An Interview with Thomas L. Friedman

New York Times foreign affairs columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman talks about the next edition and updates to his bestselling book, "The World Is Flat," with Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online. A full transcript of their conversation follows.

An Interview with Thomas L. Friedman

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Nayan Chanda: We have in our studio Tom Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and author of “The World Is Flat.” Tom, welcome back.

Thomas L. Friedman: Great to be here, Nayan.

Chanda: Your book, “The World Is Flat,”came out over a year ago. Other than the fact that it has sold 1.5 million copies and it has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 45 weeks, what else has changed in the time when the book came out?

Friedman: Well, you know, one of the things I've enjoyed most, Nayan, is that first of all, just thinking about, why did this book catch on, you know. After all, it's a book about globalization, somewhat technical in some cases. And I've really spent a lot of time asking myself, you know, what's going on here. As I say, I'd like to think it's because of my mellifluous voice and beautiful brown eyes, but I'm not that stupid, so... I know that I've caught a wave, Nayan, and so...

Chanda: What was that wave?

Friedman: What was that wave? And I guess that the best way I could summarize it is that it's a wave of anxiety, it's a wave that basically I would describe like this: Our parents were sure that they were going to live better than their parents, and they were just as sure that we, their children, were going to live better than them. Our generation is now coming to retirement worried that we may not retire as well as our parents. And you know what, our kids may not live as well as we do. And I think that anxiety, that anxiety that we are now being touched by people who have never touched us before, we're competing with people who we've never competed with before, and, fortunately, we're collaborating with people we've never been able to collaborate with before. But for all those reasons, there is a wave of anxiety out there, that there's a lot of things changing; a lot of traditional boundaries are being eliminated, competition is much more intense. And, gosh, I wonder if my kids are going to live as well as me.

Chanda: So the fear of the unknown, of what is ahead. Things are changing so fast.

Friedman: It's the fear of the unknown, Nayan, and I would say the known, because it's the fear of what people see as real competition now, coming from corners that they've never seen it before, coming in the white-collar realm, not just the blue-collar realm where we've become used to it, and not knowing where it stops. OK, the call-center operator, well that's not important, but my radiologist, you know, is now using outsourcing to have X-rays read somewhere. My accountant, you know, can now draw on someone in India to do accounting. So now so many more things now seem able to be digitized, automated or outsourced. Where that starts or stops is I think what has a lot of people concerned.

Chanda: Judging by the reaction you have got in Silicon Valley, you have been almost made into a prophet there. Now how do you see the US high tech companies adjusting to this flat world?

Friedman: Now, you know, the good news is everything I learned about the flat world, I learned from companies. I learned from CEO's, CIO's and CTO's, who were doing it. Two things were happening. One thing is, they were doing it, but they weren't talking about it. Because no one – who wanted to talk about outsourcing?

Chanda: Right.

Friedman: And it's one of the kind of reasons that I walked into a vacuum on this book, an intellectual vacuum, is that the people who are doing it, and boy they're doing it, they are doing it at the cutting edge, and thank goodness because they're really driving American competitiveness and companies forward. But they didn't want to talk about it. Nobody wanted to talk about it. So one of the fortunate things that I was able to do was go in and get them to talk about it and then kind of put it all together. And that really relates to another point why I think the book caught on a little in Silicon Valley, each one was doing it, but in his or her realm, in their own dot. But no one was really connecting the dots. And it always struck me Nayan, you know, when someone like Michael Dell, invited me to come to Dell and talk about the book to his management team. And my attitude was, "You talking to me? Is there someone behind me? You talking to me? You want me to come and talk to you, no, no, no!" And I realized then, you know, from that experience that even though they were in the middle of it, a lot of them, they actually hadn't gotten outside. And therefore, when I, because I was just talking to all of them across the spectrum, and kind of put it all together, they found that, actually, quite useful and informative. So, those two things really came together for me.

Chanda: The other group of people I think who have been very troubled by your book is the education circle in the United States, I've been hearing from people who are extremely worried as to what this flat world means for you as an educated system. What do you think is going to happen there?

