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Hitching a free ride with the U.S.

January 29, 2006|Michael Mandelbaum | MICHAEL MANDELBAUM is the author of "The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century," from which this article is adapted.

THE WIDELY differing reactions to Iran's drive for nuclear weapons among the countries of the world present a paradox: Those in greatest jeopardy from such weapons seem willing to do the least to stop it. This apparently illogical situation illustrates the most important and least appreciated feature of 21st century international relations: the remarkable role of the United States.

It is the U.S. that has taken the lead in trying to block Iran's nuclear ambitions, calling attention to Tehran's violations of its nuclear agreements, insisting on referring these violations to the United Nations for sanctions and hinting that a U.S. military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is a genuine possibility. Even if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, however, it will not have the capacity to launch a direct attack on the U.S.

On the other hand, the governments of Iran's Arab neighbors, which the Iranian regime has termed illegitimate and has tried in the past to subvert, have remained virtually silent about Tehran's nuclear program.

The Western Europeans (whose territory Iran could strike), while expressing disappointment that their diplomatic efforts to rein in the Iranian nuclear program have failed, proclaim their opposition to the use of force for this purpose.

And Russia, which is also within striking distance of Iran and is fighting a Muslim insurgency in Chechnya -- to which the Iranian regime, a notorious sponsor of terrorism, could some day supply nuclear materials -- is balking at seeking a U.N. reprimand of Tehran.

The reason for this odd pattern of behavior is that the United States has come to assume wide responsibility for ensuring international security and global prosperity. In particular, it is the U.S. that has taken the lead in pursuing two goals that benefit all other countries and that the Iranian nuclear program threatens: limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and ensuring a steady supply of oil from the Middle East.

THESE ARE NOT the only tasks the United States carries out that benefit others. The U.S. military presence in Europe and Asia forestalls nuclear and conventional arms races between and among the countries there, and it creates the political confidence necessary for trade and investment to flourish. The American dollar is the world's most widely used currency. The United States supplies the largest and most open market for exports, access to which is vital for the well-being of other countries. In fact, the U.S. provides to other countries some, although not all, of the services that governments typically furnish to their own citizens. The U.S. has come to function as the world's government.

To be sure, the U.S. did not deliberately seek this role; it gradually grew out of American policies during the Cold War. Nor has the rest of the world ever officially approved this global American role. And the United States has never set out with the intention of furnishing benefits to others. The international initiatives it undertakes are designed to serve American interests. This they do -- Iranian nuclear weapons would make the world a more dangerous place for the U.S., as well -- but they also serve the interests of other countries.

Yet other countries do not acknowledge the benefits they receive from the United States because that could raise the question of why they don't pay more of the costs of supplying these benefits. No government would lightly abandon such a "free ride." So it is in the case of Iran's nuclear program.

Other governments know that the efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons may fail, and that in that case they will be less secure. Yet even this prospect is unlikely to induce them to pay higher costs and run greater risks to achieve this goal, and for a familiar reason. The Arabs, the Europeans and the Russians have a country they believe they can count on to contain a nuclear Iran should that be necessary: the United States.

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