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The Great Leveling

Reviewed by Warren Bass
Sunday, April 3, 2005

THE WORLD IS FLAT

A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

By Thomas L. Friedman.

Farrar Straus Giroux. 488 pp. $27.50

On a modern-day passage to India, Thomas L. Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, found himself chatting in Bangalore with a young, slight, mustachioed videogame-company CEO named Rajesh Rao. "India is going to be a superpower," Rao said, gushing about a new economic era that makes the globe into one massive marketplace, "and we are going to rule." But rule whom? Friedman asked. Rao laughed. "It's not about ruling anybody," he admitted. "That's the point. There is nobody to rule anymore."

Rao's enthusiasm about the changing rules of international commerce and politics today -- about whether there's anything left to rule in a brave new world of globalization -- underscores the virtues and vices of Friedman's captivating and sometimes frustrating new book. The World Is Flat continues the franchise Friedman has made for himself as a great explicator of and cheerleader for globalization, building upon his 1999 The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Like its predecessor, this book showcases Friedman's gift for lucid dissections of abstruse economic phenomena, his teacher's head, his preacher's heart, his genius for trend-spotting and his sometimes maddening inability to take himself out of the frame. It also shares some of the earlier volume's excitement (mirroring Rajesh Rao's) and hesitations about whether we're still living in an era dominated by old-fashioned states or in a postmodern, globalized era where states matter far less and the principal engine of change is a leveled playing field for international trade.

What complicates this further is, of course, 9/11. If the idea of globalization filled a conceptual void in the formless 1990s -- the editors of Foreign Affairs magazine wrote in 1997 that "the overall theme of the 1990s is that there is no overall theme to the 1990s" -- the shock of al Qaeda's assault yanked early-21st-century geopolitics back to worries about security. In The World Is Flat, Friedman rejoins the debate over what's really driving world politics, but he does not come out where readers of his eloquent columns on the challenges of defeating bin Ladenism might expect; instead, he argues that "the most important force shaping global economics and politics in the early twenty-first century" is not the admittedly important war on terrorism but a "triple convergence -- of new players, on a new playing field, developing new processes and habits for horizontal collaboration."

Friedman writes that the world is now entering the era of "Globalization 3.0," following Globalization 1.0, which ran from 1492 until 1800 and was driven by countries' sheer brawn, and Globalization 2.0, in which "the key agent of change, the dynamic force driving global integration, was multinational companies" driven to look abroad for markets and labor, spurred by industrial-age "breakthroughs in hardware" such as steamships, trains, phones and computers. That epoch ended around 2000, replaced by one in which individuals are the main agents doing the globalizing, pushed by "not horsepower, and not hardware, but software" and a "global fiber-optic network that has made us all next-door neighbors." If the first two eras were driven mostly by Europeans and Americans, the third is open to "every color of the human rainbow."

In particular, Friedman is obsessed with one of the great economic phenomena of our day: the outsourcing of the U.S. economy's service and information-technology work to India, China and elsewhere. The reason that Indian accounting firms are expected to do about 400,000 American tax returns this year, that small U.S. hospitals have their CAT scans read in the wee hours by Indian or Australian radiologists known as the "Nighthawks," or that the Chinese port city of Dalian is taking outsourced work from its former imperial masters in Japan, Friedman argues, is that the world is undergoing "one of those fundamental changes -- like the rise of the nation-state or the Industrial Revolution" -- that transform the roles of individuals, governments and societies. The world was flattened, he writes, by 10 forces, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discrediting of Soviet-style command economies; the 1995 Netscape IPO, which opened up the Internet for easy browsing; the dot-com era overinvestment in the fiber-optic cables that such globalizing hubs as Bangalore and Shenzhen, China, rely upon to cheaply transmit data around the planet; search engines like Google, most of whose queries are now no longer in English; and such flat-world "steroids" as PalmPilots, tiny laptops and the wireless technology that lets one of Friedman's colleagues merrily e-mail from aboard a Japanese bullet train. "The 'hot line,' which used to connect the Kremlin with the White House," Friedman writes, "has been replaced by the 'help line,' which connects everyone in America to call centers in Bangalore."