Friedman: Well, you know, if I've gotten feedback from any group, any single group, more than any other, it's from American educators, school superintendents, teachers and whatnot. All of whom, you know, sense that we're not really staying at the cutting edge, that we're not getting this competition, and we're not strategizing enough about it. And it's actually quite exciting, there's an incredible amount of experimentation going on in education in America today. I'm actually an optimist. I'm actually much more optimistic today than when you and I talked about the book a year ago. Because I see the reaction not just to the book but to the moment that the book describes. It's not one of triumphalism, not "We'll be OK, we'll all be fine." No, no, it's "Whoa, the sky is falling! Good, that's good." The sky actually isn't falling, you know, it's not that bad. But that's good, the reaction has been immediate, it's been energetic and it's been mobilized. And so what I've seen in going out to schools is a tremendous amount of experimentation about what is the right approach to improve our math, science fundamentals, to get more young men and women into math and science. And so what I've done, is I'm now updating the book, there'll be a new 2.0 version, there'll be a new version of the book out in mid-April. It's just expanded and updated, basically. And I've focused a lot, in this book, this new version, on education, on what I call "the new middle." We knew what the old middle-class jobs were. Well I would argue that in the flat world, with certain things being outsourced and digitized, we now really ought to think about what are the new middle jobs, because there's, we need a middle class. So what will be the jobs? What I really did last year, Nayan, was go around to American companies and say, "Who works here? Him over there, what does he do? She looks like she's got an interesting job, what's she up to?" And after enough of this, I basically distilled, down to eight categories, what I called the categories of the new middle. And these aren't specific jobs, you know, widget operator here, you know. It's sort of broad categories, and these will be the new categories of the new middle. I'll go through them very quickly for you. One is great collaborators. When so many more things are going to be made in global supply chains, the ability to be a great collaborator, to be able to work cross-culturally and multinationally, there's going to be a huge number of jobs around managing and coordinating these global supply chains. Second are great leveragers, people who can leverage technology, so one person can do the job of twenty. Rather than competing with India or China, where twenty people might do the job of one, you make up for the labor cost by leveraging technology. Third are great explainers. Boy, there's going to be a whole industry in explaining. Because there's enormous complexity out there, so whether you're a teacher, a manager, a journalist, the ability to explain this complexity is going be in huge demand. Fourth, I would call great localizers. Great localizers are people who can localize the global. What does that mean? They can take the power of this global platform and turn it into a local business. Now that's everything from the eBay entrepreneur, Mom and Pop who have now started a business on eBbay, to the garage owner in New Haven, who goes online one day and says to his partner, "Hey Bill, did you see this? We can get out hubcaps for half-price from Romania at half the cost that it would take us to get them from Rochester." So they're leveraging the global platform, by localizing the global. There'll be a huge industry in that, Nayan. Fifth, I'd say, are gonna be people who are great adapters. People who can stay one step ahead of the forces of digitization and automation. And that's going to apply to a lot of people in a lot of industries. Sixth would be what I would call people who are passionate personalizers. If you can bring real passion and a personal touch to any vanilla task, there's going to be a job for you in the flat world. Seventh I would call anything green. Nayan, anything green, and there is a job for you in the twenty-first century. Because green technology is going to be the industry of the 21st century. So those are some of the categories that I'm looking at.

Chanda: Now, I think the education part of what you mentioned is not only the United States. From what I gather, India, which is acclaimed as providing tens of thousands of engineers every year, is showing anxiety that its educational system is falling behind. And recently you were in India. So what did you find about India's education system?

Friedman: It was interesting, Nayan. I was at Nascom, the Indian high-tech association's annual meeting, and full of some of the brainiest and most innovative people in India, but the buzz, the subterranean buzz that I found there was all about, "woe is me," basically. We're now doing a lot of BPO, that's India' specialty, business process outsourcing. That's everything from answering your phone, to writing your software, to running your back room, your human resources department. A good business, but India's getting competition in that field now. Vietnam will come in there, Eastern Europe. They've got to move, they know, to KPO, knowledge process outsourcing, where you don't just tell me – I don't just do the "how," I do the "what." I actually conceive of the project, the idea, and then I execute and implement it. To do that, though, you need a different type of mindset. You need a mindset that's questioning, that's innovative, that's synthesizing. And Indian education has been very good for pounding in those fundamentals. We know that, and nobody does it better. It's been great at getting people who know how to do the "how." But it has not been great for creating people to know to ask the "what." And – or the "why." And, of course, that's the strength of the United States. We need more people with good fundamentals, they need more people who are creative, and that's where you're getting this kind of grand convergence. So I think you're going to see, over time, a loosening up of the rigid Indian education system, and introducing a lot more "what" and "why" into the classroom, because the talent is there, we know. It's just really how you shape it and reshape it.

