Books - Diary of a globaltrotter - Charles Leadbeater finds out more about the book's author than he does about its subject, the paradoxical nature of globalisation.
Thomas Friedman has a unique vantage point on 'globalisation'. Friedman is a foreign-affairs columnist with the New York Times. The job, which he says is the best in the world, has allowed him to travel the globe reporting the collapse of the Cold War order and the faltering emergence of a more integrated but also a less stable global economy.
Friedman's reportage is his strongest suit. The anecdotes and character sketches flow thick and fast - such as the failed Thai property tycoon who has set up a sandwich business in Bangkok. Wherever he takes his reader, to the internet cafe in Amman where the banana cake is made by the wife of Israel's deputy ambassador, or among the nerds in Silicon Valley and the drunks in Moscow, every point he makes is laced with at least one anecdote or quote.
The detail of these stories, woven together, shows how integrated the world has become, and how quickly information, aspiration, desires and ideas spread, along with trade and finance. To capture the complexity of the flows which make up 'globalisation' is incredibly hard. Newspapers, even very good ones like the Financial Times, have correspondents in many countries, each with their particular slant. Whatever the quality of national reporting, on national institutions, it fails to pick up many interconnections as decisions in one country have ramifications elsewhere.
It shouldn't surprise that there is a huge gap in our understanding of what globalisation might amount to and how it works. We do not, as yet, really have ways to represent and report it to ourselves. And most newspapers, unlike the Financial Times and the New York Times, are cutting back on their serious foreign reporting. As the world gets more complex and confusing, our investment in making sense of it all is being cut. The New York Times is to be applauded for giving Friedman the time and money to wander the world, talking to people caught up in the swirl of the global economy.
The central argument of The Lexus and the Olive Tree is both familiar and straightforward. Liberalisation of financial markets, the growth of free trade, the falling costs of digital technology and the explosion of information have broken down the old order and created a seamless new world in which panic can spread as fast as the latest new idea. That new world is both more integrated and less stable than the old one. It is driven by a global pursuit of better standards of living - represented by Friedman as the Lexus luxury car. But of course, it is not as simple as that. Many people feel that their traditional identities - represented by the olive tree - are threatened. As a result, globalisation has set in motion a backlash among those who stand to lose. Globalism, in that respect, is its own worst enemy. The most impressive feature of Friedman's account, however, is his optimism that globalisation is good.
The book is not without its downside. It is an engaging book on globalisation, but it is only an outstandingly good book for people interested in Thomas Friedman. The first chapters tell us not how the globalisation system came into being, but how Friedman acquired the skills to understand it. The pronoun 'I' appears 40 times on one page.
On almost every other page of the book we get to meet all of Friedman's friends and most of his family. The Lexus and the Olive Tree is like one of those salads served in US restaurants, doused with a large serving of a sickly dressing (meandering anecdotes and over-extended metaphors) that disguises the basic nature of the food.
The principal argument about the paradoxical nature of globalisation has been made with far greater power and eloquence by Ernest Gellner, in his book Nationalism, which is about a fifth the length of Friedman's.
Charles Leadbeater is a former Financial Times industrial editor. His book Living on Thin Air will be published in July by Viking
THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE, by Thomas Friedman, HarperCollins £19.99.