The World Is Flat, by Thomas L Friedman

Goodbye globalisation?
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The Independent Culture

A major shift in thinking is under way in the US. Neo-conservatives who viewed energy conservation in much the same light as Satanism and paedophilia a year ago are in earnest dialogue with environmentalists and hard-headed exponents of realpolitik about how to reduce America's dependency on imported oil. A powerful coalition is emerging in support of energy independence, but the main force propelling this shift is not an increase in environmental awareness. It is the unending fiasco in Iraq.

Paul Wolfowitz - one of the chief architects of the disaster, and the new president of the World Bank - predicted the war would be self-financing. He was confident that once Saddam was toppled Iraq would float to prosperity and democracy on a sea of cheap oil. In fact, as could be foreseen, Iraq under US occupation is the site of an intractable guerrilla conflict, with the country's oil facilities under continuous attack. The price of oil has risen, and America faces the daunting prospect of paying for its fix of imported energy in shrinking dollars.

Against this background a new breed of geo-Greens is looking for ways to make America self-sufficient in energy. Globalisation is advancing alongside intensifying competition among the great powers for control of the planet's oil reserves, and at the same time it is triggering a movement to autarchy. Struggling to extricate itself from the chaos it has created in Iraq, the " last superpower" is increasingly receptive to schemes that hold out the promise of sheltering it from a turbulent world. Alongside the movement for energy independence, increasing numbers of Americans are questioning the benefits of free trade. It cannot be long before some version of protectionism is once again received wisdom in the US.

Thomas Friedman is one of globalisation's most indefatigable cheerleaders, and there is a certain poetic logic in the fact that he is now a leading voice in the movement to insulate the US from the highly competitive world that globalisation has created. Friedman - a widely influential columnist on foreign affairs at the New York Times - published his bestselling The Lexus and the Olive Tree in 1999. It remains a canonical statement of the beliefs that shaped the late Nineties. The World Is Flat seems set to have a similar role in shaping thinking in the latter half of the present decade.

Despite the momentous events that have occurred since, Friedman's view of the world beyond America's shores is unchanged. The flat world he sees around him is America writ large, and much of the book is a Babbit-like secular sermon on the virtues of the American way. For Friedman, any country that rejects American-style globalisation is pathological, and in a passage that reads like a self-parody he compares such benighted lands to alcoholics. "What the world needs today," he writes, "is a club that would be modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It would be called Developing Countries Anonymous (DCA). And just as at the first AA meeting you attend you have to stand up and say, 'my name is Thomas Friedman and I'm an alcoholic', so at Developing Countries Anonymous, countries would have to stand up at their first meeting and say, 'my name is Syria and I'm underdeveloped'. Or 'My name is Argentina and I'm underachieving. I have not lived up to my potential'."

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Friedman remains unshakeably confident of the benefits of American-style globalisation. It is its benefits for America he shows signs of doubting. One of the most interesting chapters concerns free trade, and Friedman expresses some anxiety about whether the mutual enrichment promised in Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage can really be expected to operate in a context in which Chinese workers earn a fraction of the wages of their American counterparts.

Of course, critics of globalisation have long been aware of the damaging effects of global free trade on low-income workers in rich countries, but mainstream economists have dismissed this a transitional problem affecting only a small section of society. Friedman is much more intelligent, and understands that outsourcing poses a wider threat to American living standards. While he continues to chant the mantra of the free market his analysis will give scepticism about free trade a new respectability.

It is in regard to energy and the environment that Friedman surfs the wave of the future most adroitly. It was he who coined the term geo-Green, and he has done more than learn the obvious lesson of the Iraq war about the increased dangers of America's dependency on Gulf oil. He also accepts the mounting scientific evidence that climate change is accelerating. While conventional Greens continue to harp on global cooperation and the Kyoto Treaty - a lost cause that would do little to slow global warming even if it were suddenly implemented - Friedman realistically grasps that the US will commit itself to energy conservation only when doing so is seen to be unequivocally in the national interest.

Yet Friedman's realism has narrow limits, which flow from his naively Americocentric view of the world. He believes greater American energy independence can of itself produce a massive fall in the oil price, a dubious proposition given inexorably rising demand from China and India and the likelihood that global reserves are peaking.

Even more unrealistically, he believes that a collapsing price would lead oil-producing countries to embrace American-style globalisation."Give me a $10 barrel of oil," he writes, "and I will give you political and economic reform from Moscow to Riyadh to Indonesia."

The fact that America is now deeply mistrusted in Russia and hated throughout the Muslim world seems not to have registered with him. He fails to consider the possibility that a collapse in the oil price could trigger political upheavals in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia from which anti-Western forces emerge as the chief beneficiaries.

Like Friedman's earlier books, The World Is Flat unrelentingly upbeat in tone, but its subtext about energy independence and the perils of free trade points to a future rather different from the one he is boosting: one in which America scales back its over-extended global role, and turns inwards to build globalisation in one country.

John Gray is Professor of European Thought at LSE and author of 'Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions' (Granta)

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