Chanda: To promote creativity.

Friedman: Exactly. To promote more synthesis and creativity.

Chanda: The flat world you have described, of course, is getting flatter by the day. But at the same time, I see a couple of sort of new trends. One of them is, as we see in China, an attempt to raise cyber-walls, to still carve up the flat world in a way that goes against the grain. Now, the recent development involving Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, what is your take on that? Do you think that China is going to succeed in raising this cyber-wall?.

Friedman: I have kind of four reactions to the whole Google story, Nayan. First, shame on Google, shame on Microsoft, shame on Yahoo for not standing up more for certain basic principles of human rights, number one. Number two, let’s take the high road. Let’s keep our eye on the prize. Yes, in China, you cannot Google search for Tiannaman Square or Fulang Gong. You can still search for Thomas Jefferson, you can still search for Ben Franklin. Isn’t that what’s really important? If 95 percent of my searches go through, isn’t that what’s really important. My third reaction, on the other hand, is shame on China. After all, if I’m a Chinese graduate student in physics and I’m about to graduate from the University of Minnesota and I’m got a job offer from 3M and I’ve got a job offer at Wawei back at Shanghai. And I pick up the paper one day and I see that I can’t search. You know what? I think I may, I’m thinking that this 3M offer is starting to look pretty good in Minnesota. And fourthly and lastly, I’m asking myself at the other end, is this the end of something or the beginning of something? I think it’s the end of something. I think it’s the last gasp of a security apparatus in China that it’s still relevant and in control of something. But to think that you’re going to control the searches of 1.3 billion people, oh good luck. That is a fool’s errand.

Chanda: Well, in terms of moving bytes, you can see that maybe the cyber world won’t succeed. But moving atoms, there seems to be, again, new obstacles. Recently, as you know, the French government has raised objections to an Indian-owned company obtaining the Frnch-owned steel company Acelor. And now we see the same thing in the United States because the Dubai port company is going to acquire six American ports. This, of course, goes against the grain of free markets, which most of the Western world supports So how do you square this with one hand, we uphold free market principals, and on the other hand, we are picking and choosing which companies can buy in our country or not?

Friedman: I don’t square it, Nayan. I look at it with huge embarrassment. I want to think of it, really, as just a sky-zone to think that our country is a part of this. We believe in elections, we believe in free markets. I certainly do. We’re not turning over our ports, security over to Dubai Port Authority. We’re turning over the port authority and six ports to people who will say, “Park here, park there.” Collect the fees and what not and manage the traffic of the port. But they’re not going to be inspecting, or not inspecting. They’re not going to be bringing their cousins from Dubai, you know, to infiltrate container ships. I think it’s a shameful and has slightly racist overtones to it. This is about keeping a bunch of Arabs out of our country, that’s what this is really about. And it’s a bad thing not only because it doesn’t reflect our real values, that’s bad enough. Think about how many services we run around the Arab world and companies. American companies, Think about what an IBM or a FedEx or a UPS is running. What if they then turn around and say, “You’re not going to take ours, well, we’re not going to take yours.” We’re in a very dangerous tit for tat that could get going here. This is a really critical moment and we have to be really careful about this.

Chanda: So I also think that while the word has not be used yet, a subtext of all this is that Arab-owned companies are about Muslims. That is the unspoken subtext.

Friedman: Absolutely.

Chanda: That I fear might have a real impact.

Friedman: It’s part of the dangerous backlash going on. Both sides are guilty of it. When people ransack a Danish embassy in Damascus and the government allows it. You know, governments are there to restrain people’s worst impulses. We have nativists in our country. They have nativists in their country that are going to always want to push these issues. Government’s job is to restrain that, and I think this is a real issue, a really shameful episode. I think the president’s right on this one, and I don’t agree with him on this.

Chanda: And the other thing that is also becoming somewhat questionable is the West’s commitment to democracy. We support democracy, but when the Palestinians elect Hamas, they say, “Ah, let’s think abut it.” What do you say to those who say that Hamas is a terrorist organization and should not be supported?

