to that arc that you just painted for us.
Lauren, I want to turn to you. You wrote a report with a really intriguing title, “Foreign Policy is Climate Policy.” I want you to unpack that a little bit.
How is U.S. foreign policy taking climate risks into account? Can you give us one successful example, if you can call it that, and perhaps one example where it should have taken climate risks into account but didn’t?
RISI: Sure. So, yes, foreign policy is climate policy. This is a report we did to—the way I think about climate change is not climate change as an issue. It’s climate change is the context in which we’re making all of our decisions today, right?
So it’s going to change where and how we grow our food. It’s going to change where we live. It’s going to change the kinds of jobs that we have in the future and so it’s—the message from the foreign policy as climate policy was to policymakers to help them understand that even if you don’t think climate is part of your portfolio, it is and it will be, and it’s going to be increasingly so. And so how do you take those considerations into your analysis today?
I think the Biden administration on day one came out full force on climate change and recognized the need for a whole of government, whole of society response to climate change and the need to integrate climate change into trade policy, economic policy, food policy—how we engage with our allies and partners around the world.
And it’s not just thinking about the impacts of climate change and mitigating those impacts. It’s preparing for sort of our climate future but also how our responses to climate change are going to have impacts themselves, right, and we’ve seen that in sort of supply chain disruptions, the need for critical minerals, to power, solar, wind, defense systems as well.
So it’s not disconnected from what we’re seeing in Ukraine, and a lot of those critical minerals are located in sort of environmentally and socially vulnerable parts of the world that don’t have safeguards in place. And so how do we move forward into the future and not make the same mistakes that we’ve made in the past when it comes to extraction and when it comes to energy systems.
SENGUPTA: Can you give an example of that? How can we avoid the mistakes of the past?
RISI: OK, going back to this climate change as context, a lot of our focus is on how do you connect the scales of decision making. Climate change is something that the specificity of how it’s going to—how it’s going to impact a given place is hard to know, right?
But if you don’t have an understanding for a local community’s resiliencies and for how they perceive their own risks you’re not going to be able to make decisions at a higher level that are going to really build on those resiliencies and mitigate those risks, right?
And so I think a lot of it is connecting—having communities be part of the decision making process from takeoff to landing, right, and so having—sort of giving them a seat at the table to understand how those risks are playing out at the local level.
I think a lot of our cobalt is sourced from DRC. So this is a country that is extremely fragile, that doesn’t have governance structures and institutions in place to protect communities and so how can—and this is something else that comes back to climate change and thinking about the context is how—we have to think about governance differently.
It’s not going to be state level interventions that get the work done on their own, right? It’s going to require going back to that whole of society. It’s going to require the private sector. It’s going to require civil society and NGOs and partnerships that we haven’t seen before and need to put in place to really support those communities.
The Biden administration has—is really trying to sort of build that scaffolding to create those partnerships and leveraging all of the tools we have, right? We have a U.S. Agency for International Development that is very active and present in DRC.
So how can our development assistance help to mitigate any of the challenges that come with extractives, right? How can we ensure that it’s not children that are going into the mines, that we’re providing schooling and education and health care for the communities in those areas?
I don’t know. Maybe I should stop there. (Laughter.)
SENGUPTA: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. OK.
I found it quite interesting. A few weeks ago there was an announcement from the State Department of a partnership with Zambia and DRC—
RISI: Right. Yeah.
SENGUPTA: —I believe, to encourage the production of batteries in country rather than what has been business as usual, which is extracting the mineral and making the batteries elsewhere. That is something that I know I’m watching.
RISI: Yeah. I mean, countries want to be part of the value chain, right?
SENGUPTA: And higher up the value chain.
RISI: Yes. Yeah. And so making sure that the sort of benefits of those resources stay close to home, right, that you’re not just pulling it out of the ground and sending it somewhere else. And this is not just a development problem. There’s a geopolitical implication, right?
SENGUPTA: Political dimension to this. Yes.
RISI: China has over 90 percent of the access to these resources and so for—at the sort of highest levels of geopolitical strategy, this is also finding ways to make sure there’s balance globally, right?
SENGUPTA: Uh-huh. Right.
RISI: —and diversifying that supply.
SENGUPTA: This leads really deftly into what I wanted to ask you, Caitlin. Rates of hunger have gone up quite sharply in the last two years. You gave us a stark statistic—828 million, which is a tenth of the global population, right?
So this is happening even as the world produces more than enough food, right? In fact, we waste food globally. So it’s not about production. It has rarely been about production. It’s about who gets it. It’s about distribution.
So I want you to play out whether you see food insecurity as a conflict risk either locally and, if so, where, but then take us a little forward. What’s the most effective way to respond? If food insecurity is a conflict risk what is the most effective way to respond to that?
WELSH: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for the wonderful question. It’s an honor to be here with this panel and I look forward to hearing from you and learning from you. An honor to be here at CFR and with this group in particular.
Excellent question, and I actually want to start out by giving a little bit of information about this number, this 828 million. It’s an estimate that’s put out once a year by a number of UN agencies. There are a lot of different ways to measure food insecurity around the world. That’s, simply, one.
The number of people who are at risk of famine, the most extreme forms of food insecurity, is lower than that. But if you look at the number of people around the world who cannot afford the least expensive form of a healthy diet it’s far greater.
So it’s 3 billion people so almost 40 percent of the world’s population. So it’s an enormous problem and I think that sometimes we underrepresent it by setting that one particular number.
SENGUPTA: That’s a really good point. That’s a stunning number.
WELSH: So in terms of food insecurity being a security risk, yes, I certainly do think that that’s the case. While I was still working at the State Department about five years ago or so we were hearing more and more often from outside organizations, such as the one that I work at right now—(laughter)—that food security is a national security issue, which in a lot of ways is useful to get policymakers’ attention.
But inside the State Department we actually work closely with the intelligence community to define a few of the specific ways that food insecurity abroad could affect U.S. national security and some of the ways that we decided on were pretty clear.
In certain regions food insecurity can be used by terrorist organizations to increase their ranks. So if the population is food insecure then the organization can offer food in order to increase their own ranks. The terrorist organization can appropriate a local community’s means of agricultural production to take over that food and, essentially, control agricultural production in places where those terrorist organizations are threatening to the United States.
Food insecurity can be an instigator of mass migration, unplanned migration. Not all the time. What you often see is that the people who can migrate, who are able to do it do that and those who are most impoverished are forced to stay where they are and, perhaps, suffer the worst consequences.
Regardless, food insecurity can be a reason that populations decide to migrate as we see to our southern border, as many European countries are seeing migration from many parts of Africa. Food insecurity can be one factor that contributes to social unrest that can lead to political unrest.
Oftentimes the Arab Spring is cited as the prime case study of where high food prices contributed to social and political unrest. I think it’s very important, though, to put that in context. It wasn’t only food insecurity that led to upheavals related to Arab Spring.
But at that point the global food prices had reached an all-time high and the period of price volatility and price spikes coincided directly with protests that led to regime change in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
So those are a few ways that food insecurity can affect U.S. national security. I think it’s important, though, not just to look outside the U.S. but to look within the United States, too, because there are many ways that populations within our own countries, as I’m sure all of you know, are experiencing food insecurity.
One project that my program did when I started at CSIS was looking at food insecurity in the U.S. military population both among U.S. veterans and among active duty military members and their families. We released recommendations for the U.S. government for a number of departments and agencies to address this problem.
After we released these recommendations the Department of Defense released its own findings for the first time ever that according to their own measurements food insecurity among active duty military families is nearly two and a half times higher the rate in the general population.
We see this as a security risk as well because it affects readiness of our military personnel, retention of personnel, and recruitment into the armed services as well. So I think it’s not just abroad, it’s also here at home, and what to do about it, it really depends on the context.
I think that there’s a growing awareness of the relationships among food insecurity and instability in many different forms. It really depends on the context that you’re looking at, be it a place where conflict is actively happening, a fragile area at risk of conflict, a place like the United States. I mean, it depends.
SENGUPTA: Since you gave us that extraordinary statistic about food insecurity among military families so one takeaway, like, or one main recommendation on how to address that and was that recommendation taken?
WELSH: (Laughs.) It was fascinating for me to work on this issue and the more distance I have from it in some sense the more clarity I have around this issue. There’s a lot of conversation around a very technical fix to SNAP—to, essentially, food stamps. There’s a technicality that disqualifies many families from participating, and it should be an easy fix to make and I’d be happy to dig into that.
That, to me, is the Band-Aid. The food banks that are located near every military installation around the country that’s a Band-Aid as well. We saw that a lot of the reason that military families were food insecure was related to the fact that they were relying on one income, that the military spouse was unable to keep a job.
When that’s the case, again, you’re relying on one income. Every time you move, you have to seek and find childcare again. You have to incur moving expenses, et cetera. So to me, one of the most important long-term fixes was to change the culture around constant moving, constant—permanent change of station, and I heard from speaking with some inside the military that there is a slow culture shift. But I think the more families are able to stay in one place and benefit from their own community then I think that we would see reductions in food insecurity.
All of that to say that I think that oftentimes when you think of food insecurity and ways to address it the answer to folks can often be provide more food, build a food bank, grow more food, et cetera. But when you really dig in there are other challenges that you need to address first.
SENGUPTA: Could I ask—and any of you can jump in on this—we’ve seen some weaknesses exposed in the global food system supply chain in the last few years, first by COVID, then, certainly, by the war.
Give us your sense of that and what do you think needs to be fixed right away? A lot of wheat comes from one part of the world.
WELSH: Yeah. Those who look at agricultural markets and who have looked at the global agricultural markets for far longer than I have actually say that markets responded well last year, that yes, we saw immediate disruptions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reduced shipments of commodities out of the Black Sea, but that because markets are globalized to the extent that they are a lot of net food importers were able to shift to other sources.
So it’s important to make that point. The countries and the populations that are most at risk, though, are those that are less able to shift their import sources. Perhaps they don’t have the financing available. And within those countries it’s the families that have the least amount of money to procure food, even when food prices rise a little bit you see a shift away from more nutritious food to food that’s cheaper and that can have lifelong and generational impacts.
