By Gregory F. Treverton
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Additional resources for Making the Alliance Work: The United States and Western Europe
Yet if the United States retaliates in kind, it will only hurt itself. The United States has played and contines to play the major role in sustaining the international economic system. The dollar is the world's pre-eminent reserve currency, and that role has increased, rather than diminished in the wake of the oil price shocks of the 1970s. That means that if the United States chooses to free ride, it may bring the entire system down. Something like that happened with the American devaluations of 1971 and 1973, though the pieces were put back together.
Nuclear weapons, by their nature, can deter through the threat to punish, not by their role in physical defense. In a time of nuclear stalemate between the two superpowers, that means that nuclear weapons primarily can deter other nuclear weapons. They may also have a role as last-ditch uppers of the ante. That latter threat may be credible if the Soviet Union believes our stake is so important to us, yet since the threat is irrational, there will always be doubts about its credibility, perhaps more to us than to the Soviet Union.
There is no easy escape from those hard facts. Moreover, these analytics bear on alliance issues well beyond who pays for defense and how trading arrangements are sustained. Something akin to free riding, for example, may run through inter-allied dealings over political issues. For Western European states to flirt with the radical Arab states or groups, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in a way the United States does not may be conceived as free riding. The Europeans know they can count on the United States to safeguard collective interests - a counterweight to Soviet military forces or the maintenance of Israel's security, for example - and so are free to seek the private benefits of closer relations to the Arab states.