In Focus: Thomas Friedman

The Pulitzer Prize winner answers questions on who and what inspires him, Asia’s economic outlook, and the big issues facing the world today.

By Vipanchi Dinavahi

 

When The New York Times and Eventicorp approached me with an opportunity to interview Thomas Friedman, for a moment I felt like a pageant winner—then excitement and nervousness set in.

 

One cannot ask this three-time Pulitzer Prize winner just 10 or 11 questions. He has written six books, thousands of opinion pieces on variety of subjects, and makes thought-provoking speeches. I had a thousand questions popping in my head, ranging from US politics to his life in Beirut, from Saddam Hussain, Iraq and Afghanistan, to Syria, climate change, globalisation and the IT revolution... phew! And that’s just the top few subjects I had in mind.

 

After three weeks of narrowing down thoughts, questions and opinions from my trusted few, I finally zeroed-in on these questions, which might be useful for the readers of Orient. Here is what Friedman had to say:

— Vipanchi Dinavahi

 

While many look to you for inspiration and leadership, who do you look up to?

 

I am blessed by having many friends who provide me a lot of inspiration and intellectual nourishment. Professor Michael Mandelbaum at Johns Hopkins; Dov Seidman, the author of the book How; Professor Larry Diamond at Stanford; David Rothkopf, who runs Foreign Policy magazine; and Professor Yaron Ezrahi at the Hebrew University are a few. At the leadership level, I am one of the many admirers of Nelson Mandela. More and more I respect his leadership on respecting pluralism, whether political, racial or religious. The world needs a lot more of that.

 

The world has advanced significantly since you wrote The World is Flat 3.0. If you were to write a follow up, what would you include in version 4.0?

 

The biggest change is that the world has gone from connected to hyper connected, and from inter-connected to interdependent. These are differences of degree that are differences in kind. As I have written: it starts with the fact that globalisation and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected. This is the single most important trend in the world today. And it is a critical reason why, to get into the middle class now, you have to study harder, work smarter, and adapt quicker than ever before. All this technology and globalisation are eliminating more and more ‘routine’ work—the sort of work that once sustained a lot of middle-class lifestyles.

 

Asia has perhaps been the biggest beneficiary of globalisation and hyper connectivity. What transformations do you foresee in Asia’s growing economy?

 

I am not deep enough into the Asian story right now to predict, but I will say this: Asia’s strong emphasis on infrastructure, education and export oriented economies will serve it well in the 21st century. These are strong assets whatever direction technology takes. But to the extent that Asia lags in unleashing the creativity and freethinking of its youth, it will pay a price.

 

Much like Sir Ken Robinson, your views on education question the current education system and its impact on future generations. In a business context, a generation gap presents a similar challenge. How can business leaders address this and drive success within their organisations?

 

The short answer is that the pace of change today has become so fast that a gap has opened between educational institutions and business and industry.

Schools cannot educate students fast enough and adequately enough for all the new jobs and multiple skills being demanded by business. We need business executives to be much more intimately involved in education and educators more intimately tied in with business. Each needs to be inside the other’s world more.

 

With more Chinese firms looking to invest overseas, how favourable is the environment in the US?

 

America still has the best intellectual property and commercial protection laws, the best rule of law, and the best system of higher education. I think the vast majority of Americans continue to welcome Chinese investment.

 

Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed on Syria received a lot of attention. Firstly, what is your reaction to the letter? Secondly, in your opinion, should China be more vocal about the current situation in Syria?

 

Obviously, I did not agree with Putin. There was some real nonsense in there about how the rebels in Syria launched the poison gas, not the regime. But his column got more than three million hits! I have long believed that China needs to be less of a free-rider on the global system, and more of a stake-holder, taking responsibility for upholding it. China is growing more dependent on Middle East oil, while America is becoming increasingly independent of it.

 

In your book Hot, Flat and Crowded, you suggest the need for “a Green President and a Green New Deal, spurred by the Greenest Generation.” How well do you think the current US president has navigated political obstacles to commit himself to the climate change?

 

I would give [US President Barack Obama] a B. He has been weak in shaping the public dialogue on climate change. He has run away from it. But on substance you have to give him high marks for using the Environmental Protection Agency to pretty much make it impossible to build another coal-fired power plant, and you have to give him credit for his doubling of mileage standards for American-made cars between now and 2025. That is driving a lot of clean power innovation. Both of these will pay lasting benefits.

 

You call yourself a “compassionate flatist,” advocating the removal of economic or political barriers to trade. What is your opinion on crowd funding and its future? Will traditional funding channels, such as venture capitalists and loans, become obsolete?

 

I think this whole sharing economy— AirBnB, Kickstarter, Indiegogo—is going to be huge. We are just scratching the surface. Learning how to navigate that world and tapping it as source of income is going to be critical to staying in the middle class, or gaining access to the middle class, in the 21st century

 

At a recent leadership conference, you said, “The world is going to be divided into high imagination enabling countries (HIE) and low imagination-enabling countries.” Which countries do you think are HIEs today? Where does Singapore stand?

 

Well, it is not only countries; it can be regions and even cities. As a country, America certainly remains the world’s most effective HIE, and we have the companies to prove it. I would put Singapore in the top third of the world— really strong on fundamentals and execution, but still lagging in stimulating start-ups.

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