But in terms of solutions I did see some, I think, innovative solutions over the past year or so, one of which was a proposal that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization put out that the IMF ended up taking up in fall of last year, to actually provide financing for net food-importing countries to say, we know that you are at risk of food insecurity for so many reasons right now—Russia’s invasion, high fertilizer prices, global economic shocks, et cetera—so we’ll just give you money to afford the your food bill, essentially, and that’s—it’s new. It’s called the food shock window.
I think that makes a lot more sense than saying we’ll help you improve your agriculture sector. Well, that’s going to have benefits in years, not immediately, or we’ll provide emergency aid, which is incredibly costly. So I think that that, to me, was a smart, innovative response in the past year.
SENGUPTA: Quick comment?
PARERA: Well, I don’t know about quick but—(laughter)—I’ll try to—
SENGUPTA: Because I have a follow-up on Black Sea. So real quick.
PARERA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But I have to go back to your point on the military families and food security.
Unfortunately, if we are focusing on the domestic in the U.S., believe it or not, there’s food insecurity in colleges in the United States. And if you—(laughs)—I love it. I happen to know this because my husband did one of these research at Virginia Tech. So you can go to the Virginia Tech website—(laughs)—and students go hungry.
Now, regarding the supply chain and—in supply chains we have production, transformation, transportation, and marketing, right? So if any of those components get—
SENGUPTA: Disrupted. Yeah.
PARERA: —disrupted you don’t get access to your food or other goods. The difference, I think, that domestic versus international, and when I say international I’m talking about low and middle income countries, is that even if you have policies or strategies, whatever you want to call it, to adapt or to implement some of these policies they don’t have the fiscal space to be able to do it. They don’t have money.
And when the international organizations—and believe me, I have worked for the World Bank, at the FAO but FAO is not a bank. It’s a technical agency. IFAD is the same thing. Most of these financial assistance and we’re going to give you $100 billion that they didn’t deliver on that, this is not we give you. These are loans. They keep doing loans. And these countries, the low- and middle-income countries, are the ones who have contributed the least to climate change.
SENGUPTA: And the fiscal space is constrained in large part because of debt obligations.
PARERA: Mmm hmm. Exactly.
SENGUPTA: Yeah. I want to open up to questions and then come back to something that I want to ask all of you about the Black Sea grain initiative. I want to come back to that.
So can we have a show of hands, please? Please keep your questions as questions and not as commentary and please keep them short.
RISI: I did read their bios, though, and they have a lot of expertise. (Laughter.) There’s a lot of interesting—
SENGUPTA: I bet. OK. (Laughter.)
We’re going to take a question here and here. Let’s do two questions first and give the panel a chance to respond.
FOWLER: Good morning. I’m Mark Fowler at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
I was really interested in, from a development perspective, the idea of food security in the United States and how—if you’ve seen in research how does that affect extremism in the United States, white nationalism in the United States, and how do we actually—or is there research around changing the narrative of assistance? Because there’s so much kind of around the idea of giving people a handout, and those people.
So is there research around how to actually change that narrative so that people actually will get help when they need it?
SENGUPTA: Excellent question, and then a question here at this table.
MOHR: I’m Robin Mohr with the Friends World Committee for Consultation in the Section of the Americas.
And my question, actually, is to ask you what would be religious implications or aspects of this work? And I see that there’s both broad theological understandings of food and agriculture and security. But there’s also the—that religious communities are often the local practical solutions to food and water and agricultural problems and I’m wondering if you have some impact or reflections on how the religious community can be part of that solution.
SENGUPTA: Who wants to take which question?
RISI: I can get the second one. You can do the first, yeah.
PARERA: We can all—(laughs).
WELSH: I’m happy to respond to the first question which, I think, was an excellent question, one that I’ve never heard before and I think that you’ve given me a new area of research. So thank you very much.
Because actually where I work at the Center for Strategic and International Studies we do a lot of original research about domestic extremism and, no, I haven’t looked at that, at the relationship between food insecurity in the United States and domestic extremism.
I would guess that there’s an association and I think that one potential solution would be to reduce the stigma associated—maybe not necessarily a stigma, but the barriers to accessing federal assistance. And you hear a lot about the difficulty that’s built into accessing these services, that the bureaucratic cost is so high that far fewer people benefit from these programs than could. I think it’s something like 30 percent of the population that qualifies for SNAP, for food stamps, doesn’t even access it because of the difficulties.
The time cost is incredibly, incredibly high. There’s interesting research about the time burden as well. It takes so much time and for a family that’s taking care of children and working multiple jobs and et cetera, that, too, would deter a family from accessing those benefits.
So I think that to the extent that we can make that easier and less visible I think that—I’ve seen some or I’ve heard of some innovations in schools, for example, where it’s not as noticeable or maybe not even noticeable at all which students are benefiting from free and reduced price lunches.
But I think that making these programs much easier to access would just reduce the shame that people feel from having to do that and increase the sense that their government is actually helping them and not there to shame them and make them suffer more. Those are my thoughts. But thank you for asking that good question.
SENGUPTA: And we had a brief window where it was easy and that was during COVID.
WELSH: It was.
SENGUPTA: The ever so brief window. There’s a new book by Matthew Desmond that kind of goes into some of this, which I was very interested in.
WELSH: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And when I was asked the question during the pandemic what gives me hope my answer was often the child tax credit. We were expecting that it would reduce rates of food insecurity among children. It did. Then it expired. So I think that—yeah.
SENGUPTA: How about the second question about the role of faith communities?
RISI: Yeah. I mean, it has a big role, I think, because in many parts of the world, where people are going to feel climate’s impacts more acutely, the sort of traditional and faith-based and religious communities are sort of a pillar of strength in those communities, right, and a source of resilience, and have a lot to sort of have an important perspective to provide to people who are trying to bring investments into those regions and help sort of offset the impacts of climate change.
We’ve spent the last few years working with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on looking at ways to improve the predictive capabilities for climate security risks, right, so that we need to be thinking more preventative than sort of the Band-Aid approach, right, and because—climate’s impacts are sort of cascading and they compound existing risks, and if we don’t get ahead of it we’re always just going to be chasing it, right?
And so one of the things that has come out of that project, and we looked at five different case studies and the one I think that was the most impactful was in the Pacific Islands and the religious organizations there have sort of brought a really important perspective of the need to include local communities in decision making.
We need to—if we are trying to figure out what the security implications of climate change are, if we’re not connecting with local communities we’re going to miss the broader picture and in doing so we miss those opportunities to respond in different—like, if don’t have a big picture of how security risks are playing out you miss where there are entry points to respond, right, because climate change, it doesn’t—yes, we have to mitigate climate. But we also need to adapt to it and it’s not always going to be, like, sea walls or new crops, right?
It might be sending girls to school, right, because you’re trying to build sort of a more—a stronger community, right? It might be providing access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health services in some communities. It might be ensuring that, like, remittances can be sent back to a community in advance of a disaster to help sort of offset the implications.
We have a project focused on Northern and Central America and one of the researchers we’ve been working with in Guatemala has also talked about how some of the churches there have complicated—they have power in the communities and—
PARERA: For reproductive rights.
RISI: For reproductive rights. They are sort of connected to some of the corrupt aspects of government and have funds that go through the churches. So there’s—it’s a power dynamic no matter where you are. But I think that for a lot of communities where the faith-based organizations are a pillar that they need to be part of the discussion.
SENGUPTA: What you’re describing in Central America is also an issue increasingly in east Africa, the role of large Christian churches in that.
RISI: Yeah. Yeah.
SENGUPTA: Yes, please.
PARERA: I’m going to be very quick.
Regarding faith organizations, I was involved in a project in Honduras working with gangs and the project was environmental design to decrease or diminish crime, and actually the way that we could work there with gangs, and why do you have the gangs? I mean, I’m not excusing why they operate.
But you have youth who are—lack of sense of belonging, poverty, no work and no education, et cetera. So what we did we used the church or just to give it the general name, faith institutions, and they were the ones who really worked with us and the communities, and when I say us it was the World Bank again.
It was a small project but it was very, very successful and they became part of the project. So they had a sense of purpose and that they could work. So in those cases it was very, very useful.
When we talk about all these projects or ideas we have to consider short term versus long term and it shouldn’t be like that. We should address both, and some of the most effective ways to address food insecurity and others is social safety nets and social safety nets you can have cash transfers or in kind so the goods or services, et cetera, but also something that works really well—and I’m talking international again—it’s the work for food program.
So you have a community and people participate and they work for the food. I mean, it’s sad in a way but it’s a way for them to be involved, to have some income, and also work.
SENGUPTA: Next round of questions, please. At that table why don’t we take—yes, why don’t we take three questions at that table, please. (Laughter.) Very quickly and we’ll—
THOMAS: Jennifer Thomas—I’m the co-executive director for Mormon Women for Ethical Government.
One question I have for you is that I think traditionally faith groups, whether they’re institutions or smaller organizations that are adjacent to institutions, often have tried to provide aid or help with goods, right? Do you know of any other resources that either institutionally or on a smaller, local level that faith groups could tap into to help to try to do more systemic change? Or provide resources that allow people in place to kind of structurally change things so that they can meet their own needs in the face of kind of the tensions that we’ve been talking about related to climate change or other tensions?
BLUMOFE: Thanks. My name is Neil Blumofe. I’m a rabbi in Austin, Texas.
In the last couple of years, there’s been a run on generators in Austin because of our grid. How efficacious is it, the so-called alternative energies, to make a dent in some of the climate ways that we’re working and how possible would it be to have partnerships—which Texas, by the way, is a leader in wind energy—to work with developing or other countries to help?
EL-AMIN: Tariq El-Amin. I’m an imam of Masjid Al-Taqwa, Chicago.
Yesterday, there was a mention about as we move forward the United States will have to get used to engaging on equal footing. As it relates to climate and water, the food crisis, for those areas—you mentioned DRC earlier—in our tradition, it says the hand that does this is better than the hand that does this, right?
SENGUPTA: What’s it—I can’t see it. OK. There you go.
EL-AMIN: Yes. Right. So the one who gives is better than the one who receives, right? So as we work to augment food insecurity and encourage social sustainability the natural development of that is going to be communities that take more autonomy.
