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OPINION: Islamic State, al-Qaeda and nuclear madness

Those who complain that the news is depressing have a valid point. But it could get exponentially worse.

China, Russia, Egypt and Turkey are becoming even more authoritarian. The European Union is " on the verge of collapse," according to George Soros, one of its strongest supporters. Global warming is worsening. The Brics countries, which were to be engines of global growth, are all struggling with economic decline and political cul-de-sacs - with the slightly shaky exception of India. In every case, except those of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China's Xi Jinping (though not his extended family), the leader has been accused of corruption.

In the United States, both the number of jobs and the GDP are rising, but the bitterness of the political divide and the willingness of parts of the electorate to endorse prejudice as a political principle is itself a crisis, and will be for the next president. The determination of the rich to stay rich and get richer is vividly displayed in the leaks from Panama.

But the news can get more depressing. We might get blown up.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama invoked the need for world leaders to cope with "the danger of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon." In his speech at the Nuclear Security Summit, he had much success to report: earlier commitments to secure or eliminate nuclear material had been followed by most of the world's states.

A "but" was coming, and it was large: both al-Qaeda and Islamic State actively seek nuclear weaponry, Obama said, and "there is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material they most certainly would use it to kill as many innocent people as possible." That seems likely to be true: both groups have said so, and a member of Islamic State - which has already used chemical weapons - obtained surveillance footage of a manager at a nuclear facility in Belgium, with a view, officials say, of possibly developing a "dirty" bomb (a conventional explosive device packed with radioactive material).

The head of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, told a Senate committee last month that "the threat of WMD is real. Biological and chemical materials and technologies, almost always dual use, move easily in the globalised economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them." The veteran commentator on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman, wrote in March that Islamic State is moving towards the "final Definitive Victory State… when the caliphate ultimately triumphs over the rest of the world." For that, it will need nuclear weapons.

Hoffman also believes that the two groups most hungry for global domination - Islamic State and al-Qaeda - may merge, in spite of their leaders' mutual hostility. This possibility, he said, quoting an unnamed senior US official, "would be an absolute and unprecedented disaster for (the United States) and our allies."

More cheer? Russia didn't attend the nuclear summit. Moscow had said last November that it thought the United States was trying to "take the role of the main and 'privileged' player in this sphere" - so it didn't show. Russia, Obama said to reporters, had made little, if any, progress on the Security Summit's goals - because Putin has been pursuing a vision of "emphasising military might."

The United States and Russia are estimated to have between them 95 percent of the world's 15,000 nuclear warheads: the United States 6,970, Russia, 7300. The United States has been slightly reducing its stock; Russia has not. Obama, in a speech in Prague near the beginning of his first presidency seven years ago, called for a nuclear-free world - as Ronald Reagan had done before him.

By contrast, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons on Islamic State, on Turkey and as a response to Western protests when Russian forces seized Crimea. In the summer of 2014, in a more veiled threat, he told a youth group that "Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world's biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words - this is the reality. What's more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces."

The United States, like Russia, modernises and upgrades its nuclear forces continually, and is likely to sell Patriot interceptor missiles to Poland - much to Russia's fury. But somehow, the widening gulf between the nations has to be bridged, or we face the largest problem of all: a widely-dispersed ability to annihilate much of the world.

The news should not just be "depressing," but rather a prompt for greater engagement and understanding of its complexity. And with understanding comes the need to support those politicians, officials and organisations seeking compromise and solution. If the 20th was the American century, the 21st must be the world's, in which the facts of multiple threats prompt a mutual response. Without it, the cocoons we seek to hide from bad news crumble more by the year.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including 'What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics'. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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