- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

THE WORLD IS FLAT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

By Thomas L. Friedman

Farrar, Stauss and Giroux, $27.50, 488 pages

REVIEWED BY A. G. GANCARSKI

As has been the case with each of his published books, Thomas Friedman’s latest comes with its attendant criticisms. Reviewers have taken the New York Times foreign-policy columnist to task for falling in love with his own jargon or “voice,” and striking a Pollyannaish tone of amazement at things that just aren’t particularly amazing. The author’s perceived stylistic shortcomings to these critics have given them ammunition to attack his foreign-policy views, which these poison-pen popinjays often describe as insufferably middlebrow or overly obeisant to power.

These criticisms are noted here and I would agree that two-thirds the way through this book that I had had my fill of Mr. Friedman’s habit of crafting an unwieldy new buzzword every 10 pages or so. But that said, leaving aside the times when Mr. Friedman’s latest becomes too much about the author himself, this book is an important and timely read — almost in spite of authorial intention.

The gravity of the subject matter here cuts through Mr. Friedman’s often overly-sunny tones, making the case as clearly as it can be that India, China, and other global “strategic competitors” are well on their ways to dislodging America from its position in the world.

Mr. Friedman’s book is most relevant when spotlighting how that has happened and how American policy makers have failed to respond to changing global power currents. At a time when the United States should have been consolidating its power, the author argues, we were celebrating ourselves, and perhaps consigning ourselves in the near future to an no-win game of catch-up with countries whose populaces are better educated and more motivated to work than our own.

Mr. Friedman takes himself to task early on in this book for paying too much attention to the Middle East since September 11at the expense of focusing on the violent tides reshaping the global economy currently. This bit of self-flagellation would strike this reviewer as unnecessary, were it not obvious that the author is, by proxy, taking the American media and establishment at large to task for similar negligence.

Mr. Friedman’s chief objects of concern are China and India: the former because of its ability to dominate global markets this century, and the latter due to its looming domination of the tech sector. The author’s logic is sound when detailing the competitive advantages the two Asian countries have. Their young people, he reckons, are better educated, more motivated, and willing to work cheaper than native-born Americans. The changing quality of the global workforce, he argues, has led to an irreversible globalization: Companies of any size, by necessity, are global in scope, assembling goods in any number of countries, with their first priority being the bottom line.

The author spends a considerable portion of the book explaining why the essential character of global business has changed in the last couple of decades, seemingly because he understands that the very nature of his thesis — that America faces stern challenges from abroad, where the workers not only work harder but better — will repel American readers. There may be a bit too much evidence on offer here — the book has over 450 pages and is in need of streamlining toward the end — but given how late the U.S. establishment has been in making the obvious, fundamental observation that the developing world is on the verge of eclipsing American power, excesses here seem forgivable.

Mr. Friedman’s prescriptions for fixing the problems created by the “flattening” of the world lack a certain inventiveness. His suggestion that China and the United States collaborate on a “Manhattan Project” to develop alternative energy sources, for example, reads weak and ill considered. The author repeatedly makes the case that the United States should develop “energy independence,” but merely skims the surface of how this might be done. This prescription seems unrealistic in the light of what’s actually going on.

Those clinging to a belief in American economic sovereignty likewise may be chilled by Mr. Friedman’s frank statements of the importance of the Chinese economy, which he holds is inextricably integrated with the global economy at large. In Mr. Friedman’s reckoning, the world is flat, and getting flatter. Though he’s too polite to say it overtly, the balance of his argument suggests his belief that America’s moment of prominence has just about passed.

A.G. Gancarski is a freelance journalist currently working on a book about the 2004 election in Florida.


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