Are we prepared for or is the thought present as that develops and matures where you have people who—the relationships that we have now that are predicated on need, as that need changes or is there—or is it more about maintaining a certain relationship that—where need continues to exist?
WELSH: Yeah. That’s a good question.
SENGUPTA: Take it away. We have three quite distinct questions.
WELSH: I’m happy to jump in with an answer to the first question.
Thank you. Great question. I think that faith-based communities perform an incredibly important service all over the world in being first responders, in a sense, when it comes to food insecurity. I see examples of that everywhere.
Taking the example of food insecurity in the U.S. military, again, I would expect that a lot of faith-based communities are ones that are supporting food banks around military bases, for example.
Longer-term solutions really don’t have anything to do with the food banks. So I think simply seeking information, plugging my own policy brief but seeking out publications such as that that talk about longer-term solutions, having a conversation with a diversity of people because there will be some disagreement in terms of longer-term solutions. But there will probably also be some things that are common across the solutions that you find.
So I think it’s about maintaining those services that you are providing but also seeking more information and having a diversity of conversations that can inform a longer-term solution such as, again, in this case, something that’s unexpected but having to do with reducing moves that happen in the military, for example.
RISI: Can I add to that?
So the work that CSIS does in this space is really good and you guys have a voice in your—if you’re in the U.S. in your states, right, and, being able to communicate to your congressional representatives the importance of these issues. They’ll take it from CSIS but they’ll take it with more significance from you.
WELSH: That’s an excellent point. Thank you. Yeah. Yep.
SENGUPTA: And, Lauren, you were scribbling—
RISI: I was scribbling. Yeah.
SENGUPTA: —notes at the last question. Do you want to take that?
RISI: Yeah. I mean, OK. So U.S. foreign policy is always going to be focused on advancing U.S. interests, full stop. (Laughter.) I think it is in the U.S.’ interest to have strong partners and allies who are not reliant on the U.S. for whatever.
But and I do think that climate change is providing an opportunity to think differently about how we partner with countries around the world, right? There is something called the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment that the Biden administration has taken up with the G-7 that is meant to help support countries that don’t have access to renewable energy to get that access.
One of the pillars of that partnership is on gender equity, right? So they’re finding ways to integrate these very important issues that are not distinct in how they provide—I don’t know, develop—it’s not development assistance. It’s more than that.
But it’s also technical capacity, right, being able to share the U.S.’ knowledge with partners and allies. I think when you look at sub-Saharan Africa, when you think about where we’re headed the sub-Saharan Africa is the last rapidly-growing population in the world. It’s the most rapidly urbanizing and it also has a huge energy deficit, right?
And it’s not just a question of they’re sort of—it’s a big sort of justice and equity issue, right, and so they—these countries that have traditionally been left out of sort of these high-level conversations need to have a pretty significant seat at the table because how we partner with them and how we support their efforts is going to really define our collective future.
I think there’s an understanding of that in the current administration and so finding ways to leverage the different parts of the U.S. that can help build those capacities and help funnel investment. Private sector has a huge role in this as well. Those countries that are affected have a huge role in this as well because they need to have the structures in place to allow that investment to come in and ensure that it is sort of well placed. So I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question.
On the alternative energy, Texas is not connected to the federal grid, right? So that was a problem, and I think—(laughter)—the energy transformation is—it’s a huge undertaking and there are potential for unintended consequences, right?
And so having our eyes wide open as we take that transition is going to be really important. But there is an opportunity in having—Ukraine is doing this. They’re thinking about ways to—because Russia has targeted their energy infrastructure and their water infrastructure, right?
So they’re finding that if they can put in place alternative energy that is decentralized and not as vulnerable to impacts, right, they don’t—when one piece is attacked it doesn’t have the widespread effects that our traditional energy systems do. So there’s a lot of potential there. But it’s going to take some investment.
SENGUPTA: Yeah. I mean, the energy transition that is just getting underway in the United States is one of the most profound transformations, I think, that I will see in my lifetime. It is going to lead to—you’re already seeing this—it’s leading to some local debates, arguments, about whether there should be a solar array here or wind turbines there. That will continue to, I think, grow those kinds of tensions.
But the one thing that we, I think, have insufficiently understood, and my colleagues have written increasingly about this, is not just the turbines and the solar arrays but the grid. The state of our transmission lines is one of the weakest forms of infrastructure in the country and the grid upgrades that will be required, right, will hold to a large degree a key to whether this energy transition will be successful or not.
So it’s very wonky. But the grid in all of our communities is going to hold the key, to a large degree, for the success of the energy transition. Yeah. Super quick.
PARERA: OK. The alternative energy, thinking about developing countries, again, it all comes down to structural inequalities, all the issues that poverty is manmade, climate change partly manmade, et cetera. So when we think about alternative energy—
RISI: Entirely manmade, I think, the science would say.
PARERA: Well, yeah, and—
RISI: It’s anthropogenic climate change. Yeah.
PARERA: Exactly. We have to think of alternative energy for whom and who can have access, again, to it, who has the fiscal space to adopt alternative energies. And then in the process the transition is very important because you can leave a lot of people behind, as usual.
And I think that’s where public-private partnerships are very important. And just adding to the previous thing about participation, we have been talking about a human center approach and participation from communities from every relevant stakeholders for the last twenty years. So, hopefully, we will take it more seriously and have those voices represented, which, to me, is the voices of the people on the ground especially.
SENGUPTA: Mmm hmm.
I want to circle back to something that you raised, Caitlin, the Black Sea grain supply chain—grain and fertilizer. The price of fertilizer globally has tripled since the war, making it virtually impossible for many farmers—smallholder farmers—who have grown dependent on fertilizers to be able to buy them.
I just returned from a trip to Malawi and Uganda and saw this firsthand, smallholder farmers in Malawi who had been told by their government to grow maize and pump it up with fertilizer can no longer afford it and so on the fly they’re having to adapt in many ways and they are. In the middle of that comes this Black Sea grain initiative discussions that are underway mediated by the United Nations at the highest levels.
Can you take us a little bit into that? Why is it important and what do you see happening in the near term?
WELSH: Sure. Absolutely.
When Russia invaded Ukraine it appears that they had a very direct intention to attack all aspects of Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure, which they did. They put blockades across Ukraine’s Black Sea ports with the effect of reducing Ukraine’s agricultural productivity and reducing Ukraine’s exports.
One thing that I commonly hear in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine is that this is a classic use of food as a weapon of war. I disagree with that because I think that this is a first ever instance of food being used the way that it’s being used in this war because we’ve never seen in history a war between two agricultural powerhouses at a time when agricultural markets are globalized to the extent that they are.
So Russia sees every advantage in reducing Ukraine’s productivity and reducing their exports. For example, the less Ukraine produces and exports the more Russia can make up for that shortfall. Countries that import from the Black Sea are countries that are generally geographically close to that region because shipping times are lower, shipping costs are lower. So if you used to buy from Ukraine and you can’t now because their exports are 30 percent lower than last year it’s quite likely that you’re making up for that shortfall from Russia. So the less market share Ukraine has the more market share Russia has. Russia knows this.
Second thing is the less access Ukraine has to its ports along the Black Sea the more Ukraine is forced to ship through land routes, and as we saw in the past month or so this is sowing disagreement among Ukraine’s bordering countries.
Grain is getting stuck in those countries, causing local prices to fall. Farmers are protesting, rightfully so, and this is sowing disagreement among UN member states—sorry, EU member states. Russia sees an advantage in this as well.
The Black Sea grain initiative was put into place in July of last year, started up—started being active in August last year. It was in recognition of the importance of Ukraine’s agricultural exports to global food security—actually, two separate agreements, UN, Turkey, and Ukraine, UN, Turkey, and Russia.
Since then about thirty million metric tons of grains have been exported from Ukraine, which is a success. It’s very important to recognize, though, that that’s far lower than it would be absent the war. I often get the question is the initiative successful—is it meeting its goals.
Well, if its goals are to export out of only three of the many ports that Ukraine had operational before the war then it is able to export some. Again, it’s three out of the many ports Ukraine used to use. Lots of informal tactics—illegal tactics that Russia is even using to slow down operation of the initiative itself.
Under the agreement it would be active for three months at a time and then up for renewal. I think that that was very much seen by Russia as a diplomatic lever. Russia knew that every three months when this would expire that it could say, our agricultural sector is suffering. We need to get X, Y and Z in order to renew this.
They’ve since shortened the renewal periods to two months, from three months to two months. The current period expires tomorrow. So there are a lot of conversations about will this be renewed. I am hopeful that it will be. I’m not privy to conversations so I really don’t know what dynamics are like right now.
I’m particularly concerned—the election in Turkey, which could have some effects there. But I’m hopeful that it will be renewed. One potential influencing factor is the fact that among countries that are benefiting from exports under the initiative China is actually receiving most of the grain that’s being exported.
It’s, as I mentioned, thirty million metric tons. China has received seven million of that. Other countries far—
SENGUPTA: Of wheat.
WELSH: All grains, actually.
SENGUPTA: All grains, uh-huh.
WELSH: Yeah. Yeah. Other countries are receiving far less. So, perhaps that will influence Russia to, you know—
RISI: China has a bit of leverage.
WELSH: It does.
RISI: Yes, in this.
WELSH: Yeah. Yeah. So perhaps that’s a bright spot. I read some Ukrainian diplomats saying that they can even use China’s influence to expand the ports that are active across the Black Sea.
All that to say there really is no precedent for this at all, and is it successful? Yes, it’s helping Ukraine export some grains. We shouldn’t need a Black Sea grain initiative at all. The war shouldn’t have happened. They shouldn’t have blocked, attacked, et cetera, et cetera.
SENGUPTA: And this is also the way that fertilizer ingredients get out into the world. Russia is a major exporter of fertilizer components and has increasingly used this as a diplomatic tool.
SENGUPTA: So you’ve seen the Russian foreign minister go out to various countries and offer a bit of fertilizer here and a bit of fertilizer there as a point of leverage.
WELSH: Yeah. Yeah. The point there Russia exports fertilizer through a number of other ports that it has access to, not just through the Black Sea, and there’s one important pipeline that flows through Ukraine that Ukraine is not allowing Russia to use in the context of the war that Russia is waging right now. It’s for ammonia fertilizer.
