Lunch with the FT: Tom Friedman. June 18, 2005

Thomas L. Friedman is a writer in a hurry. He has arrived 15 minutes late for our lunch, and strides right past the fussing restaurant staff to shake my hand and sit down. Making up for lost time, he flicks through the menu. “Mushy peas,” guffaws the guru of globalisation. “I love the things you have here.”
Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner whose New York Times column is syndicated to 700 newspapers worldwide, is in Britain for three days to promote his latest globalisation tome, The World is Flat. He has chosen J. Sheekey for our lunch, one of London’s oldest existing fish restaurants, a place he visited a few years back and still remembers fondly.
He is a squat, heavy-set man in his middle years, with swarthy skin and a thick moustache that clamps down around the sides of his mouth, making him seem a little surly. When he eats, he eats hastily, slicing through whole mounds of food with just a fork held in his right hand. Despite his jokey amiability, there is something of the bull about him: his default look is that of a bruiser.
The previous evening, I heard Friedman deliver a spirited riff on his book as part of a Royal Institute of International Affairs debate with the British author and historian, Timothy Garton Ash, and France’s Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde. The event was chaired by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who, after lavishly introducing Friedman as one of the most widely read and readable journalists in the world, proceeded to label him the author of The Olive and the Lexus Grove, an unintentionally hilarious mangling of Friedman’s earlier book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. I ask him about it and Friedman laughs heartily – he has taken it in good part. “Anyway… ” he says, my instruction to move on.
I ask him how the new book is faring in his native America. It has been number one on The New York Times best-seller list for three straight weeks, he says proudly. He was behind Jane Fonda for two weeks, and was thinking of renaming the book Flat World, Flat Abs in an attempt to overtake her.
Are there any specials on the menu, Friedman asks the waiter? “Everything’s special,” the waiter bites back. “God,” says Friedman in return, in a mixture of awe and annoyance. He plays with the idea of having a fish pie, but thinks it a little rich. He plumps instead for the seared rare tuna, followed by organic salmon.
The book is something of an oddity, because after the September 11 attacks, Friedman dropped the globalisation story – “like a stone”, he says – and wrote a compelling series of articles that held up a mirror to America’s traumatised psyche. But surely, I say, the prophets who argued that the world would beat a natural, inevitable path to global capitalism need to eat a little humble pie after September 11? “Give me a little credit,” he says. “I’m the guy who coined the expression ‘the super-empowered angry man’ back in 1999 as the greatest danger the Lexus world faced. And I gave Osama bin Laden as an example.” In any case, he says, whatever happened on September 11, more people have been lifted out of poverty in China and India in the past 20 years than at any time in the history of the world, precisely because of globalisation.
Friedman’s bullish optimism can appear naive, but compared with the clammy, effete diffidence of many English thinkers, I find it refreshing.
We can agree about the gains from global trade, I say, but what about his famous “golden arches” theory of globalisation – his pre- September 11 notion that no two countries that both boast a branch of McDonald’s have ever been to war? Does he feel the need to qualify it now that the US has been forced to march around the world pulling up whole countries by their bootstraps? There is a pause, and then Friedman whispers: “Both Afghanistan and Iraq had no McDonald’s.”
Friedman is a packager of ideas who deals in carefully assembled generalities. He has the knack of inventing likeable concepts that throw themselves like table-cloths over a whole range of disparate phenomena. The flat world, for example, is a metaphor stretched to cover everything from the decline of hierarchies in the business world to the death of geographical distance wrought by new technologies. Central to his latest argument is that, in a supposedly flat world in which everything is ripe for relocation to India, the US and the west needs to raise its game and constantly upgrade its workers’ skills.
Is it possible, I wonder, that globalisation could take on a wholly different hue if the brands at the top cease to be American? Absolutely, he says. When this current wave of globalisation began, it was logical to think it would be worldwide Americanisation, all McDonald’s and Coke. But already the global economy is fraught with national particularity. “The most popular meal in the world is not the Big Mac but the pizza,” he says. “In Japan they have sushi pizza, in Britain they have… ” He stumbles, momentarily. “I don’t know. Fish-and-chips pizza.”
A waiter hovering next to our table drops a tray of glasses and the whole dining room starts at the noise, interrupting our conversation. But Friedman is unflappably upbeat. “It’s an exciting place, this Sheekey,” he jokes. He fingers the iPod on the table beside him, which I am using, together with an audio attachment, to record our conversation. In his latest book, I remember, Friedman (with the help of some boffins at Dell) excavates the entire production-and-supply chain of his computer to show its promiscuously global provenance. What about my iPod, I bark – can he tell me where its parts came from? No, he says, a little bluntly. But he is not finished yet. He has picked up the iPod and is wielding it in his hand as if seeking divine inspiration about how it might be a harbinger of the flat world. “With only this little device,” he says after a short pause, “you could record anything and upload it to a website. If you have a camera-phone too, you could take my picture, and you could have a whole newspaper.” I am suitably flattened; Friedman is on a roll. “You could use this little iPod to dominate the world.”
All this talk of flattening is making my head spin, but Friedman is interrupted by a waiter taking away the main course, and the talk turns to offshoring and a report that Reuters is transferring some of its news operations to India. Slightly facetiously, I tell him my theory that many writers have become so pompous that it might be better if facts were outsourced to India, so western journalists could concentrate on colourful features and charming human-interest stories. Friedman laughs. What about his New York Times column, I ask? How long will it take for that to be parcelled off to India? “A lot of readers of The New York Times would love to see me outsourced. But I am specialised enough that my particular skills can’t be digitised. They are too high-touch.”
Friedman is nothing if not high-touch. He is well known for dropping the names of famous friends and interviewees liberally into his books. So how come he has so many important friends? “I’m just a little guy from Minnesota,” he says. “If people want to talk to me, it’s because they see a benefit in talking to me.” But he’s a little guy who’s on first name terms with Bill Gates and Gordon Brown – he had the pleasure of meeting the chancellor the previous day, he says, to catch up. He is impressed with Gordon Brown, but diplomatically refuses to state a preference for him or Blair. “I just wish we had one of them in America,” he says.
A moment later, all the lights go out – there’s an electrical fault – and the cacophonous restaurant shudders into silence. “Geez,” laughs the former Middle East correspondent, “this is just like Beirut.”
When the lights come back on a couple of seconds later, Friedman is still staring at me with spoon held aloft, either to deflect another question or to demolish his raspberry trifle. If the US is in trouble, I wonder, what about Europe? In both his speech the previous evening and his book, he called Europe an “assisted-living facility staffed by Turkish nurses”.
It’s a typically arresting Friedman image. But equally typically, it is not entirely clear what he means. Is he referring to Europe’s demographics – its rapidly ageing society – or something else? Friedman, it turns out, is painting with the broadest brush. Europe, he says, is not thinking young; it is not nimble enough, not turning ideas into products quickly enough. It is hampered by a rigid system of hiring and firing workers. And it is going to get flattened. “Where it is easier to fire people,” he pauses for emphasis and then bangs the words home, “it’s easier to hire people.”
Now Friedman is on the verge of shouting, and I’m tempted to ask him to keep his voice down. I have just noticed the large sunglasses that hang on his chest from a loop of cord, making him look like the archetypal American tourist. But our coffees arrive, and he calms down. Friedman knocks back his cappuccino like vodka; a minute later this most muscular of US democrats has left the restaurant, on his way to do some local radio – and help make the world a flatter place.