Two years ago, Gen. Martin Dempsey said before a Senate committee, “I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” While there’s good reason to doubt that this claim is accurate, as Steven Pinker masterfully details in his "The Better Angels of Our Nature," the fact is that there are many dark forces lingering in the world today, and modern technologies — from Twitter and YouTube to nuclear bombs and bioweapons —are empowering malicious actors like never before.
When I ponder the greatest threats to the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Islamic terrorism. No doubt this is the case for most Americans. Since the early 1990s, religious terrorism, most notably driven by Muslim fanatics overseas, has emerged as a major source of violence. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious terrorism is now the “main driver” of terrorism in the world. This is disconcerting because religiously motivated acts of violence tend to be both more lethal and indiscriminate than past forms of terrorism perpetrated by nationalists, anarchists and Marxists. In this sense, Dempsey is absolutely correct that our situation is more dangerous, even if statistics suggest an overall decline in violence.
This being said, when I consider the greatest threats to human civilization, it’s the United States that stands out above other potential risks. And I’m not the only one: According to a 2014 global survey, the world as a whole voted the United States to be the No. 1 threat to world peace “by a large margin.” Even some of our closest allies identified America as the most significant menace. This is an astonishing result that suggests that a reinterpretation of American exceptionalism may be in order: Perhaps we are exceptional after all, but not in the ways we’d like to think. The world is scared of us.
But why? Why does the world fear the United States more than countries like North Korea and Iran? The answer is that, as critics of the U.S. are quick to point out, many of the most significant conflicts of our age have been nontrivially caused, or exacerbated, by our own foolish actions. To justify this claim, we could go back decades to single out foreign policy blunders like overthrowing a democratic government in Iran in 1953, supporting Saddam during his worst WMD atrocities, and shooting down Iran Air flight 655 while it was in Iranian airspace — and then refusing to apologize.
But let’s start more recently with the 2003 U.S.-led preemptive invasion of Iraq, which resulted in at least 30,000 civilians deaths in the first two years, according to George W. Bush himself, because of an attack on the U.S. that killed slightly under 3,000 people. It’s virtually indisputable that this war seriously worsened the growing problem of Islamic terrorism by destabilizing the Middle East and convincing a whole generation of moderate Muslims to pick up a Kalashnikov and join the holy fight against the “Crusaders.” As the former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell observes in his book "The Great War of Our Time," the Iraq conflict only confirmed the very message that Osama bin Laden was pushing. In Morell’s words, “there is also no doubt that the Iraq War supported the al Qa’ida narrative and helped spread the group’s ideology.”
In addition, the Iraq War convinced a whole generation of Muslims — both Sunni and Shi’ite — that the end of the world is imminent, leading to a rise of apocalyptic fervor in the Middle East. As the Islamic scholar David Cook notes, it was “widely accepted” that the U.S.-led war fulfilled certain Islamic prophecies, and in fact a leading Shia militia in Iraq whose explicit aim was to expel the foreign invaders named itself the Mahdi Army after Islam’s end-of-days messianic figure, the Mahdi. A 2014 Reuters article even cites a Shi’ite fighter as saying that he became convinced that the end was nigh after the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq. “That was the first sign,” he said, “and then everything else followed.”
The same cause-and-effect relationship between the Iraq debacle and the apocalyptic zeitgeist of the region can be found among the Sunnis. The early progenitor of the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, fomented apocalyptic anticipation by citing a grand battle — essentially Armageddon — prophesied to take place in the small Syrian town of Dabiq. In fact, each issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine, noncoincidentally named Dabiq, opens with the following declaration from al-Zarqawi: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify... until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”
After al-Zarqawi’s death, the emphasis on eschatological activism was passed along to subsequent leaders, including Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current caliph of the Islamic State. As Graeme Wood notes in his 2015 article “What ISIS Really Wants,” “During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers … saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi.” Today, the Islamic State still fantasizes aloud about the impending war in Dabiq, as well as numerous other prophesies that appear, in their eyes, to be coming true, such as 80 different nations teaming up to confront the Muslim forces. At present, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS includes slightly more than 60 nations. So, do the math.
The unfortunate fact is that extremism breeds extremism, meaning that the de novo problem of terrorism created by the Iraq War is feeding-back to further strengthen and consolidate the political right’s power and appeal to voters in the U.S. This has manifested itself in proposals like killing the family members of ISIS and “bomb[ing] the sh*t out of them,” as Donald Trump so eloquently put it. Even more alarming, Trump recently suggested that we should ban all Muslims from entering the United States — an idea that even Dick Cheney said “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” If such policies were to be enacted, they would, of course, only further empower the terrorists. As one of the leading experts on suicide terrorism, Robert Pape, observes, terrorist suicide attacks are largely a demand-driven rather than supply-limited phenomenon. Thus, unless we were to destroy the entire “hornet’s nest” with a flurry of nuclear weapons — an obviously immoral strategy (but see below!) — poking the “nest” would only agitate the “hornets” even more. Eliminate the demand and you mitigate terrorism.
