SPIEGEL Interview with Author Thomas L. Friedman: 'America Needs Rebooting'
Author and pundit Thomas L. Friedman talks to SPIEGEL about why America has lost its groove, why Obama needs to hang out more with Bill Ayers and why the German approach to combatting climate change is insane.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Friedman, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inauguration speech amid the crisis of 1933: "This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and bold." What is the whole truth about America today?
Thomas L. Friedman: I think we have lost our groove as a country. One of the reasons was the attack on 9/11. We got knocked off our game. From a country that always exported hope we went into the business of exporting fear. The second reason we lost our groove is that we lost our competitor. We lost the Soviet Union. If you lose your competitor you get a little fat, dumb and happy. We fell into that mode of we will get to it when we get to it, because we are America. We can take our time. Adding to that, our government does not work anymore. It cannot solve any big multi-generational problem -- whether it is climate, health care, immigration or social security.
SPIEGEL: What happened to America's proverbial optimism?
Friedman: Here it is: When I am on a book tour, as I have been for months now, I can feel the pervasive innovative energy everywhere. People are constantly coming up to me with their alternative energy ideas. Rock stars get room keys, I get business cards. Wherever I go I meet innovators of wind power equipment, solar energy operators. This country is exploding with innovation from the bottom up -- but right now not enough of it is really getting off the ground.
Friedman: We do not have a government today that can really take advantage of that innovation at the speed, scope and scale we need. America today is somewhat like a space shuttle: There is a huge amount of thrust coming from below, but in our case, the booster rocket is cracked and leaking energy and the pilots in the cockpit are fighting over the flight plan. As a result, we as a country have not been able to achieve an escape velocity needed to propel ourselves into the next orbit.
SPIEGEL: Where is the next orbit to be found?
Friedman: In the next great industrial revolution: ET -- energy technology.
SPIEGEL: Is Barack Obama the man capable of lifting this country out of self-pity and contrition?
Friedman: He won the election because he understood that what Americans wanted most was nation building at home, not nation building in Iraq, not nation building in Afghanistan. America needs rebooting.
SPIEGEL: Can this expectation be fulfilled or is it just a precursor to the next disappointment?
Friedman: Nobody today knows whether Obama will be able to deliver. But there is a lot of good raw material for a successful presidency. The ability to communicate, the ability to inspire -- that is not a small thing. The last American president with the ability to pull people together on a bipartisan scale was John F. Kennedy.
SPIEGEL: Obama's enormous rhetorical talent stands alongside his lack of government experience. But is that not so important?
Friedman: Experience is important, judgment is important, but most of all we need a president who is ready to take radical departures from business as usual -- and be able to bring the country along with him. That is why I say, I hope he has been hanging around with Bill Ayers, because he needs to be as radical as this moment.
SPIEGEL: You are referring to his acquaintance from Chicago who was part of the Weather Underground and who is said to have been a terrorist.
Friedman: This is a radical moment for America, and the time has come where a radical is needed. If Obama is not as radical as the present moment requires, our country will be in trouble.
SPIEGEL: Is Obama not more of a compromise-oriented bridge builder and in fact quite the opposite of radical?
Friedman: You never know, and I do not think that he really knows. Presidents grow up in the White House. The times shape the man.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by "radical?"
Friedman: Take energy politics. Right now our energy bills are the sum of all lobbies. We have energy politics, not energy policy. We can no longer afford to do that. It would be radical if we were going to send two wise men away for six months, they would come back with a national energy policy, and we were going to bring it before Congress with an up or down vote. No amendments, no earmarks, no nothing. Just vote for the right policy or shut up.
SPIEGEL: That sounds like a longing for the end of politics.
Friedman: Well, we need a little bit because we have been overwhelmed by politics and money and nobody thought of the long term national interest.
SPIEGEL: But is the "American Way" not about just this kind of short-term thinking, ready fun and fast money?
Friedman: We should bid farewell to this past. We can no longer afford a future that resembles it. Another decade of this and we will be a Third World country.
SPIEGEL: The economic crisis is hitting America and the rest of the world hard. Someone who read nothing but your book "The World Is Flat" would be very surprised. The nice, flat, liberal world economy is slipping.
Friedman: There were three major books after the end of the Cold War that made big claims: "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama, "The Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel Huntington and "The World Is Flat." I would say that the latter two are still standing.
SPIEGEL: You would actually write it like that again?
Friedman: If you followed this economic crisis and you do not think that the world is getting flatter, you are not paying attention. We saw the entire global economy at one time acting totally in sync. The real truth is the world is even flatter than I thought. Our mortgage crisis is killing Deutsche Bank. You still don't think the world is flat?
SPIEGEL: Increasing global imbalance, rising social tensions in America and the global economic crisis are of no consequence to you?
Friedman: Gentlemen, you are compelling me to do a dramatic reading from "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," published in 1999. (Stands up, takes the book from the shelf and reads aloud.) "The other type of global economic crisis that can threaten the whole system is the crisis of bad lenders, from banks to mutual funds to hedge funds, which are now able to lend so much money to so many people and so many places, that when they engage in reckless lending on a massive scale and then suddenly try to get their money back, they have the potential to inflict serious damage on both good economies and bad ones." As banks do not want to lose their share of the market, they shove money out the door, just like drug dealers. "Come on, kid, just try a little of this cash. The first one is free".
SPIEGEL: All right, but this world is anything but flat. Some sit on a sunny hill and others in a shadowy valley.
Friedman: By "flat" I did not mean that the world is getting equal. I said that more people in more places can now compete, connect and collaborate with equal power and equal tools than ever before. That's why an Indian in Bangalore can take care of the office work of American doctors or read the X-rays of German hospitals.
- Part 1: 'America Needs Rebooting'
- Part 2: 'The US Is Giving Birth to a Pig or a Gazelle'
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