WELSH: I’ve read that fertilizer exports from Russia are actually reaching prewar levels. I don’t know the source. These sources are undisclosed.
But with the exception of that one pipeline and ammonia fertilizer I think that Russia is over blowing the scenario. Very important to recognize, too, and the Ukrainian diplomat said this—I’m using this person’s words—but it’s disgusting that Russia pretends to be at the disadvantage in this situation.
SENGUPTA: Hmm. Interesting. Yeah.
PARERA: And, unfortunately, the other countries who could come up, like my country, Argentina, as a grain exporter, they’re actually suffering one of the worst droughts in the history of the country so they cannot export.
SENGUPTA: And this is a very good point because it goes back to when grains come from one particular part of the world either a conflict or an extreme weather event can have a disproportionately large impact.
In the era of climate change this is relevant. It’s extremely relevant. And so I wonder just if we’re going to see discussions about diversifying the supply chain and also diversifying the ports. Can you imagine, like, flooding or drought shutting down important ports and riverways?
RISI: Well, it has, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
RISI: I mean, Mississippi had a drought—I don’t remember, 2013-2014—and they were not able to get barges, like—
SENGUPTA: To get—yeah. Yeah.
RISI: Yeah. So this is something that we already see happening.
I’m going to take one very quick round of questions, please. There is a hand over here and a hand here. Super quickly so we can continue the CFR tradition of wrapping up on time.
VAZQUEZ: Hi, everyone. Michael Vazquez, The Maiden Group in Washington, D.C.
I just want to kind of pick up on that same conversation. Are there pathways to helping everyone who’s at risk, but the most at risk communities and countries around the world for food insecurity to grow more food locally and not be so dependent? What are the pathways and process? What does that look like right now?
SENGUPTA: Interesting question for large agricultural traders.
CELOZA: Albert Celoza, Phoenix, Arizona.
How do you propose to change something that is so culturally ingrained, eating habits? That’s the last thing a person is going to change. So how do you do that? Thank you.
SENGUPTA: What a great question. Who wants to take the first one?
PARERA: Agriculture and—
SENGUPTA: Yeah. The efforts to grow more food and nutritious food, I might add, locally. Do you want to—do you want to take that because you raise the absence of nutritious diets.
WELSH: Yeah, certainly. That’s the main focus of the U.S. government’s global food security initiative called Feed the Future, which has been in place for going on thirteen years now, I think.
Donors like the U.S. government, like philanthropies, like multilaterals, I see have a number of investments across developing countries to help them increase agricultural productivity, increase production of nutritious foods, particularly in the face of climate change.
That’s something that I think should be a constant focus of development programming—again, particularly in the face of climate change. I think when we focus on that, though, I think that there can almost be an unstated understanding that when we do that countries will no longer be vulnerable to global shocks. That’s not going to be the case.
A lot of the countries, even if we bring their agricultural sectors up to peak performance, they will still be net importers and so I think it’s recognizing that trade will continue to play a really important role. Increasing inter-African trade could be a part of the solution, for example, and looking at new solutions like the one that I mentioned, the IMF’s food shock window.
If I could address this really quickly, touch on the second question.
SENGUPTA: Please. Yes.
WELSH: When we come to climate change and food security we actually released a report two weeks ago about the importance when it comes to impacts of climate change of alternative proteins because the animal protein sector is a vast contributor to climate change. Even if we were to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from the United States from fossil fuel sources—sorry, I might get this wrong—but because of the greenhouse gases emitted from the animal sector we wouldn’t reach our Paris goals. They’re going to play a really, really important source.
Demand for meat is going to be increasing, particularly in low and middle income countries. That’s where I see a challenge, though, because if I think of alternative proteins as the food security equivalent of electric vehicles, people don’t eat electric vehicles—(laughter)—and changing dietary habits is going to be difficult, and I think it’s really important, too, to think about not just the role that governments can play and other organizations but the role of consumers as well because when consumers shift their preferences that can also have a big impact on our climate efforts.
SENGUPTA: Do you want to speak on changing food habits? Is that something that we collectively ought to be thinking about when it comes to food security?
PARERA: What I would like to address—I don’t know about food habits. That’s behavior. So you have to change behaviors and—(inaudible)—and that aspect.
But I wanted to emphasize that with the fertilizer issue, for instance, if you don’t have access to fertilizer and you become dependent on it then you switch to nature-based fertilizers which are very slow in producing results. So there is a very serious tradeoff there. Nature-based is good but it takes a long time. So if you’re in an emergency situation that’s not going to solve your issues.
In terms of food security something that we haven’t mentioned here is agriculture. The people who produce our food in the world is small farmers. Seventy percent of the food is produced by small farmers and those are the ones who are more disadvantaged.
Agriculture is also the sector that contributes the most to climate change with the greenhouse gas emissions so they’re part of the problem. So but also they can be part of the solution for the climate change and that’s where innovation technology comes in and we have results and the drought-improved seeds, improved seeds in general, in terms of infrastructure and water.
I mean, there was a case with the floods in Pakistan. The MCC, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, was part of a project there where the roads really helped during the flooding because they help absorb and how do you say this? Distribute the water outside the road during the floods. But that’s—
SENGUPTA: Uh-huh. I just want to make one point of correction there. Agriculture accounts for a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions but, certainly, not the largest. It’s about 20 percent to 25 percent, depending on how you count it. The energy sector, i.e., how we produce electricity, is slightly larger as is transportation, how we move around. Those are the three largest sources of global greenhouse emissions.
Just on one thing about changing food habits I think I want to interject just one question. Who are we talking about? If animal protein is one large source of emissions that is, certainly, the case in a handful of countries including ours but not the case in the large majority of countries.
So who are we asking to change food habits, I think, is a question we’re going to confront again and again. Just anecdotally, when I was reporting on smallholder farmers in southern Africa, in Malawi, I witnessed again and again how they were already having to change their food habits even though the people of sub-Saharan Africa account for 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So they were already having to switch because they couldn’t afford it, right?
All right. We are reaching the very end. I want to ask you what I call a lightning round question. I’m going to ask you what one word comes to your mind when you hear climate security. (Laughter.) What is the one word?
RISI: One word?
PARERA: I can go. Trust.
SENGUPTA: Trust. It requires more than one word. (Laughter.) But it’s a very intriguing provocative word.
RISI: I mean, I would say community.
SENGUPTA: Trust. Community.
WELSH: I’m going to go to national security. So two words. Sorry about that.
SENGUPTA: Those are two words.
WELSH: I know. Sorry about that. (Laughter.)
SENGUPTA: We’ll put a hyphen in there and close our session. So thank you all for your great questions and thank you to our panelists. (Applause.)
RADHAKRISHNAN: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m Akila Radhakrishnan, the president of the Global Justice Center. We’re a human rights organization using international law to achieve gender equality and dismantle systems of oppression.
It’s my honor and pleasure to be moderating this panel on just society today, with these three fabulous panelists.
So down at the end here we have Susan Farbstein. She is the director of the International Human Rights Clinic and clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School. Her work seeks accountability for abuses committed by individuals and corporations, promotes socio-economic rights including water and education, and advances gender equality and women’s leadership. Mrs. Farbstein has authored numerous amicus curiae briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and provides strategic and legal advice on human rights cases in other jurisdictions.
Next we have Mohamed Magid, who is the executive religious director of All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, Virginia. He is also the chairman of the International Interfaith Peace Corps, and the former president of the Islamic Society of North America. Imam Magid is also the cofounder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, which focuses on building bridges between Muslim, evangelical Christian, and Jewish communities, and is a newly appointed commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
And last, but certainly not least, we have Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who is the director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, which seeks to enhance national and global security by documenting the crucial leadership women play in peacebuilding and security through research, scholarship, and engaging with global leaders, governments, civil society, and the private sector. She was the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, where she led efforts to integrate women’s rights and participation into U.S. policy.
So during our conversation today, we’re going to be discussing the concept of just society, a term that doesn’t really have a clear meaning or definition, and in general, we’re referring to a concept of what we think society ought to be and the principles that it should be built on, including fairness, equality, and liberty.
And of course, what a just society looks like is highly dependent on the lens through which we look at the concept, only that one that is dependent on the identities and experiences of individuals. And there is no question that these ideals and what they need to look like have largely been shaped through the lens of those who are in power and have often ignore the perspectives of the most marginalized and vulnerable. So that’s really what we’re going to delve into here today with these three panelists.
So to start, each of you is engaged in building a just society, each with your own unique lens and insight into the different strategies and constituencies that shape these efforts. So I’d love each of you to briefly reflect on your work, including the opportunities and challenges to building a just society.
We’ll start with Ambassador Verveer. So, Ambassador, your work focuses on women, and we know that the more gender equal a society is, the less likely it is to fall into conflict, and the more likely it is to have sustainable peace. But in today’s world of increasing authoritarianism, we see women—backlashes against their rights, their equality as the canaries in the coal mine for broader societal clampdown and human rights violations.
Can you please reflect on this phenomenon, including, for example, in a place like Afghanistan where I know you are doing a lot of work at the moment, and why gender equality must be a fundamental baseline for a just society?
VERVEER: Well, thank you so much, and it’s such a pleasure to be here with all of you and with my co-panelists. The imam and I did a panel several years ago on changing culture on gender equality—impediments to it obviously, so it’s comforting to be back with him and certainly with you, too, Susan.
If one were asked, what is the state of women today, I would say progress has been stalled; in fact, perhaps been pushed back. There’s an awful lot of pushback against gender equality. And Afghanistan was mentioned, and it’s certainly a horrific case today when one looks at the state of women. Women today in Afghanistan are barred from education beyond sixth grade and even what is available up to sixth grade is more of the madrassas style than anything else. Women can’t attend university.
Imagine over the last twenty years and the progress that has been made. You are a young woman accustomed to getting an education, hungry for an education, see your aspirations, and they are foreclosed today. There is no opportunity. Women have been driven out of the workforce. They cannot hold most jobs. They are relegated to their homes.