Friedman: I think that Hamas is a terrorist organization, but I also think that it won a free and fair election and if it’s going to be ousted or it’s going to be de-legitimized, then I think that’s for the Palestinians to decide. And by the way, only if they do it, will it have the de-legitimizing effects or the moderating effects. If we said to Hamas tomorrow, “Well, you don’t get any money, unless you sing “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem. The next day, they say, “Fine” and they start singing “Kol od balevav p'nimah…” Fine, would you believe them? And then you say that “You have to sing ‘Hatikva’ in perfect Yiddish, standing on one leg and pulling your ear. I still wouldn’t believe them. So why ask people do things that even if they do them, you wouldn’t believe them. Why not ask them to do something that is really hard and that you would believe. And that’s maintain a ceasefire with Israel. Oh, that speaks to me so much more than any words. If Hamas is ready to do that, if they’re ready to allow the Palestinian Authority to continue in a dialog, negotiations with Israel, that’s what’s really important. You know we have a saying in journalism, Nayan, as you know, “Never be smarter than the story. When the story is speaking to you, then shut up and listen. Okay. Because all the stories I got wrong, I was talking when I should have been listening. Well, this story is speaking to us. And so when the story is speaking to you, just shut up. Okay, and let’s listen to the story. Let’s listen to Palestinians and let’s see if Hamas behaves when they have the burden of responsibility. And if their deeds are consonant with our interests, that’s what matters, not their words.

Chanda: And another broader implication of a Hamas victory is how this will be played by regimes in the Middle East who are being pressed to democratize. Are they going to succeed in telling the West, “Look, this is what happens if you push for democracy?” So what should be the response?

Friedman: The response should be, that is what they will tell us. But I guess the response should be, “Guys, for 50 years, you’ve been telling us that’s it you or the mosque. All the Arab autocrats say, “It’s either moi or the deluge.” Well, you know what, we got the deluge anyway, and it was called 9/11. And it was called 7/7. And we keep getting the deluge. And part of the reason we keep getting the deluge is because you keep producing more of these people with your authoritarian systems. So you know what, we tried that for 50 years. Maybe we’ll give this a try for a couple of years. That’s my attitude.

Chanda: So you’re prepared to accept Islamic brotherhood?

Friedman: Yes, I am. You don’t go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini in the Arab world, because there’s nothing between the palace and the mosque. There is no civil society at all. So when the palace breaks either by election or invasion, you go straight into free fall, and we have to accept that’s the reality. We have two choices. We can preserve the palace, as we’ve been doing for 50 years, knowing that it’s actually creating a context that’s actually producing more of these angry, frustrated, unemployed young men or just say, you know what, let’s try to liberalize the mosque. Once it has the burden of responsibility, who knows how they’ll behave. And so if I have to have a choice these days, then that’s what I’m going to go for. There’s much I regret for how the Iraq War was fought, but the basic gut feeling, that we need to bust open that world, because of the terrible bargain at the core of that world, which is dictators basically blessing retrograde religious leaders and those religious leaders blessing the regime. The regime blesses the religious leaders with money and title, and they bless the regime in absence a popular vote. And it’s a perfect little closed loop they’ve got going, which produces frustrated, angry, undereducated young people. That hasn’t worked. It’s been a failure and I don’t see any liberalizing trend to it at all. So, I think it’s time we try something new.

Chanda: And the last thing, how do you see the Iraq situation evolving?

Friedman: I don’t know. What worries me, Nayan, is that we may be too late. I don’t know. We made so many mistakes there. What I worry about is that it may be too late – that the poison ethnic division is now so much into the bloodstream of Iraq.

Chanda: Ethnic and sectarian.

Friedman: Exactly. Ethnic, religious, sectarian division. That it is going to be impossible to ever really build anything there. That’s what I worry about

Chanda: The explosion of the mosque today, that’s –

Friedman: A terrible story. Let’s just finish, Nayan, by putting that explosion of the mosque, which is a micro, and the whole port story together. No one is blowing up our ports. But what they both do is inject that poison, the poison of sectarianism, of division, “I want you dead or I want you away from me,” that’s really dangerous. Because when that starts, you don’t know where it’s going to stop.

Chanda: And this happening in a flat world where movement is so much easier and individuals are empowered.

Friedman: Exactly, people hear it so much quicker. It is very worrying. When I think of how you and I could have traveled the world 20 years ago and did. When I first met you in Hong Kong, the ease, the carefree way we traveled. And now, the 10 things you have to think of before you get your passport stamped. It’s really disturbing.

Chanda: Tom, thanks very much.

Friedman: Nayan, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you.

© 2006 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization