Judging by media coverage over the past few years, it would be easy to assume that the West is locked in a death struggle with radical Islam.
Against that view, I want to make two arguments. Although the first is (or should be) strictly noncontroversial, the second may be surprising.
To begin, let us agree on the nature of the violent Islamist terror movements, such as ISIS, the Islamic State. ISIS is utterly evil, and its members are criminals, fanatics or psychopaths.
Proven membership in the group, or overt support for its goals, should be a criminal offense under international law.
A similar status should also be extended to like-minded Islamist terror groups, such as al Qaeda and its affiliates, or Boko Haram.
The United States should give appropriate support, both intelligence-related and military, to allies confronting these enemies. It should also offer humanitarian support to the victims of their crimes.
Obviously, such groups constitute a grave problem. But the containment or destruction of these radical Islamist sects should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy.
At least in the foreseeable future, none of these movements poses an existential threat to the U.S. or its allies.
“Islam” of any species does not threaten the survival of the U.S. or of any European nation.
Any suggestion to the contrary distracts from much graver and more immediate threats, which demand far more central notice in Western political discourse and media coverage.
ISIS, al Qaeda and the rest can inflict severe damage on Western nations through low-level guerrilla attacks, although the odds of repeating mega-terror assaults such as 9/11 are low.
They can bring down airliners, they can shoot up malls, they can carry out heinous murders that inflict limitless grief.
We have to continue tracking and preventing those menaces, chiefly through intelligence and policing, and by military means where necessary.
But to reiterate, such attacks can’t destroy our countries. Crucially, none of these groups has access to weapons of mass destruction and certainly not to nuclear weapons.
For all the hysteria over supposed Iranian threats, it is wildly unlikely that that country will ever obtain any serious number of nukes, and critically, not the means to deliver them.
If that ever became a real prospect, it is all but certain that Israel would remove that menace before it ever posed any real danger.
No Western government seems particularly troubled by the fact that one unstable Islamic nation, namely Pakistan, has had nuclear weapons for a quarter century, and that its arsenal is now around a hundred warheads.
We live with the fact, as we presumably could with a nuclear Iran.
For the foreseeable future, neither Iran nor any Islamist terror groups threatens the survival of the U.S. Nor could any movements or new circumstances that conceivably could arise within the Middle East.
Two countries in the world, though, definitely could pose such a danger here and now, namely Russia and China.
Russia probably disposes of 1,500 active nuclear weapons, besides another 8,000 in storage, while China has around 250 warheads.
Either country has ample military muscle to challenge the U.S. directly on the battlefield, and in extreme circumstances, either could use its nuclear weapons to destroy the United States as a functioning society.
Yes, the resulting apocalyptic war would also devastate Russia or China, but that prospect offers small consolation.
For more than 60 years, the world has lived with such a balance of nuclear terror, and somehow it has managed to avoid cataclysm.
Just in the past five years, though, relations with both Russia and China have been profoundly destabilized, and knowledgeable commentators warn of the imminent likelihood of political and military confrontations with Western powers.
In neither case, whether with Russia or China, need such tensions lead to actual conflict, and still less to full-scale warfare involving nuclear weapons.
But the possibility of such circumstances does exist, and the U.S. government above all should be focused very sharply on averting these dangers.
Neither the Russian regime nor the Chinese wants to provoke the apocalypse, but to differing degrees, their actions are aimed at sparking confrontations with the West.
Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR). He is the author of numerous books, including “The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade.” A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly, and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first article of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade.”