The Incredible Shrinking Planet

What liberals can learn from Thomas Friedman’s new book.

Tom Friedman

What do you call it when multinational corporations scan the world for cheap labor, find poor people in developing nations, and pay them a fraction of America’s minimum wage? A common answer on the left is “exploitation.” For Thomas Friedman the answer is “collaboration”—or “empowering individuals in the developing world as never before.” Friedman has written another destined-to-be-a-best-seller, destined-to-annoy-many-leftists-even-though-he’s-a-liberal book, The World Is Flat.

Readers of Friedman’s 1998 The Lexus and the OliveTree may ask: Why another best-selling, left-annoying Friedman book on globalization? Friedman argues that in the last few years, while we were distracted by Osama Bin Laden’s transformation of the political landscape, a whole new phase of globalization was taking shape. Fueled by Internet-friendly software and cheap fiber optics, it features the fine-grained and far-flung division of data-related labor, often with little need for hierarchical, centralized control; and it subjects yesterday’s powerhouses to competition from upstarts. “Globalization 3.0 is shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time,” bringing a “newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally.”

This theme will get the book read in business class, but the reason leftists back in coach should read it has more to do with Osama Bin Laden’s transformation of the political landscape. Islamist terrorism has been a godsend to the American right, especially in foreign policy. President Bush has sold a Manichaean master narrative that fuses neoconservativism with paleoconservative hawkism, the unifying upshot being the importance of invading countries and of disregarding, if not subverting, multilateral institutions.

If the left is to develop a rival narrative, it will have to honestly address the realities of both globalization and terrorism. Friedman’s book portrays both acutely—but that’s not the only reason it’s essential reading for the people it will most aggravate. It also contains the ingredients of a powerful liberal narrative, one that harnesses the logic of globalization to counter Bush’s rhetoric in foreign and, for that matter, domestic policy.

Part of this narrative Friedman develops, and part of it he leaves undeveloped and might even reject as too far left. But so what? In a flat world, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnists don’t hand down stone tablets from mountaintops. They just start conversations that ripple through webzines and into the decentralized, newly influential blogosphere. It’s kind of like open-source software, one of Friedman’s examples of how easily divisions of digital labor can arise: Friedman writes some Friedman code, and left-of-Friedman liberals write some left-of-Friedman code, and eventually an open-source liberal narrative may coalesce. Feel empowered? Let’s get cracking!

These days hardly anyone accepts the label “anti-globalization.” Most leftists now grant that you can’t stop the globalization juggernaut; the best you can do is guide it. Friedman’s less grim view suggests that, if you look at things from the standpoint of humanity as a whole—a standpoint many leftists purport to hold—globalization may actually be a good thing.

He shows us some of globalization’s beneficiaries—such as Indians who take “accent neutralization” classes and who, so far as I can tell, are as decent and worthy as the American airline reservation clerks and tech-support workers whose jobs they’re taking (and who seem to prefer “exploitation” to nonexploitation). What’s more, even as some Americans are losing, other Americans are winning, via cheaper airline tickets, more tech support, whatever. So, with net gains outweighing net losses, it’s a non-zero-sum game, with a positive-sum outcome—a good thing on balance, at least from a global moral standpoint. (I’ve argued that this is the basic story of history: Technological evolution allows the playing of more complex, more far-flung non-zero-sum games, and political structures adapt to this impetus.)

Even globalization’s downsides—such as displaced American workers—can have an upside for liberals in political terms. A churning workforce strengthens the case for the kind of safety net that Democrats champion and Republicans resist. (Globalization-induced jitters may help explain why President Bush’s plan to make Social Security less secure hasn’t captured the nation’s imagination.) Friedman outlines an agenda of “compassionate flatism” that includes portable, subsidized health care, wage insurance, and subsidies for college and vocational school. You can argue about the details, and you can push them to the left. (He notes that corporations like to put offices and factories in countries with universal health care.) But this is clearly a Democratic agenda, and, as more and more white-collar jobs move abroad, its appeal to traditionally Republican voters should grow.