Even as these forces leveled the playing field, Friedman notes, some 3 billion people were rushing onto it -- from China, India, the former Soviet Union and other countries whose economies had thrown off socialism or self-defeating insularism. As American politicians were letting the country's scientific and engineering base erode and peddling protectionist myths, the global economy was being "shaped less by the ponderous deliberations of finance ministers and more by the spontaneous explosion of energy" from eager Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs.

Friedman offers an engrossing tour of Flat World, but he sometimes overestimates its novelty. For starters, the glee of Globalization 3.0's players at the prospect of a seemingly borderless world is hardly new. "Merchants have no country," Jefferson wrote in 1814. "The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains." Similarly, Friedman is right that China might now be more leery about attacking high-tech Taiwan for fear of snarling international trade and manufacturing lines, giving the island its so-called silicon shield. But his puckishly named Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention -- "No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell's, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain" -- skates past the fact that potential belligerents have always weighed the economic costs of war, often with breathtaking inaccuracy. (Saddam Hussein thought gobbling up Kuwait in August 1990 would let him dominate the world oil market, not shatter his army and usher in a decade of crippling sanctions.) And the argument that trade inhibits belligerence dates back at least to Kant.

Friedman also does not have a compelling rebuttal for Harvard's Michael Sandel, who calls Flat World's new horizontal collaboration "just a nice name for the ability to hire cheap labor in India." For instance, Indian techies had the manpower and ambition to do the "huge, tedious job" of fixing the West's Y2K computer bug, giving India a surge of IT business that Friedman calls "a second Indian Independence Day." But India's Y2K windfall could be read just as easily as a sign of dependence , of reliance on tasks that American workers no longer want. Friedman rightly notes that "low-wage, low-prestige jobs in America . . . become high-wage, high-prestige jobs" when outsourced to India. But in an era where, as Friedman puts it, both pride and humiliation get served up to you via fiber-optic cable, it's not at all clear we'll like the long-term geopolitical consequences of having emerging powers reliant on scraps from the American economic table.

Friedman's evangelism never entirely allays the suspicion that "the single most important trend in the world today" is actually the empty half of the glass. In a sense, The World Is Flat serves as a sort of bookend to this spring's other blockbuster economics book, Jeffrey D. Sachs's The End of Poverty , which angrily notes that some 20,000 people die unnecessarily every day from starvation and diseases like malaria while the developed world fiddles. Much of the world is indeed flat -- flat broke. "You cannot drive economic growth," Friedman acknowledges, "in a place where 50 percent of the people are infected with malaria or half of the kids are malnourished or a third of the mothers are dying of AIDS."

And then there's 9/11. "The flat world -- unfortunately -- is a friend of both Infosys and al-Qaeda," Friedman writes, since both rely on the imaginative use of the Internet and global supply chains and since both are super-empowered by a flatter playing field magnifying the importance of individuals and groups. Fair enough, but why does Rajesh Rao matter more than Osama bin Laden, the Lexus more than the olive tree, flat-world globalization more than the far-flung struggle with jihadism that Friedman himself has likened to World War III? He doesn't quite say. As one would expect from the author of the brilliant From Beirut to Jerusalem , his treatment of 9/11 and Middle Eastern issues is insightful and deeply informed, but it doesn't convincingly settle the question of whether global trade or global terror is our age's central organizing principle. If al Qaeda ever buys, builds or steals even a small nuclear bomb -- taking advantage of the Bush administration's leisurely belief that America can afford to wait until sometime after 2008 to secure poorly guarded Russian nuclear weapons and material -- the surging growth of the Indian and Chinese entrepreneurial classes may seem largely of academic interest.

While The World Is Flat is not a classic like From Beirut to Jerusalem , it is still an enthralling read. To his great credit, Friedman embraces much of his flat world's complexity, and his reporting brings to vibrant life some beguiling characters and trends. If his book is marred by an exasperating reliance on the first person and a surplus of catch phrases (" 'Friedman,' I said to myself, looking at this scene, 'you are so twentieth-century. . . . You are so Globalization 2.0' "), it is also more lively, provocative and sophisticated than the overwhelming bulk of foreign policy commentary these days. We've no real idea how the 21st century's history will unfold, but this terrifically stimulating book will certainly inspire readers to start thinking it all through.

Warren Bass is a senior editor at Book World and a former member of the 9/11 Commission staff. He is the author of "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance," which was recently released in paperback.

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