They have been barred as distributors of humanitarian assistance. There’s a terrible humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan—starvation, health care that’s mostly not available. As one nurse just recently said, I just watch the babies die; there is nothing else I can do.
And now the NGOs are barred from employing women to target the aid that does come in, and the UN is now barred. There have been some fifty-plus edicts keeping women from the kinds of things that they should be available to do in all circumstances. They can’t go to open parks. How they are attired is completely regulated, their faces being covered. They have to go with a guardian, et cetera.
It’s gender apartheid whatever the definition eventually in a legal term represents, but I think the Taliban have in mind to erase women from their society or, at a minimum, to use them as a bargaining chip perhaps at some point to make education available again and do that on the quid pro quo of recognition, which I hope doesn’t happen. Certainly that should not be a reward.
If you look at Iran, women are on the front lines of the protests there, but what brought about the protest was, again, the regulation of the lives of the women. This young woman, Mahsa Amini, was told by the morality police—and only they could see what was inappropriate—but that her hijab was not appropriately on her. She died in custody, and that unleashed a massive protest that I’m sure everybody here is familiar with. But what’s interesting about it, it’s the first time that men have joined the protests. It is countrywide, it covers all segments of society, and I think the feeling is that, for the first time, women’s rights that have constantly been an issue because the restrictions have been so severe when earlier their rights were quite forcefully enforced that now that has coalesced with democratic aspirations and just a recognition that the regime has to end. So that goes on. Women have been, for decades, on the front lines in Iran, but this is at a different point.
And I think looking at Ukraine—the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of the dominant issues there, as it often is with war, is what’s happening to the women. They are like the women in Iran, like women in Afghanistan, trying to push back as best they can, but the sexual violence is pervasive, and rape is certainly going to become an issue ultimately because it is so pervasive, and whether—under the definition of war crimes or genocide—it will definitely—has to be a part of what happens in justice being rendered in those cases.
So in those three situations, we don’t have just societies; we have people struggling for their equality. And if one were to look back just twenty-five years ago, more or less, when the UN Commission on the Status of Women—the UN held the Fourth World Conference on Women, women’s rights is human rights was the battle cry. It was probably the phrase most associated with Hillary Clinton at the time when she gave the keynote, and it was all about the platform for action that was adopted that basically said women are human; women’s rights are human rights—and put out a platform for action. That platform was adopted by consensus by 189 countries. That would not happen today.
If there were another women’s conference—and there won’t be anytime soon because there is great fear that it would open everything up again, and those commitments to the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to be free from violence, to be able to participate in the political life of your country and the economic life, that was the platform for action adopted by consensus. Progress has not been what it needs to be.
And we see by the studies that come out—and I’ll end with this—but the World Economic Forum—not a bunch of feminists who gather in the august Davos—put out a gender gap every year, and they look at four metrics: health, education, political participation, economic. On the basis of those four metrics, looking at what’s the gap between men and women in a country, and they rank a hundred-and-some countries. Why do they do that? Because where the gap is greatest, those countries are the least prosperous, the least economically vital. And it’s obvious—the benefits of unleashing half the talent of your country. And according to the WEF, it will take 132 years at the rate we are going to reach parity in our world.
And then we do a report at Georgetown biannually looking at the well-being of women. It’s the first ever Women, Peace, and Security Index looking at three dimensions: not just inclusion—are women involved in politics, economics, education, but also looking at justice—are they discriminated against? How is that measured by recognizable data that everybody agrees with? And the third dimension is security. Are they secure in their homes? Are they secure in their communities?
And where women’s well-being is protected, enhanced, opportunities available, those countries are stable, doing well—for the most part. But the bottom line is, in peace and security, those that are oppressing women, denying them of their rights, where their well-being is not a serious proposition, those countries are unstable for the most part, fragile, or in the midst of conflicts of one kind or another.
So there’s so much at stake, and we are far from where we need to be and where we should be given what’s at stake.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Thank you so much for that. And I think a lot of what you are also reflecting is we did a lot to get things on paper, and I think that step from translating rights within Beijing, or other treaties into practice, we’ve really hit some stall points as it relates to particular deficiencies—
VERVEER: Well, and in fact—not to go on, but just to underscore that point, violence against women—gender-based violence, domestic violence was not viewed as a violation of human rights prior to Beijing. After Beijing, there was a proliferation of laws passed. So many of them have not been enforced, have not been adjudicated, financed in the way they should, and as a result, we’re in the midst of pervasive violence in every country. Different degrees, but violence is very paramount.
RADHAKRISHNAN: And I think what you are highlighting is when you look through the lens of particular communities, you really start seeing where our fractures are and I think, Imam Magid, this really leads perhaps to discussing a little bit of what your work has been around looking at the oppression of religious minorities, another group that has often been marginalized and vulnerable.
And so can you discuss, in your work and your understanding, how the insecurity of religious minorities can be an essential lens through which we can better understand broader human rights violations and atrocity risk?
MAGID: Thank you so much, Akila. First of all, I would like to say that I am a minority in my own home, a minority in this panel, of course. (Laughter.)
VERVEER: Get used to it.
MAGID: Yeah. (Laughter.) Yeah. I have six women in my house, five daughters and a wife. Really a pleasure to be with wonderful actual panelists here. Ambassador, glad to see you again.
Of course every time we talk about religious minorities, I like just to make sure that we have this term correct. They are a minority in terms of number, but they are full citizens of any countries. And when sometimes we just use the word minority to them, they feel like they’re being looked at as the other.
Human rights and religious freedom overlap all the time. I learned from my ambassador, Deborah Silverstein, who was sitting here, that if you don’t have human rights, you don’t have religious freedom. If you don’t have religious freedom, you don’t have human rights.
For the right of assembly, for example, if you don’t have that, you cannot have congregations, you cannot have prayer. Freedom of speech—there are some places where the government write the speech of the priest, and the imam, and do not allow them to speak their mind. And you have the freedom of practicing your faith as you see fit. You’re talking about some countries force women to wear scarves, but some countries don’t allow them to wear a scarf, even in Europe. Therefore, when you talk about the religious freedom, you have to speak of all the aspect of it.
In my experience traveling around the world, in every country where there is a violation of rights of minorities or religious group, there is human rights issue in that country to begin with, and they’re not the only people being violated. But women, most of the time within the religious community, are being violated the most.
I have traveled to the Rohingya with my friend Ambassador Deborah Silverstein and Bob Roberts and other—(inaudible)—and we have seen in every time we go meet people who have been violated, women telling you horrible stories of sex violence, violence against women, and how being violated during the attack on their mosque, in their villages. My friend Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid was helping us to lead that group. And we had a hearing for women, and in the room that I myself couldn’t sleep at night when we heard the stories of those women—the Rohingya women, how they’d been burned, running for their life, seeing their daughter being violated in front of them, seeing their male members being killed in front of them.
When we talk about religious freedom, we’re talking about the freedom of worship, freedom of movement. Some countries do not allow, for example, Muslims or others to do pilgrimage. They cannot leave their country.
You have the issue of citizenship. If you are a Christian, you cannot make it to any position in the government. You cannot even dream to run for being a president. And if you are a Muslim in particular places, you cannot dream to become part of the parliament and have any role in government—not only that, being discriminated against because of their names. In some of your own part in the Western countries, democracy, that if your name is Mohamed, or Ali, or Fatima, you might get the job. I’ve been traveling in Europe in the Scandinavian countries, and visiting the Muslim minorities there. And they were telling me that they were not being hired sometimes because of their name or the way they look.
And by the way, there is overlapping between also racism and religious freedom; that if you are brown and Muslims, you are in trouble because they have two issues now with you—if you are black and Muslim.
In my opinion there’s three things very quickly to say about religious freedom. One is about the law. In some countries the law itself promote discrimination. You’re not allowed to change your religion, you’re not allowed to build your mosque, you’re not allowed to build your church. But the law itself being set in the way that discriminate against the citizens of other faith.
The second is the rhetoric. We have religious leaders who are known promoting discrimination against other religious minorities by labeling them. Even in the United States we have this issue.
The third issue is the economic issues, equal opportunities. And many places where there’s poverty, sometimes associated with religious minorities. They’re not given access to jobs, access to businesses, and so forth and so on.
In my experience of traveling around the world and seeing what the religious minority going through, I believe that there is a legal aspect that has to be addressed but also civil society responsibility. That’s why, whatever we go—wherever we go to do those conferences, there is two track—one of them addressing the government issue, another addressing the civil society issue.
But I don’t like to give long speech. I’m an imam, therefore I have to be careful. (Laughter.)
RADHAKRISHNAN: Well, there’s things that you’re saying in there that maybe we can come back and revisit in the discussion as well.
Just thinking about the shape of this conversation, we’re talking a lot aboout the lenses through which we’re looking at, right, and how we approach the work that we do in building a just society. And I think, Susan, you’ve been looking at these perspectives from a different light in terms of: What are the strategies that we utilize? How do we recognize individual communities, and their needs, and their desires? And hearing about religious minorities and gender, I think thinking about intersecting identities and who holds community leadership are all important things I’d love for you to reflect on. So can you talk a little bit more about what you see as promising examples of where collaboration and the role of movements, as well as the role of litigation and other strategies, has been successful, and also where you think the human rights movement is falling short? We’re hearing from both of them about rights on paper versus rights in lived experience.
FARBSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. So thank you for having me. I’m excited to speak about these issues. I will take a first stab in this response and then we can see where it leads us.
I think I sort of wanted to start with a definitional clarification, because I’m going to be speaking about the human rights movement but I think a lot of times, especially when critics talk about the human rights movement, they are talking about a particular piece of it. So they’re talking about international treaties. They’re talking about formal institutions and mechanisms. They’re talking about big, prominent international NGOs that are largely based in the Global North, and they’re often critical of that human rights movement, I think sometimes for good reason, because maybe it’s been used to maintain the status quo or because maybe it’s sort of propping up a neoliberal economic agenda or maybe because it’s squeezing out other emancipatory strategies that might be more effective.