What’s perhaps most fascinating about this situation is that Trump appears to be peddling his own apocalyptic narrative to his followers, the least educated Americans. According to Chip Berlet, a scholar of right-wing and apocalyptic movements, Trump’s followers are fixated on urgent phenomena — from China and ISIS to illegal immigration and economic uncertainty — that together create an apocalyptic climate in which a messianic figure of some sort is needed to “save” the believers. As Berlet puts it, “current leaders are corrupt and betraying us, [and] the middle class is having its pocket picked by the parasites below. So white Christians say they have to build a wall to protect themselves from raping and murdering Mexican neighbors, meanwhile registering and rounding up Muslims because they’re plotting terrorism. That’s a pretty good apocalyptic scenario because those threats are existential to the U.S.” The result is, of course, that Muslims are further alienated and the “clash of eschatologies” is ossified, which is exactly what the Islamic State wants. In a sense, it’s a win-win for fundamentalisms.
While Trump continues to lead in the national polls, he currently takes second place in Iowa behind the Canadian-born Ted Cruz. I would argue that Cruz is no less, and perhaps even more, terrifying than Trump. Consider the fact that he’s fostered a close relationship with the megachurch pastor John Hagee, who in 2006 founded one of the most powerful religious lobbies in the United States, Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Earlier this year, Cruz described it as “an honor and a privilege” to have joined Hagee on stage at Hagee’s megachurch, and he also made an appearance at CUFI’s 2015 Washington Summit, along with other would-be presidents like Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and Jeb Bush.
This should worry everyone rooting for world peace because Hagee is a Christian extremist who genuinely believes the that the world is about to end. He’s especially obsessed with Iran, which he believes — perhaps correctly — poses an existential threat to Israel. Israel, in turn, is important because without a Jewish state in Palestine, the end-times scenarios outlined in the Bible cannot commence. It’s not hyperbole to say that Hagee and his army of evangelical followers are infatuated with Israel for purely religious, and especially apocalyptic, reasons. And the result of this infatuation is quite dangerous. For example, Hagee has repeatedly called for the U.S. and Israel to join forces and initiate a preemptive war with Iran. As Hagee declared in an article for the Pentecostal magazine Charisma, “We are standing on the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty.” Given the extent of Hagee’s influence among Republicans, a presidency involving any candidate who’s spoken at a CUFI event should make us nervous.
Finally, moving from the geopolitical environment to the natural environment, it’s worth pointing out that the United States is the second biggest polluter in the world behind China, despite the fact that China has about 1,054,000,000 more citizens than America. This is significant for several reasons. The obvious dangers are that anthropogenic climate change will result in a range of devastating events, including more extreme weather events, megadroughts, desertification, deforestation, species extinctions, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse, the spread of infectious diseases, rising sea levels, food supply shortages, mass migrations, social upheaval, and political instability. If the best current science is to be believed — and it certainly ought to be — these phenomena will be “severe,” “pervasive,” and “irreversible,” and they’ll push societies to the brink of disaster.
But climate change is also linked to the rise of terrorism. This has been affirmed by both the Department of Defense and the current Director of the CIA, John Brennan. In fact, a 2015 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science concludes that climate change was probably behind the record-breaking Syrian drought that lasted from 2007 to 2010. It was this drought that initiated a mass migration of farmers into Syria’s urban centers, a phenomenon that’s been linked to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. And it was in the midst of this conflict that the Islamic State emerged more powerful than ever. It follows that climate change has fueled the rise of ISIS — meaning that we created the conditions for this monstrosity of evil in more than a couple ways.
The contemporary world provides us with no shortage of worrisome crises, from Russian acts of aggression to the incipient Third World War in Syria. When it comes to the future of human civilization as a whole, though, I find my own country to be the primary source of anxiety. Given the mythology of American exceptionalism — our benevolent hegemony and moral superiority, our good intentions and special favorability in the eyes of God — it’s often hard to see just how catastrophic our policies have been throughout the world. But if one imagines oneself as an alien creature hovering over Earth without any bias for one society over another, it would be hard not to conclude that the United States has been, and continues to be, a major source of global distress.
In 2014, the world confirmed that we’re the greatest threat to peace, and this opinion appears to be substantiated by the facts. What’s the lesson here? It’s not to sit back and point fingers at ourselves, but to acknowledge our history of follies and then to try as best we can to be just a little bit more judicious moving forward.