By Martin Daly
Thomas Friedman is said to be one of the most read journalists. He's a former foreign correspondent, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, author of five bestselling books, and is often a controversial figure for the views he expounds in his syndicated columns for The Age and The New York Times.
He has been a prolific recorder of major world events for decades. His policy is to write simply so the complex issues of history, economics and politics might be easier understood, a practice that earned him the headline "The Great Explainer".
His reputation as a foreign policy thinker is such that his books are read not only in school libraries but also in the sanctums of the world's elite and powerful, while others might read them to add to their arsenals against the thoughts of Thomas Friedman.
Friedman's history, however, might initially suggest a less accomplished career trajectory. He came from an area the Coen brothers likened to a small town in Transylvania inhabited by vampires. He was told by his close friend he'd never make it in journalism and was hospitalised for nervous reactions on finding his first job as a reporter in London too stressful. He overcame all that and went on to cover some of the most brutal of conflicts with award-winning journalism before converting to the also challenging world of opinion and analysis that includes his view that the earth is really flat. He also believes that the US, while not what it used to be, remains the ''tent pole'' of the world in terms of global governance.
As with many of Friedman's philosophies, the notion of a flat earth comes with qualifications. It has nothing to do with the cosmos, rather his belief that the digital age has levelled the global playing field on which the US was so dominant for so long, and that the US was too preoccupied to notice its superpower status being whittled away. Regardless of how his assertions might sound, Friedman says he is not being jingoistic when he refers to the US as virtually the world's saviour. The sad reality, according to Friedman, is that the great American dream that sustained generations is now a lot harder to achieve, while the country has slipped into relative decline and faces great dangers.
Friedman, in fact, elevates the American dream to do-or-die status, ''the most important thing we do is sustain the American dream, the notion that my kids will live better than I did ... I live better than my parents did ... my parents lived better than my grandparents did. That dream is so important for maintaining the stability of America. I bet there is an Australian analogy.
''We are very multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious societies. And one way you hold these kind of societies together is with ... the dream that one can improve oneself generation after generation. And so that dream is basically vital to America's stability and America's stability is really vital to the world, whether it's patrolling the sea lanes in the Pacific and counter-balancing China's power ... whether it's shaping rules of the global trading system, America plays a central role.''
While agreeing that other countries also play a role in the West's stability, Friedman can't overplay the importance of the American component of the dream. ''American domestic policy, America's fate, vigour and vitality, its ability to sustain and project its power and sustain and preserve the American dream for another generation ... it really [is] the biggest foreign policy issue in the world,'' he says.
Friedman considers the US so important to global security that he describes it as ''in many ways the tent pole that holds up the world in terms of global governance, and if the tent pole buckles or splinters, I do not think my kids will grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.''
Friedman bounced around those thoughts - along with ideas on globalisation, chronic deficits and energy consumption - with another leading foreign policy thinker, Michael Mandelbaum, and they put them into a book. So they borrowed a thought from US President Barack Obama, who, referring to China's high-speed rail and her fastest super computer, said: ''That should be us.''
Friedman has also used a China analogy to make a point similar to Obama. When in China, he visited the enormous Tianjin convention centre, built in 8½ months. On his return home, he found his local subway station had closed for six months because the 21 steps on the escalator needed repair. ''Something is wrong here. You really have to struggle with that,'' he thought.
The title of the Friedman/Mandelbaum book is, That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it invented and How We Can Come Back. ''Basically what we argue is that America made ... the worst kind of mistake a country or a species can make,'' Friedman says. ''It misread its environment. There is nothing more dangerous a species can do. That's how species go extinct.
''In our case we misread the Cold War. We thought it was a victory, and it was at some levels ... but it was also the onset of maybe the greatest challenge we have ever faced. We helped create a world with 2 billion people just like us with [their own version of] the American dream ... and just when we created all these new competitors ... we put up our feet, just when we should have been lacing up our shoes ...
''That was the first decade in 1989-99 and we compounded it in the second decade in the wake of 9/11 chasing the losers from globalisation called al-Qaeda, rather than the winners, called China and India. We spent trillions of dollars doing that. It may be that we had no choice and that may be compounding the tragedy. This was not a threat we could blithely ignore. But we overdid it.
''And so the two of them together produced the first decade of the 21st century ... and it is surely one of the worst decades we have ever had in our country's history.''
Friedman and Mandelbaum argue that the five strategies on which the US grew strong - education, infrastructure, immigration, rules for capital formation and government-funded research - are in a downward spiral. ''And that,'' says Friedman, "is a very, very dangerous and disturbing trend.'' They list the challenges facing the US and other countries, including Australia, from globalisation, the IT revolution, debt, deficit and entitlement, and the global energy requirement, but Friedman fears the greatest threat to the US is imminent.
''The US is in the worst kind of decline: one just slow enough'', says Friedman, ''that no one thinks they have just got to drop everything, hold hands and work together [while] we are sitting here days away from what could be a default of the American treasury bill. That's unheard of in our history.''
In Friedman's flat, digital and troubled US, unemployment is officially 9.2 per cent, unofficially probably closer to 15 per cent, he says, if those who have stopped looking for jobs are included. Demand for the highly skilled have intensified so much that every employer is looking for the same employee: one who not only can do the work, but can adapt, invent and reinvent the job because that's what increasing competition demands, he says.
Regardless of a US in decline, conflicts such as Vietnam, Iraq, the GFC, perceived economic and military domination and Friedman's concession that the US is ''so far from perfect, that we can't ever see perfect'', he stands resolutely by the flag.
''If I have a choice of a world with a weak or a non-existent America being able to project power, and one with a strong America being able to project power, and make plenty of mistakes ... I will take the latter,'' he says.
Thomas Friedman is in Australia in partnership with the US Studies Centre and the Sydney Opera House.