So that’s a piece of the movement, but I also sort of want to start by acknowledging another human rights movement—which is the way I think about it, as sort of a constellation of different actors and different stakeholders, and a collaboration between particularly grassroots NGOs that are based on the Global South or in the communities that they’re working on with these other formal international institutions and organizations. And I think where you see the movement succeeding is in places where there is that really deep engagement between the human rights establishment and the more local organizations and actors, and I think particularly where organizations and actors that maybe have a more radical approach—they’re thinking about reorganizing social and political arrangements, not just addressing sort of symptoms but also addressing underlying structures and causes—that that’s where we see the success.
So if I think about sort of three key features of successful human rights movement interventions, I would say one is one that I’ve already mentioned, collaboration. All the stakeholders don’t necessarily need to have the same strategies and tactics, but I think it is really important that there’s some shared vision of justice and of what that means. I actually think, though, it can be helpful if there’s a diversity of approaches, different people can sort of play different roles in different times. Part of the collaboration also has to be a deep commitment to solidarity and a real willingness to be led by the rights holders and those who have the most at stake.
I think a second key feature of successful human rights movements or human rights interventions is that it’s an iterative process, right? You’re constantly reflecting. You’re constantly evaluating which strategies are working here, which approaches are failing us. You’re making adjustments. And then you’re engaging and reengaging.
And I would say a third feature is that you’re playing the long game and you know that you’re playing the long game. This kind of social change takes a lot of time. You have to be willing to be engaged for the long term. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have benchmarks along the way. That doesn’t mean that you don’t celebrate the small victories. I think it’s really important to do that so that you can sustain yourself for this long game. But you have to sort of know that there’s not going to be any quick fixes.
And I think a good example of this that our clinic has been involved in is a case called the Mamani case against the former president and minister of defense of Bolivia for extrajudicial killings that happened in that country back in 2003 during a period known as Black October. And we, along with our partners, brought a case here in U.S. court against the former president and minister of defense, a civil case, and I think part of the reason that effort succeeded was because the seeds of that came from the communities themselves. So long before U.S. attorneys were ever involved, the communities that had survived had organized themselves into two associations—one of individuals who lost family members, another of individuals who themselves had been harmed in some way—and they were already thinking about: What does justice mean to us? What does accountability mean to us? Are we pursuing cases in Bolivia? Are we thinking about other international mechanisms? What kind of organizing and protest actions are we taking? And how could a case in U.S. courts be a tool that advances these broader agendas? And I think there were also features of it being iterative, of there being experimentation, of understanding that this was a very long-term investment.
So the underlying violations happened in 2003, the case went to trial in 2018. I’m happy to say that we got a jury verdict in favor of our plaintiffs, who were individuals who lost family members. And the case is still on appeal now. So it’s twenty years later and we’re still sort of fighting that fight, but I think we’ve had a very positive impact in the way that the indigenous Aymara community in Bolivia sort of sees itself, understands that history, and thinks of themselves as rights holders who have a real role to play.
On the flipside, what can we be doing better? A lot, but I think one thing that I wanted to name was that if you don’t do this work sort of carefully and thoughtfully, I think there’s a real risk that human rights advocacy ends up disempowering and undermining the agency of the very communities that you’re supposed to be working with and supposed to be serving, and can kind of reinforce the power imbalances that are the root causes of human rights abuse. So there are some modes of human rights advocacy where people like me end up sort of being the saviors and the experts, and you are creating a group of victims, and oftentimes those victims are portrayed in ways that, again, undermine who they are as people, and you’re sort of objectifying them and you’re displacing them. And that can contribute to revictimization and to disempowerment. So if the outside actors are the ones who are setting the agendas and shaping the strategies and are the voice of whatever the community wants to be pushing forward, that can become a really huge problem.
I think many of us are trying to do better. We realize that this is a concern. We’re looking for ways to sort of mitigate these critiques by structuring our working relationships in a way that we’re facilitating the voice and the agency of the rights holders not just in terms of their power vis-à-vis us as advocates, but also in terms of their power vis-à-vis larger societal structures. This can be really hard because it often means that you have to go much slower in the work. It can be hard because of security concerns. It can be hard because of resource concerns. But I think there are ways to do this and do it well.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Thanks, Susan. I think you’re leading right into maybe where I wanted to go next with the conversation, which is, this work, the building and maintenance of equitable societies, it’s not linear and it’s not devoid of conflict within the broader movement, right? Even if you’re talking about within the gender movement there is certainly constantly disagreements, but when you start talking about then the way that gender intersects with religious minorities or the way it intersects with other vulnerabilities, you’re really starting to see where it—the work can become difficult, right?
We see regularly here and recently, I think, in the United States how religion has been instrumentalized to justify gender-based oppression or institute regressive gender ideologies. Or, Susan, as you were just talking about, talking about disagreements and strategies and priorities between community-based actors and human rights lawyers. So how do you approach these issues in your own work? What do you see as promising ways to build cross-movement solidarity? And perhaps who are some of the key actors that can be engaged in this work?
Do we want to start with our minority on the panel here? (Laughter.)
MAGID: I can use an example of religious leaders coming together on a common ground. For example, you may have Evangelical Christians and you have Jewish leaders, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist, but they find a common ground in the issue of concern. I think there’s so many issues that are common issues.
For example, the vaccine issue. The vaccine issue, across America they created Faiths4Vaccines—Dr. Elsanousi is here—where many people across America worked together in mosque, synagogue, churches, temples to be able to provide vaccine for their communities.
An issue of creating a covenant between people of faith/religion, that is an issue of violence against women, for example. You have to also be careful what kind of language you’re using because we have a common friend, Melanne. A very, very well-known person, by the way, in Senegal, working on human rights. One of the things that she always share with us is you have to know the context. What kind of language are you using? Sometimes we use a language from the Western perspective that people in Africa find it to be offensive. You have to meet people where they are. And to be able to use their own culture, their own understanding of issues, we can bring them to bring the change that they want to bring in the society by giving them a sense of ownership.
There’s an arrogant approach sometimes that some people come and says: We have solutions. You have to listen to us. We have this and that. And we don’t have this humility. Well, you have to have humility in addressing the issues of any society, where knowing the culture, knowing the actors. And at the same time, there is ego issue, by the way. This—(laughter)—you have ego issues. And people really have to set objectives, the change that we would like to make on society, and help everyone to feel that they’ve been included, create an inclusive approach.
That would be my understanding of how to address the issue of bringing people together in changing the perspective/ideas of people regarding human rights, minorities’ rights, women rights.
VERVEER: Are you going to Susan or me?
RADHAKRISHNAN: No, to you. (Laughs.)
VERVEER: Listening to Susan, I was thinking about that recipe for an Indonesian pancake that I heard some years ago in Indonesia, where they were telling me, you really need heat at the top and you need heat at the bottom for a good pancake. And I think in terms of this issue you have to involve—certainly, listen to the grassroots; certainly, know where they’re coming from; but to elevate those experiences and help those experiences, often with the instrumentality a lot of others can bring to the situation. You need heat at the top.
But the imam and I first met—he mentioned this woman Molly Melching, who’s done incredible work through an organization called Tostan dealing fundamentally, initially, with the issue of female genital mutilation, we might call it, as a human rights violation. But there, sensitivity to communication and change, she called it “female genital cutting” because it was a deeply-entrenched practice that goes on in many places, although it’s now, because of work like hers utilizing the community to work this through, has basically been eviscerated in many places.
And she told me the story once of how she was teaching the tenets of democracy. You could see, for those of us who didn’t understand the language, weren’t familiar with it, how they were raising their hand and they were arguing, doing all of the things that you see as manifestations of the democratic process. And the women came to her and said: What do you do with this thing called democracy? And she said: Well, is there anything in your lives you’d like to see changed? And they said: Yes. We go through this terrible thing. Every single one of us women have to go through it because otherwise there is no passage to a better life or an accommodation that you have to make in your community.
But we die in childbirth, many of us. We are harmed for like physically, many of us. And it’s deeply painful and debilitating. And so they started a process. They first went to the imams, to the religious leaders. Religious leaders said, well, there’s nothing in the tenants of the faith that would say this is a requirement. It’s an old tribal practice. Then they went to the village leaders, all male, and they listened. And the women made their case. And they listened.
And for months and months, the community went through, can they change a deeply entrenched cultural practice to make life better for half the population of that community? And eventually, they did. And what you saw happen was the norm, which is it’s norms and attitudes that are often the biggest obstacles to progress. The norm was changed from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC) to the health of our women. So you went through it in way that really raised up both the concerns of the women, and the broader health of the community. And then it was the men, the village leaders, who said: But we intermarry with other villages, with other communities. And they went on their own to tell them what they had done.
Today in Senegal, for the most part, this does not exist, because they have done this in a way that has been described. And I think one of the problems with gender equality is that it is often viewed through the prism of zero-sum game. If she wins, I lose. When the reality is just the opposite. There is now so much literature and study going on about the co-benefits to men when gender equality flourishes. And a lot of this is attitudinal. And we’ve got to work at those aspects.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Absolutely. And I’m going to open it up to the floor in a second, but I want to bring Susan in here because I think, Ambassador Verveer, what you’re highlighting about this heat at the top concept, it also depends on who’s at the top, right? And I know, Susan, this is something you’ve been looking at who’s in the top—(laughs)—and how do we engage those people in talking about issues that may or may not feel relevant to them?
FARBSTEIN: Yes. And I think it’s interesting, because our clinic has been working on sort of a study of within the human rights movement sort of who are the leaders there, who has the biggest voice. And what we found, which is maybe not surprising but kind of depressing, is that, again, a lot of the prominent, well-respected, major player NGOs, the staff might be rather diverse, but sort of as you move up the ranks who are the director-level—who holds the director-level positions? Who holds regional-level positions? That it’s still largely male, largely white, largely global north.
And that even more than that, that we’re not really practicing what we preach, so that lots of women who work in human rights organizations and institutions are experiencing discrimination, and that that might be even more profound in a human rights context, because of sort of the unique ways that the work happens. So the imperative to travel, the need to work cross-culturally. If you are sort of prioritizing the community that you’re working on behalf of, and you experience some harm or some discrimination, you might be less inclined to speak out yourself because what you’ve experienced pales in comparison to what that other community has experienced, and it might actually undermine the legitimacy of your organization, and you’re sort of thinking about the greater good.