Globalization’s domestic disruptions can also be softened by global institutions. As the sociologist Douglas Massey argues in his just-published liberal manifesto Return of the L Word, the World Trade Organization, though reviled on the far left as a capitalist tool, could, with American leadership, use its clout to enforce labor standards abroad that are already embraced by the U.N.’s toothless International Labor Organization. For example: the right of workers everywhere to bargain collectively. (Workers of the world unite.)

Friedman doesn’t emphasize this sort of leftish global governance. Apparently he thinks Globalization 3.0 will enervate international institutions as much as national ones. The WTO will “become less important” because globalization will “be increasingly driven by the individuals who understand the flat world.”

Time will tell. My own view is that a flat world can help American liberals network with like-minded people in other countries to shape nascent international bodies. (Massey shows that the WTO, in response to left-wing feedback, has grown more receptive to environmentalist constraints on trade.) But the main leftward amendment to Friedman’s source code I’d make is in a different realm of foreign policy. As Microsoft said of Sun’s Java, I’d like to “embrace and extend” his belief that globalization is conducive to peace and freedom.

Friedman persuasively updates his Lexus-and-the-Olive-Tree argument that economic interdependence makes war costlier for nations and hence less likely. He’s heard the counterargument—”That’s what they said before World War I!”—and he concedes that a big war could happen. But he shows that the pre-World War I era didn’t have this kind of interdependence—the fine-grained and far-flung division of labor orchestrated by Toyota, Wal-Mart, et al. This is “supply chaining”—”collaborating horizontally—among suppliers, retailers, and customers—to create value.”

For example: The hardware in a Dell Inspiron 600m laptop comes from factories in the Philippines, Costa Rica, Malaysia, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, India, and Israel; the software is designed in America and elsewhere. The corporations that own or operate these factories are based in the United States, China, Taiwan, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Ireland, Thailand, Israel, and Great Britain. And Michael Dell personally knows their CEOs—a kind of relationship that, multiplied across the global web of supply chains, couldn’t hurt when tensions rise between, say, China and the United States.

Friedman argues plausibly that global capitalism dampened the India-Pakistan crisis of 2002, when a nuclear exchange was so thinkable that the United States urged Americans to leave India. Among the corporate feedback the Indian government got in midcrisis was a message from United Technologies saying that it had started looking for more stable countries in which to house mission-critical operations. The government toned down its rhetoric.

Also plausibly, Friedman argues that Globalization 3.0 rewards inter-ethnic tolerance and punishes tribalism. “If you want to have a modern complex division of labor, you have to be able to put more trust in strangers.” Certainly nations famous for fundamentalist intolerance—e.g., Saudi Arabia—tend not to be organically integrated into the global economy.

Peace and universal brotherhood—it almost makes globalization sound like a leftist’s dream come true. But enough embracing—it’s time to extend! Time to use the logic of globalization to attack Bush’s foreign policy.

Like Friedman, I accept Bush’s premise that spreading political freedom is both morally good and good for America’s long-term national security. But is Bush’s instinctive means to that end—invading countries that aren’t yet free—really the best approach? Friedman’s book fortified my belief that the answer is no.

Friedman, unlike many liberals, has long appreciated that, more than ever, economic liberty encourages political liberty. As statist economies have liberalized, this linkage has worked faster in some cases (South Korea, Taiwan) than in others (China), but it works at some speed just about everywhere.

And consider the counterexamples, the increasingly few nations that have escaped fine-grained penetration by market forces. They not only tend to be authoritarian; they often flout international norms, partly because their lack of economic engagement makes their relationship to the world relatively zero-sum, leaving them little incentive to play nicely. Friedman writes, “Since Iraq, Syria, south Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran are not part of any major global supply chains, all of them remain hot spots that could explode at any time.”

