New York Times
January 4, 2006


By Thomas L. Friedman

The year 2006 is just four days old, but I'm already prepared to nominate the natural resource of the year, the one that will have the most decisive impact on international relations -- and that is undoubtedly oil.

Look at all the global trends involving oil (or gas) today, and they are all bad: the former leader of Germany gets voted out of office and goes to work for the president of Russia, running a pipeline company owned by Russia. The oil-for-food scandal tarnishes the U.N. The president of Iran, feeling so emboldened by the billions of dollars flowing into his country thanks to $60-a-barrel oil, engages in repeated rants about how the Holocaust is a myth. Vladimir Putin's oil-fueled government in Russia steadily erodes civil liberties at home, while using its energy clout abroad to try to punish Ukraine and to deflect U.N. pressure on Syria for its murderous campaign against Lebanese democrats and on Iran for its work to develop a nuclear bomb. I could go on. Do you have all day?

If you look at these trends, three things come to mind: They are all negative, they are all going to get worse with another year of $60-a- barrel oil, and the only force on the planet with the will and the way to neutralize their worst effects is America.

But here's the rub: America's refusal to have a serious energy policy makes these problems only more severe, and its refusal to have a serious entitlement policy -- reforming Social Security and Medicare before they totally devour the U.S. budget -- is only going to sap America's ability to play the global governing role that is so necessary for world stability.

To put it another way, our energy gluttony is strengthening the worst forces in the world and our entitlement gluttony is going to weaken our capacity to deal with those forces. As the Johns Hopkins University foreign affairs specialist Michael Mandelbaum puts it: "The greatest threat to America's role in the world today is not China. It's Medicare."

In a smart and original new book, "The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century," Mr. Mandelbaum argues that while U.S. foreign policy is hardly perfect, it is America -- through its vast military deployments, diplomatic engagements and vital role in buttressing the global economy and its rules -- that provides the basic governance that keeps the world stable and on a decent track.

Most countries in the world like this situation, he contends. They like it because they know that the U.S. is not a predatory power, so they are not afraid of the order it provides. They like it because this global order is helpful to every country in the world, but the cost of it is borne largely by U.S. taxpayers. And they like it because they can criticize the U.S. and still enjoy all the benefits it provides.

The best evidence for all this, Mr. Mandelbaum notes, is the fact that no military coalition has ever formed to counter America's global governing role -- as happened with other hegemonic powers in history.

In Mr. Mandelbaum's view, America "is not the lion of the international system, terrorizing and preying on smaller, weaker animals in order to survive itself. It is, rather, the elephant, which supports a wide variety of other creatures -- smaller mammals, birds and insects -- by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself."

No other country could play this crucial stabilizing role. But its continuation depends on "American taxpayers' being willing to keep paying for it," Mr. Mandelbaum said -- and that gets us back to our runaway entitlements.

USA Today recently quoted David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, as saying we are about to be hit by "a demographic tsunami" that will "never recede." The baby boomers total 77 million, and their first wave turns 60 this year. Unless we trim the Medicare and Social Security benefits promised to these boomers, the paper noted, America's "national debt will grow more than $3 trillion through 2010, to $11.2 trillion. The interest alone would cost $561 billion in 2010, the same as the Pentagon [budget]."

The same as the Pentagon's! So either Social Security and Medicare shrink or the Pentagon shrinks -- because higher taxes seem to be out of the question for now. If history is any guide, Americans will prefer Social Security and Medicare over paying to make the world safe for China, India, Russia and Iran to pursue their interests.

If so, the world may soon test out one of the most important theses of Mr. Mandelbaum's book: that the greatest threat to global stability is "not too much American power, but too little."