We call this a martyr complex. And also, I think, another feature is that the human rights realm itself is pretty small and pretty insular. And if you are seen as sort of being a troublemaker or a whistleblower, that could have very significant repercussions for your own career trajectory. So sort of just some interesting observations about the ways that I think we are falling short in terms of upholding these ideals of equality and dignity that we way we’re trying to reinforce out in the world.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Yeah. So I’m going to open it up to the floor now. So please just when you’re called on stand up, wait for the microphone, and introduce yourself and your affiliation. So we’ll start here, and then we’ll go back there next.
VISWANATH: I’m Sunita Viswanath, Hindus for Human Rights.
And I know Ambassador Verveer from work on Afghanistan and Imam Magid from work on India, and hopefully new friends. This time last year, along with Reverend Chloe Breyer, Ruth Messinger, and a few others sisters, we spoke. We did a panel here last year, because we had just come back from Afghanistan. We were an all-women delegation to Afghanistan, the first civil society delegation after the Taliban takeover. My question is about Afghanistan.
The global community has had a role in bringing the Taliban back to power. And if women’s rights are at an abysmal low, it’s at least partly on us. However, what we’ve done is to add insult to injury by creating and exacerbating near-famine conditions by freezing the central bank assets of the Afghan people. When me and my fellow activists—when we ask families about girls’ education, we are often told by the family: Our boys aren’t even in school because we don’t have food. What is our collective responsibility to the people of Afghanistan?
VERVEER: Well, I think we all share, as you well-stated, some degree of culpability for what’s transpired there. But we’ve got to take the pieces one at a time. I think on the assets issue, one of the things that was—first of all, in our organization we evacuated some 1,500 human rights activists, women human rights defenders, or NGO leaders, we knew were going to be in desperate condition if the Taliban came to power. So we’ve been working with this community and feel that their voices are the voices that have to be heard by the policymakers.
So it’s not my speaking when it comes to the assets issue, because they are just outraged that the assets that belong, as you said, to the people of Afghanistan were—the first formulation, and may still be the formulation—was that half of it would go to victims of 9/11 and the other half would somehow go back to Afghanistan, but under conditions where arrangements were assured that the Taliban wouldn’t have control over those assets. And those assets have not been released, to my knowledge. And it’s still a major issue.
And it is heartbreaking in terms of the humanitarian piece, and it is heartbreaking in terms of what’s happened after twenty years of effort, that I’m sure many people in this room have been engaged in trying to create a better life there. But I think we have to listen to the voices that they question us today, is how much do you engage with the Taliban? There have been meetings in recent days in Doha. And there’s some great worry that that meeting called by the United Nations was about recognition, trying to get some kind of change to occur for the better. But as the imam and I were talking in the green room, to make the women be on the chessboard. Well, we’ll give you education if you give us recognition. We can’t play that game.
So how this evolves and what our policymakers need to hear, what they need to do, what the international community can do, there’s less leverage today, let’s face it. But there are a whole series of questions. And I think for us, the Afghans say to me—every day one of them will say: Nobody sees us anymore. We’re completely erased. Some of it is competition with other horrible situations in our world, but they feel keenly.
And particularly back when the deal was made with the Taliban by the United States, keeping out their government—for whatever we think of their government’s progress or lack thereof—the Afghans themselves were not a part of this. They feel we elevated the Taliban in the process, and today we are seeing the consequences of that. And whether you care about terrorism or you care about the lives of human beings, they’re all a factor in this now.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Can I push you on one other thing here, since you mentioned it earlier? Is on the UN potentially complying with Afghanistan’s ban on women working for the United Nations. So last week I think it was they said that agencies can choose, right?
VERVEER: So there is grave concern, given what was just stated about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, that if the UN—which is the distributor—various agencies in the UN are the distributors of the assistance. They were employing women, thousands, because the women go to the heart of where the need is. That ban has now been issued by the Taliban, one of fifty-some edicts of theirs on women. And that the UN may just decide, well, we can’t have the women distribute anymore, let’s at least have the men distribute.
Now, that may sound like a solution to some, but it is not a solution in terms of what needs to be done. It’s not a solution in terms of fairness. And this was a viable income for these women as well. They were supporting their families and countless others, not just distributing the resources. So there’s just a host of problems here that have to be grappled with, and not well at this point.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Do any of you want to comment on this?
MAGID: It is true that members of my community from Afghanistan who are talking about the suffering of people because of sanctions and those kind of things. We have to find a mechanism, by helping families, people in need in Afghanistan, while making sure we push for the rights of women in Afghanistan. It cannot be either/or. We can do both at the same time. As you suggested, that maybe you can have agency give the need—or respond to the need directly to the people in the village, people in the towns, and maybe create NGOs in the country that can deliver those services. Because people are worried about giving the money to the Taliban. But I do believe that we cannot have the Afghan people suffer because of Taliban. We have to be able to help those people.
RADHAKRISHNAN: I think we had you next, and then we’ll go in the back there.
BREYER: Hi. Chloe Breyer, Interfaith Center of New York.
Thank you so much for your work. Just I believe actually the way that—the readout of the Taliban discussion with the UN had to do with why would we put a whole country, hundreds of people, with only 5,500 women? So in other words, that is the rationale exactly. It was this cost-benefit analysis. Why would you ever—the rights of these 5,500 women are not in any way comparable to the starvation of the larger group of the country. Which is an unacceptable rationale completely.
I guess my question has more to do with the SIV visas that were issued by our country, deservedly, to what was 80 percent, as I understand, male interpreters and government contractors, and with a minority of those SIV holders being women. But as you quite rightly said, an entire generation of women has been inspired by values that the United States both heralded and also fueled with money and expectations. And now all we see are visa problems for people—for women who are educated, who led the way, who have resources, universities lined up to take them in the United States, being rejected by consular officers in Pakistan. Can you comment on that?
VERVEER: It’s a problem. And, Chloe, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The whole immigration issue is a deeply flawed issue. You hear about now increasingly from the border, but it’s deeply affecting Afghans. First of all, many of the Afghans who would have left under the criteria that we established, certainly for the SIVs, that special immigration status for those who helped the United States and other over the years who were absolute prime targets for the Taliban for not continuing in any viable way, because they would be shot or god-knows-what.
That has not been moved to a place where green cards are available, people are getting settled, they know what their future holds for them. It’s all still—even those who were evacuated, and there were so many more who should have been able to leave that now are—it’s almost impossible for them to leave. I haven’t been able to get anybody in dire straits out. Many have gone to Pakistan, trying to get out that way. And again, the impediment presents itself. And they’re often not able to move from the situation unless another country will intervene there.
But you also have a problem where the majority of women, for example, came out on parole, which was a special status that we made available for Cubans at one point, for Vietnamese at one point. And they today—their status is not regularized. It’s supposed to happen over two years. They’re supposed to be in a situation where they are permanent residents with no refugee incomplete status. And there is legislation pending in the Congress called the Afghan Adjustment Act, the AAA, that will address some of these problems, really important. But there’s no action because there’s a group of members who feel that people are going to be regularized as potential citizens who actually should not be because in some way they’re a threat to the country.
So there’s just been no action on it. And there critically needs to be action. This goes back to your question about don’t we owe some sense of a justice to these people? So you hit the nail on the head. But it’s a really deep process, and a deep problem. And our immigration system is moving like molasses in January. (Laughter.)
RADHAKRISHNAN: All right, I think we were going to go there, and then we’ll go to you next.
KHAN: Hi. My name is Anwar Khan. I’m from Islamic Relief USA.
I was in Afghanistan too last year, in January. Whether I spoke to men or women, they had the same concern. They are hungry. Their children are starving. Imam Magid mentioned the importance of humility. I was there before 9/11 in April 2001. I was there during the Islamic Republic, and now back to the Emirate. My heart is breaking. What have we learned from our mistakes from our policymakers and our politicians in the last twenty years that we are now back at the position that we were in April 2001?
They need food. When I spoke to people in the U.S. government, yeah, but we can’t let the Taliban win. How many women and kids are going to starve whilst we’re playing chicken with the Taliban over their food security? This is the question. We need to listen to the women, men, and kids—the forty million in Afghanistan, the 98 percent of Afghans who are food insecure.
VERVEER: I don’t disagree with you.
KHAN: No. My question was how do we get the—
VERVEER: How do we get there?
KHAN: —policymakers and the politicians to reflect on the mistakes they made in the last twenty years to have some of the humility that Imam Magid was mentioning, admit we made some mistakes, learn lessons from those? And not just in Afghanistan, other places. Let’s not suffer from amnesia and pretend we didn’t do anything wrong.
VERVEER: Well, past is prologue. And we’re seeing it play out. If I had the answer, we’d be in better shape. (Laughter.) If any of us had the answer, we would be in better shape. We’re trying to do everything we can to influence people. I don’t think, at the heart of it, that they really want to see people starving, as they are. Girls are being sold by their families because of the income that is derived from that sale. It’s really an indescribable situation. But in the meantime—and part of this is the Taliban are at fault too, because of what they will allow to come in and what they won’t allow to come in. So everybody needs to be part of the solution. And we’re not there, apparently.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Imam or Susan, do you want to add anything here?
MAGID: Yeah. I agree that sometimes we use sanctions to try to change regimes, sometimes. And in expense of some people, vulnerable people. Like, we lost half a million of Iraqi children dealing with Saddam Hussein, you know? Half a million of children suffered before we changed the regime. That’s true. This is a dilemma. How do you make change without having people to suffer? I think that’s an old debate. I have heard it over and over again. Sometimes you ask people: Was it worth it to lose half a million? Some people said, yeah, worth it to lose half a million children. That’s an issue. But I think it’s a challenge, to be honest with you, that people need to think about how can you pressure government to change, but at the same time not have people to suffer?
One of the thing I’m just suggesting now, not to have Taliban have the access to it. Create a system by which you see the delivery of goods and help those people, without having to have control over it, maybe? But it was not acceptable to me. I’ll just be very transparent. I heard from somebody recently about women’s education and from Afghanistan. And he told me: We did allow them to go to school, but they were not recognized. I asked him, are you telling me, using Afghan women now as hostages so they can be recognized? This is a person speaking on behalf of Taliban. It’s really horrible to have someone in charge of a country to use women of his own country as a bargaining to get recognition in the United Nations.
