International media coverage in recent years has focused significantly on responding to ISIS.
As a result, the increasing tension between the U.S. and Russia and China has received less attention than it should.
By sane and carefully thought-out responses, the U.S. can defuse such situations, but it has to understand exactly what it is dealing with.
In the Russian case, the question is when (not whether) the Putin regime will follow up its successes in Ukraine with a comparable effort to reassert power in former Soviet territories, such as the Baltic states.
Might Russian forces use clandestine and irregular forces against one of those independent nations, on the ostensible grounds of defending Russian ethnic minorities?
Apart from expanding Russian power, such a move would pose a direct challenge to the United States, the European Union and NATO.
For the record, the roster of NATO members includes Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania and other former members of the Eastern bloc. The U.S. is legally obliged to come to their aid if they are invaded.
So would the West use its military power to defend Lithuania (say) against a Russian stealth invasion?
The Russians would calculate that such a response was unlikely – but if they made a mistake, the results would be catastrophic. We could face another European war, with the real chance of further escalation.
Just within the past few months, the Russians have run exercises that involved the hypothetical invasion of Poland and the destruction of Warsaw, and all-too-real Russian bombers buzz the coasts of Britain and Ireland.
Yet U.S. media pay virtually no attention to such extraordinarily aggressive moves, and far less than to the notional Iranian menace.
The national political debate we should be having right now should concern the existence of the NATO Treaty itself, not the future of Iran.
Relations with China raise similar dangers. The U.S. and China are shadow-boxing over control of the South China Sea, where Chinese maritime claims run up against those of several other countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Even more sensitive are territorial conflicts with Japan, involving the tiny Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
The dangers here are not as critically immediate as those in eastern Europe, but they are severe within the medium term – perhaps within five years or so.
The greatest peril is of local naval confrontations escalating into generalized armed conflict.
Almost imperceptibly, the broad shape of international strategic alignments has drifted back to the Kennedy era.
The fact that the world is full of dangerous places and situations is nothing new, and the U.S. remains a very powerful nation with the ability to respond in different regions.
But that capacity is not limitless, and resources tasked in one area cannot operate in others.
The more the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence worlds are focused on Islamist and terrorist dangers, the less attention they pay to other situations in eastern Europe or eastern Asia.
The less knowledge and understanding they have of those situations, the easier it is to make disastrous blunders or miscalculations.
Moreover, public attention and concern represent a limited commodity, which cannot be focused on an infinite range of problems at once.
The more time U.S. politicians spend debating the handling of Iran – confrontation or containment? – the less they notice events and threats elsewhere in the world. And the more the U.S. media, and even supposedly well-informed people, come to view radical Islam as the world’s most pressing danger, which it is not, by any means.
We face a problem of rhetorical escalation. We know easily enough that groups like ISIS are deplorable and lethal, an image that they cultivate highly successfully with their torture porn videos and snuff films.
In response, we pile on the condemnations, making them the number-one foe, the “Ultimate Evil,” the worst thing in the world.
This is natural and predictable, but we should not take these statements as literally true.
ISIS is not and never has been the West’s greatest threat, and in any political or military sense, they remain a fleabite.
Yet woe betide the legislator or policymaker who tries to put the group in context. Any such attempt attracts charges of being a Pollyanna, or even a fellow traveler of radical Islam.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to comprehending and preventing international dangers that actually could annihilate us?
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 one 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.”