Thomas Friedman’s new world order

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thomas Friedman argues we should not try to stop the forces of change that are challenging our ability to cope.

On November 22 last year, less than a fortnight after the US election, President-elect Donald Trump, in a half-hearted attempt to patch up his abysmal relationship with the “failing” New York Times, sat down with the paper’s editors and senior writers at their headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
What resulted was a wide-ranging, on-the-record interview that reached its nadir when the paper’s long-serving columnist, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman, asked Trump about his position on climate change.

Trump joked that his Miami golf course will actually be “perfect” in a warming world, never mind the numerous coastal links he owns that are vulnerable to sea level rise. Then he went on to question the integrity of climate scientists and to suggest that a lot of smart people are actually climate sceptics. He also boasted about the environmental awards he had won, a claim the Washington Post fact-checkers couldn’t verify, instead presenting Trump with his first four-Pinocchio rating as president.

“You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98,” said Trump. “You can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind.”

Friedman held on to the hope that the renegade billionaire-turned-leader of the free world did actually have an open mind on the subject. But the following week Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General of Oklahoma and a climate change sceptic, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt had repeatedly attempted to sue the EPA in an effort to overturn the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan aimed at curbing emissions from coal-fired power stations.

“There are 333,482,784 Americans and Trump picked the single worst one to be the head of our Environmental Protection Agency,” says Friedman. “It was dumbfounding, with emphasis on the word ‘dumb’.”

It was also more than a little depressing for Friedman, given the subject of his latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, which hit shelves a few days before the meeting with Trump.

Like his 2005 bestseller, The World is Flat, which examined the effect of globalisation in the 21st century, and its 2008 follow-up, Hot, Flat and Crowded, a call for a clean energy revolution to tackle climate change, Thank You for Being Late explores the breakneck pace of change we are living with.

The title refers to the slivers of time the 63-year-old columnist claims for himself just to sit and think, when Washington DC traffic and subway delays regularly conspire to upset his early-morning breakfast meetings.

“On one of those occasions, I realised I didn’t care at all about my guest’s tardiness, so I said, ‘No, no, please don’t apologise. In fact, you know what, thank you for being late!’” writes Friedman in the book’s opening chapter.

The World is Flat explained in a blur of visits to Walmart warehouses and Silicon Valley computer labs how e-commerce, digitisation, the off-shoring and outsourcing of jobs and exponential growth in technological capacity were changing everything.

Triple threat

More than a decade on, he refers to a triple combo of accelerations in the market that are challenging our ability to cope: globalisation; environmental threats posed by climate change and biodiversity loss; and the upward trajectory of artificial intelligence.

The answer, he argues, is to remember what it was like first learning to ride a bike: in the age of accelerations, stay upright, steady and in motion and you’ll be fine. Stop moving, start wobbling and you’ll fall over.

“So many people today seem to be looking for someone to put on the brakes, to take a hammer to the forces of change – or just give them a simple answer to make their anxiety go away,” he writes. “It is time to redouble our efforts to close that anxiety gap, with imagination and innovation, not scare tactics and simplistic solutions.”

Which brings us back to Trump, the ultimate hammer and brake on change.

“Not only are there issues on which Trump is ignorant, but more frighteningly, he presides over the greatest collection of climate expertise in the world – Nasa, Nooa [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], the EPA, as well as the CIA and the Pentagon – and he apparently didn’t consult a single one of those climate experts before making these decisions,” says Friedman, who still clings to what some would call the naive optimism that infuses Thank You for Being Late.

“I believe our institutions are very strong. Our court system, our rule of law, our democracy and our free press. You can see in these early days how much our institutions have pushed back on Trump.”

He points to the court decisions blocking both versions of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The day I speak to Friedman, another federal ruling temporarily blocks Trump’s executive order to suspend funding for so-called “sanctuary cities”, including Los Angeles, New York and Houston, which limit their co-operation with federal authorities to identify and detain illegal immigrants.

“Take California, for instance,” says Friedman. “It is a very strong state; it has very strong pollution standards, efficiency standards. If you want to sell a car or an air conditioner in California, you’ve got to meet California’s standards no matter what the Federal Government says or the President feels.

“The big learning curve Trump is on is understanding how powerful these institutions are. The world is not a Trump real-estate deal; running America is very different.”