And let me tell you something, some of those Taliban leaders, their children are there in the Gulf countries going to school. They left them there and went to Afghanistan, didn’t allow women to go to school. But the children there in Doha, the children in the Gulf countries are going to school—women. That is immoral. As an imam, I’d like to say that what Taliban is doing about Afghan women has nothing to do with Islam. Absolutely. This is mistreatment of women, violating basic human rights of people, and having girls to be pulled out of school so you can bargain with the United Nations to be recognized? Unbelievable.
VERVEER: Well, and the Taliban have basically hijacked Islam, because what they’re doing to justify their treatment of women is to say it’s our obligation in our religion. But who professes that religion? It’s not Islam. It’s some radical view that’s them. But it is the justification that they have put out.
RADHAKRISHNAN: All right. I think we said back there, and then we’ll come to you.
CELOZA: Late in this afternoon I was dreaming of Plato creating a just society, which is the title of your panel. So my question is, it seemed to me that philosophical ideals of society, scripture itself, creates segregation, racial profiling, or profiling of people. How do you reconcile interpretation of what Islam is supposed to be and what’s happening right now? Christianity, Buddhism? Isn’t it full of discrimination and segregation of society, and there’s really no equality? It’s just a thought.
MAGID: I didn’t understand the question, actually. You can—(laughter)—
FARBSTEIN: I guess—(laughs)—I guess what I would say is I’m not a religious scholar. But I do think that this is perhaps a place where, again, the human rights frameworks don’t necessarily have to be put in opposition to religious or understandings of the way that society should be organized. And I have a lot of colleagues—and these are colleagues in the U.S., but also colleagues who work in various countries who are thinking about, how do we reinterpret and re-understand both what human rights means and whatever our religious practices tell us, in a way that does recognize the dignity and the equality of all people. So I don’t think that there has to be this conflict between the two. I think that that’s kind of a false choice.
VERVEER: And in fact, I know many women in Islam who are doing exactly that, who are reinterpreting the tenets in a way that is behind their equality and their dignity, and where they feel that the interpretation that many others have led that keep them back are not faithful to what Islam is.
MAGID: I feel like somebody called my name. (Laughter.) No, but let me just say, be very open, we have misinterpretation of religion in every community. And religion have been manipulated, have been used to discriminate against others, been used against women and against minorities, and so forth. The role of religious leaders is to control the discourse by living the golden rule and reestablishing the virtues and the values that bring humanity together. By the way, when we talk about women roles in Muslim society, I can name few countries where women they become president and the prime ministers. In Pakistan, in Indonesia, in Turkey before you had the woman, the president, in Bangladesh. And those are conservative communities. The women have been elected to those positions.
What it is not about—Muslims believe in this, or religious leaders being that women should be excluded. It is the narrow group of people have a narrow interpretation of Islam. The same thing I would say about Buddhism. There is a Buddhist extremist in Myanmar against the Muslims. Does not reflect on Buddhism, and Judaism, and Christianity, and so forth and so on. I think one of the problems sometimes there’s a movement—entire religious movement being created because of the act of few. That itself is a problem. We have to address the problems as we see it exist, rather than stereotyping the religious leaders and religious communities.
GOPIN: Marc Gopin, George Mason University, CRDC. Salam alaykum. Nice to see you again.
I think that what I’ve learned from your story from Mali is that you went back with humility and realized that the frontal approach to the name that you wanted to have for something was not the effective way to bring positive change. And you went back and they did a health program. All that people want from the United States after twenty years and $1 trillion invested and wasted, is to simply do the hard work of self-examination and learning: What would we do differently? Not because there’s any good choices now, but simply in order to not repeat this with other innocent people.
When I went in 2013, we got a million dollars for a project to bring the imams together in Kabul. And the imam says to me—he points to another imam next to him that’s on crutches, because two weeks ago this very conservative imam was blown up by the Taliban because of his sin. And his sin was speaking on Friday about women’s rights. And they asked us, where have you been all this time for us? We didn’t speak their language, in a deep sense. We didn’t bring those imams and make them allies. One person in charge of the women’s budget for the Afghan budget is a student of mine now. He said, there was no money for religion and conflict resolution, no money for these imams to teach women’s rights with safety and security. There was no protection.
So that’s just one small example of what we could learn. Not because we are gods that should fix everything, but once you decide to spend a trillion dollars, isn’t there self-examination and learning from all people the basis of our religious traditions? Repentance, acknowledgement, confession, and then acceptance of a different way? It’s classic. So I don’t think anybody’s saying things in an incriminating way, but more like a cultural mindset of the United States to change the way that we do things thoughtfully, when we attempt and dare to change the world.
VERVEER: Well, and it produces the kinds of outcomes that I think everybody wants to see. The ability to listen, not just go in and say: This is what we’re going to do. And that’s often what we hear over and over. Look what—you came in here with this plan, whatever it was, and it had no applicability. Whether it was a malign plan or just a senseless plan, because you didn’t listen to what the need was. But do we learn from that and do it differently? Again, there’s wisdom in this room. I mean, that’s what we should be focused on. And we’re not always.
RADHAKRISHNAN: All right. We’re going to go right there.
VERVEER: Humility is a good virtue.
MAGID: Yes, it is.
KADER: Thank you for an amazing session. And, Ambassador, I go on Zoom all the time and watch your events. (Laughter.) Thank you. My name is Salwa Kader, and I represent the International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development at the United Nations.
We have been in existence almost twenty two years, come October. About the Afghani women education, I just held an event, as I do every year during CSW, on March 6. And it was about the Afghani women access to education. As I also belong to the National Association of Women Judges and the International. So, we have been helping the judges, Afghani judges, to come to the United States or other places. You’re probably aware of that. I’m not sure. So I had a judge come here, who is in the metropolitan New York area. And she came and spoke about how she came out with her husband, and what did the judges here in the metropolitan area, helped her so she speak better English than when I first met her. And I happened to be on that committee.
As also, I had invited several activists or Afghani women who are not judges. So they all shared their experience. And I also invited the ambassador of OIC. Because they hide behind their religion—Taliban is this, the religion is that—most of us know better, but a lot don’t know. So he spoke very eloquently with great knowledge that this is all false, that the Taliban had created this whole thing, and it does not exist in the Muslim religion. And then some of the audience were very engaging event, and spoke about the Taliban’s family daughters, or whoever, are already in different countries driving, have Mercedes—(laughs)—going to college.
RADHAKRISHNAN: I’m just going to interrupt you. We just have a few minutes, I might ask you to get to you question, and I’ll get to his, and we’ll go to the panel.
KADER: So what do we do? What do we do to bring all of that out? Thank you.
RADHAKRISHNAN: Thank you. We’ll go to one more question from you, and then I’ll let the panelists conclude and kind of respond to the final questions. Very briefly though, sir. Thank you.
JAHID: Sure. (Laughs.) I used to give sermons criticizing Taliban—the first Taliban, until the United States started bombing. So my challenge is the U.S. has tremendous influence. We gave the world rhetoric of war on terrorism. 4.5 million people have been killed, as Brown University research says. But that rhetoric now has been adopted by China against Uighur Muslims. Burma used it against Rohingya Muslims. And now India is using it against the Indian Muslims, and Christian, and Dalit. What can you tell us, people who have congregations, how we can educate people? I don’t think anybody in churches or synagogues knows that 4.5 million people—all of them have women and children—what can we do? Can you guide us?
RADHAKRISHNAN: Thank you. All right. So I’m just going to open it up to each of you for, like, very short concluding remarks, picking up on these last questions. And we’ll start with Susan. (Laughs.) And just come down the line.
FARBSTEIN: OK. I think that sort of this gets back to some of what we were talking about at the beginning, which is how the messages that need to be communicated need to be communicated at all levels. So that might be that in your local community you are raising awareness about these things. That might be at a national level there is awareness raising. That might be at an international level.
And I also think it gets back to sort of the collaboration about what is the message here and how do you tailor it for the different audiences that you’re trying to reach? So it sounds like there is a very clear message that you have in mind about sort of the costs of the war on terror and how that language has been manipulated and repurposed, and is being used in a very dangerous, problematic way. So I think you have the message already, and it’s sort of a matter of pulling in different stakeholders to then push it out to the various audiences who need to hear it.
MAGID: First of all, thank you for your question—that the civil society congregations, religious communities, have an obligation to lead this movement of awareness about the misconceptions, misunderstanding, that have been created through this discourse of terrorism and labeling people. Like, in many countries that the minority assert their rights, the easy thing to do is to label them as terrorist. And we have seen that in some Muslim countries, you know? Therefore, the challenge here to differentiate between people who are fighting for their rights and the people who are targeting innocent civilian people. It’s the definition of terrorism.
The other aspect of this is to influence the influencers. There are so many people in our communities—whether the Muslim community, the Jewish community, and so forth—who are influencers. To get those people, to get them the right information about what’s taking place. It’s going to take a collective effort, actually, on this issue.
VERVEER: And I think it’s harder today in the polarized world that we’re living in, and particularly a polarized country. And that is also part of the reason that has happened, and something that contributes even potentially more to this problem, is social media. This is my right hand. But somebody’s going to say, no, it’s your left hand. I mean, that’s basically where we are. And how do we break through that to really go into the heart of a question, like you’ve put out on the table? It is extremely difficult. And I think we all have to be focused on this.
We are going to be in worse straits if we don’t. The common good is not in the majority vocabulary anymore. And this is where we have to go. And I think we all have to figure out, deep inside of us, where that action is going to take place on the local level, in the sectors in which we inhabit, in the people we can influence. But it’s not just the one terrible quandary that you just laid out for us in your question. This goes well beyond, and it’s getting increasingly difficult, instead of working at the solutions.
RADHAKRISHNAN: All right. Well, thank you so much, everyone, for joining us. Let’s take a moment to thank our panelists. (Applause.)
VERVEER: Hate to be a downer.
RADHAKRISHNAN: (Laughs.) Just for your reference, you have a fifteen-minute break before you’re back in here for the last session at 3:00 p.m. on “Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding.” Thank you.