By Peter S. Goodman

May 11, International Herald Tribune

If the United States were any other country, these would surely be days of panic and austerity in Washington. With debts spiraling higher, a trade deficit exceeding $700 billion a year, and its currency plunging for years, the government would be forced to cut spending and jack up interest rates in a frantic bid to attract investment.

But the United States is not any other country. For more than half a century, Americans have enjoyed a unique privilege in the global economy: The dollar has been the world's dominant currency, the money used in most transactions and the repository for the national savings of many countries, including China, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Come what may — a financial crisis here, a military misadventure there — Americans could count on money sloshing up thick on their shores. Virtually limitless demand for American government bonds has supported the dollar's value, and kept domestic interest rates down. Americans have been emboldened to spend in blissful disregard of their debts, secure that foreigners would always supply finance. And that devil-may-care spending has in turn fueled economic growth around the world.

This dynamic may be so deeply embedded in the workings of the global economy that it could endure for many years to come: The costs of weaning the United States from its credit habit would ripple far and wide.

But what are the chances that a day of reckoning is coming, when the dollar would be so weak that America would have to play by the rules that apply to every other country? Recent signs do suggest some fraying in the American relationship with its many foreign creditors. The balance of trade has gotten so lopsided and the question marks hovering over the American economy so thick that some foreign governments are beginning to hedge their bets on the dollar.

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photo: A money changer in Manila counting U.S. dollars. Some economists say the dollar could lose more of its lead to the euro over the next decade or two, or, in the longer term, be overtaken by the Chinese yuan. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)