He suggests Trump’s efforts to bypass the fourth estate in favour of broadcasting to his 28 million Twitter followers, supplemented by soft interviews on Breitbart and Fox News, are also failing. “Every day, the mainstream media is setting the agenda for his administration.”

The New York Times, which Friedman joined in 1981, just in time to be dispatched to Beirut to cover the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, revealed in January it is earmarking US$5 million to stay ahead of the White House PR machine in “chronicling the Trump era in Washington, New York, the nation and the world”.

If the nation’s institutions are fighting back against Trump, it is on the world stage that those accelerations – namely, a “population explosion and environmental degradation” – could define Trump’s presidency, says Friedman.

“It really is this cocktail of climate change, misgovernance and population explosion that is creating a new world of disorder in places like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in our hemisphere and across the sub-Saharan region of Africa right up into the Middle East and across India.”

Friedman describes it as a hurricane ripping through a trailer park: the countries with dodgy foundations will be torn apart. In a documentary series he made with National Geographic last year, he visited Egypt, Syria and Yemen to look at how environmental change is stirring social and political unrest. He is convinced that the extreme drought that began in 2006 in Syria and was intensified in the following years by the impact of climate change helped ignite the uprising against Bashar al-Assad.

“In my day, someone would have gone into Syria or Yemen to create order. But in today’s post-imperial world, no one wants to do that,” says Friedman.

“I supported what Trump did,” he says of the Tomahawk missile strike the President ordered on a Syrian military airfield in early April, despite his anti-interventionist campaign rhetoric. “I want to live in a world where we take notice of people who use poison gas against children. We can’t solve every problem in the world or right every wrong, but if we can set some boundaries as a country, at a reasonable price in a way that will have a reasonable impact, and reduce the chance that someone else might use this poison gas, I think it is a good thing.”

Friedman’s critics have long considered him a neocon warmonger. He supported the invasion of Iraq, believes Isis should be left alone to overwhelm Assad and is not averse to seeing US troops on the ground in Syria “in the right political context”.

“[An American presence] needs to buttress a power-sharing agreement there, as part of a larger, international peacekeeping force. I don’t think you will or should see American troops there on the ground on their own.”

Friedman describes his politics as being “to the left of Bernie Sanders and to the right of the Wall Street Journal editorial page”.

In the closing pages of Thank You for Being Late, he lists some ideas for how governments can navigate a world of accelerating change. He suggests slashing corporate tax rates – again putting him on the same page as Trump – but taxing carbon, sugar and bullets, too.

He is for a single-payer, universal healthcare system and big investments in education and research and development. Encourage “extreme entrepreneurialism”, says Friedman, again flipping back to his pro-corporate, free-market values.

There is no talk from him about putting the brakes on the tech companies responsible for the changes that are threatening jobs and disrupting whole industries.

His 470-page book, which he describes as “one giant column about the world today”, is full of interviews with scientists and tech experts on everything from machine learning to cutting-edge biological technologies, such as gene editing, which are leading us to become “more God-like as a species than ever before”.

But he sees technology as providing many of the answers to the world’s big problems, including climate change and disease. “Lord knows where this goes. I’m not a futurist. I’m trying to figure out what is going on now, so people can get the most out of it and cushion us from the worst.”

On the radar screens

Ahead of what will be his fourth visit to New Zealand, he jokes that he wishes he’d bought real estate here. He sees our “model of decency, democracy and environmental stewardship” as our great competitive advantage in the world, putting us on the radar screens of “energetic and high-IQ risk takers” whom we should welcome with open arms.

“I’m a huge believer that people change much more by emulation than by compulsion. So when you develop a model that works, people take notice. As visitors, we are always impressed at how many things you got right.”

Friedman devotes two lengthy chapters in Thank You for Being Late to a nostalgic and folksy retelling of growing up in St Louis Park, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. The town has thrived through the decades as a diverse, inclusive community led by pragmatic government. In a Trumpian world, it points the way forward, says Friedman.

“The relevant governing unit in the age of acceleration is the healthy community,” he says. “What we need to do in the US, and what New Zealand has done pretty effectively, is push governance down to the local level. You can’t do everything there: you still need currency, you still need a national army, someone has to manage the debt, healthcare and social security.

“But government moves at the speed of trust, and that’s where the trust is.”

Thomas Friedman will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday, May 20.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.