That list includes the last country Bush invaded and the two countries atop his prospective invasions list. It makes you wonder: With all due respect for carnage, mightn’t it be easier to draw these nations into the globalized world and let capitalism work its magic (while supplementing that magic by using nonmilitary policy levers to encourage democratic reform)?

This is one paradox of “neoconservative” foreign policy: It lacks the conservative’s faith in the politically redeeming power of markets. Indeed, Bush, far from trying to lure authoritarians into the insidiously antiauthoritarian logic of capitalism, has tried to exclude them from it. Economically, he’s all stick and no carrot. (Of Iran he said, “We’ve sanctioned ourselves out of influence,” oblivious to the fact that removing sanctions can be an incentive.)

Of course, if you took this approach—used trade, aid, and other forms of what Joseph Nye calls “soft power” to globalize authoritarian nations and push them toward freedom—hyper-tyrannies like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would be the last dominoes to fall. More promising dominoes would include Egypt, even Saudi Arabia. But according to neocon reverse-domino theory, it only takes one domino.

And it’s true that in a “flattened” world, dominoes can fall fast once they get started. Internet and satellite TV let people anywhere see what people everywhere are doing without relying on their government’s version of events. (“Peer-to-peer,” you might call it.) Much of the inspiration for Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” came from watching Georgia’s Rose Revolution and then Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (on Al Jazeera). And Palestinian aspirations to democracy were nourished by Israel’s televised parliament—one reason the ground for democracy was fertile when Yasser Arafat died.

So, was the Iraq invasion really an essential domino-feller, given the increasing contagion of liberty and the various nonmilitary levers with which we can encourage it? It would be one thing if Bush had tried those levers and failed—systematically deployed trade and aid and other tools against authoritarianism. But for him soft power was a convenient afterthought. He didn’t renounce America’s longstanding attraction to authoritarian stability and start nudging Egypt et al., toward democracy (as many liberals had long favored) until he needed a cosmic vision of global democracy to justify an unexpectedly messy war.

Friedman, of course, supported the war. And that’s one reason some leftists will resist using this book as food for thought. But he supported the war reluctantly, and he supported it for the best reason, the reason Bush settled on retrospectively after most of his other reasons had collapsed: to create a market democracy in the Arab world. Friedman has long seen, and highlights in this book, that the same microelectronic forces that empower Indian software writers and lubricate global supply chains also empower terrorists and strengthen their networks; and therefore that, 10 or 20 years down the road, we can’t afford to have whole nations full of potential terrorists—young people with no legitimate outlet for their economic and political energies. Many liberals who opposed the Iraq war don’t appreciate this fact. In the long run that’s probably a deeper misjudgment than the one liberal Iraq hawks are accused of having made. (And I say that as one of their accusers.)

Anyway, liberals who supported the Iraq war look less crazy today than they did three months ago. The key question now is which ones appreciate how technology is rendering such adventures less necessary (and more counterproductive—but don’t get me started on that sermon). Friedman, during his recent Charlie Rose whistle-stop, noted the importance of Ukraine’s example for Lebanon, a welcome corrective to the common Iraq-hawk line that good things in the Middle East flow exclusively from Iraq’s elections. For this and other reasons I’m tentatively counting him in, hoping he’ll sign onto this new source code: In a flat world, soft power is more powerful than ever.

In any event, selling this lefty, peacenik message to Friedman isn’t as improbable as selling it to some lefty peaceniks, because buying the message means coming fully to terms with globalization—not just granting its inevitability but appreciating its potential. The Naderite left reviled The Lexus and the Olive Tree for what they took to be its Panglossian depiction of globalization as a force of nature. (In fact, the book spends lots of time on globalization’s dark side, as does The World Is Flat). But, seven years later, Friedman’s early depiction of globalization’s power—good and bad—looks prescient. And with this book he’s shown how and why globalization has now shifted into warp drive. Meanwhile, the main achievement of Naderite nationalists has been to put George Bush in the White House. If forced to choose between the two—and, in a sense, liberals are—where would you look for inspiration?