Tom Friedman visits S.F., takes on world in new book

It was 1984. A tough, tight-lipped Israeli army colonel was leading a small group of journalists on a tour of southern Lebanon, where Israel was in the midst of a war. The journalists wore army-issue flak jackets. They listened and took notes, as if taking dictation.

One correspondent, Thomas L. Friedman, challenged the officer repeatedly. The colonel stonewalled him. But Friedman's questions were sharp and unrelenting. "He's going to end up wanting to talk to me," Friedman said to a Reuters reporter, "because tomorrow whatever he says is going to be on the front page of the New York f——Times."

Arrogant? A little. Blustering? A bit. Right? Absolutely. By the end of the press trip, the colonel and Friedman were deep in private conversation.

When, in the course of a phone interview, Friedman is reminded of that exchange, he laughs. Perhaps because he has a book to promote; perhaps because he has an upcoming appearance to discuss; perhaps because he's a bit older, the man is anything but abrasive. But the swagger isn't entirely lacking, and that's as it should be. Friedman's first book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem," received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. It is widely considered one of the few books you'll ever need to read to understand Israel and Middle East peace. His new work, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," takes on a slightly larger subject: the entire world.

A new book on globalization hardly matters. The buzzword and its various interpreters have been with us for more than a decade now. But a new book by Friedman really does matter.

He was in San Francisco Thursday of last week to discuss his book at the World Affairs Council.

As the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, Friedman is one of the most influential journalists in print today. Taken together with his regular columns on the Times' editorial page, "Lexus" will no doubt serve as a kind of Baedeker to the new millennium. It is provocative, wide-ranging and clear — you can feel your I.Q. ping up a couple of points even as you read it. And it will doubtlessly influence the people who make decisions about our world.

"Lexus" begins, literally, where "From Beirut to Jerusalem" left off. In the final pages of that book, he recounts a journey on a bullet train in Japan, where he pondered what it means that the same world contains both super-modern Lexus factories and ancient tribal feuds over who owns what olive tree.

"On the one hand," he writes in "From Beirut," "societies need to link up with the global economy and attract global investment in order to survive economically. But at the same time, the more societies ask their citizens to link up with distant, sterile economic structures…the more they need to find ways to express their distinctive cultural, religious and ethnic identities."

The great strength of "Lexus" is that Friedman addresses that paradox in the field, first as the Times' correspondent in Beirut and Jerusalem, and now as the paper's roving foreign affairs columnist.

What he reports is that the world now works like this:

Faceless numbers of institutional and private investors (which he calls "The Electronic Herd") move their money wherever and whenever the best investing opportunity presents itself. The system rewards countries with solid free market economies and stable, democratic political systems. Sounds good, right?

But unless you consider McHuevos in Uruguay a sign of cultural uniqueness, the Electronic Herd's whole-hog pursuit of profit threatens to destroy cultural differences and pave over the environment. The trick is to balance the very human desire for material advancement with the very human need for roots and identity.

Nations, demagogues and/or psychopaths can rebel against the forces of globalization. And globalization itself can be destabilized by its own interdependence.

Friedman recognizes right off that these struggles aren't new. Tradition and modernity, ideology and self-interest, have duked it out since Cain and Abel. What is new is that individuals and nations are sucked into the global economy faster and more relentlessly than ever before.

"When in the history of the world did you have a situation when the minute you go into business, you become global?" said Friedman. "Your competitors are global and your markets are global. All at the touch of a button."

Not surprisingly, Friedman said his tour of duty as the Times' Israel bureau chief from 1984 to 1989 proved a perfect laboratory to see how such forces played out. He was in Beirut when the war broke out. Now Friedman, 45, lives in Bethesda, Md., with his wife, Ann, and their two young daughters.

In many ways, said Friedman, Israel has displayed outstanding success in competing in the world economy. Perhaps that isn't so surprising, since one diaspora after another has forced Jews to treat the whole world as their economic arena. And Jews, Friedman said, tend to carry with them a history and tradition that roots them and offers an identity no matter where they travel — that's the olive tree.

"A tree without roots has no stability," said Friedman. "A tree with only roots will never branch out into the world. The trick is to have a balance."

Jews also have a history of living with paradox, and Friedman seems perfectly prepared to accept the fact that the issues he raises will never be really settled. He argues that it's up to America to save globalization both from the "olive tree huggers" and from techno-ruin — and the United States can and should take the lead in punishing despots whose actions destabilize the global economy.

The Milosevics of the world will never go away, but they will become few and far between, he said.

His recent writings on Kosovo and China show Applied Friedman-nomics at work. Give Slobodan Milosevic real diplomatic and economic incentives to end the ethnic cleansing and get his house in order. At the same time, send NATO troops to show Belgrade that the high cost of behaving like frothing nation-staters is economic and military disaster. In Friedman's tough talk: "Give war a chance."

He has applied the same rule to Israelis and Palestinians. In his first book, Friedman argued that peace in the Middle East requires that Israel take unilateral moves toward peace. But for every concession it offers to the Palestinians, such as territory, it would receive a concession in return. Offer them the big carrot of peace and prosperity. But don't be afraid to thwack them with the big stick if they balk.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is national editor of the Forward. Follow him @foodaism.