In the controversy over outsourcing, the movement of jobs to India found an unlikely ally -- Thomas L Friedman, the legendary foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting from and commentary on the Middle East, Friedman visited India some months ago to see for himself what the fuss was about, and came back convinced that outsourcing wasn't as bad as it was being made out to be.
As he later told his audience at Pace University's Michael Schimmel Centre for the Arts in downtown Manhattan, "Outsourcing is the canary in the coal mine." Meaning: it is not the issue in itself, but just the first warning of a larger issue.
Of course, during his visit to India, he wrote a series about the emerging BPO industry, and made a documentary about it, The World Ate My Job. Later, he took a sabbatical to write The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century and the Six Days That Flattened the Earth, a sequel of sorts to his prize-winning The Lexus and the Olive Tree.
His most recent stay in India, his second in two years, has reaffirmed Friedman's faith in some systems he has been an advocate of for years: globalisation, democracy, and education. Friedman spoke to Tanmaya Kumar Nanda from his Washington, DC, office on a range of issues, from outsourcing to India and globalization.
This interview first appeared in India Abroad, the oldest, largest circulated and most respected newspaper for the Indian-American community, owned by rediff.com
As a leading international affairs and foreign policy analyst today, how do you see India-Pakistan relations affecting trade and growth in the region?
Well, I believe that we are seeing a rapprochement and the cricket diplomacy is a reflection of this. I think this rapprochement is driven very much by my McDonald's theory, only in the 3.0 form. In 2.0, I wrote that no two countries that have McDonald's have ever fought a war since each got McDonald's. That was really an argument about trade and integration.
Now we got to 3.0 and I have a variation on my McDonald's theory. In my new theory, no two countries that are part of a global supply chain will fight ever a war against each other as long as they are each part of the supply chain. So it's a level deeper.
When you, India, become the backroom of American Express and General Electric, you can't take a day off, you can't say, 'Sorry GE, we got to take a week off to fight a war, a nuclear war on top of it,' and GE says, 'Sorry India, we are now talking about trade. You are running my credit card business, my healthcare business, my employee retirement plan, you can't take a minute off, let alone a day or week.'
I believe that reality which began in Bangalore and Chennai and Hyderabad has percolated upwards and not just in the specific sense. Every young person we met in the course of the documentary we asked about Kashmir and Pakistan -- well, people are nationalists and they believe in Kashmir in the Indian national sense that it's theirs and whatnot -- but as far as fighting wars, the mood was, 'Oh come on, I've got better things to do!'
And the government reflected that. When I was there, a quote from Vajpayee said, 'We can't afford a war anymore.' Now, that's why I want nothing more than for Pakistan to be part of the world of Infosys because both India and Pakistan are part of the global supply chains. Then we are really getting somewhere. The problem is when one is and one isn't, because then I can really pull your chain, you are almost more vulnerable, India. The other guys are, like, Israel and Palestine, where one is hyper-connected and the other has this mediæval form of suicide.
India has so much to gain because you have so much more to do, in a world where you can do it. I hope it goes somewhere, for India's sake and for Pakistan's sake because I think the more rapprochement, the more context, the more Pakistanis are gonna come over for the next NASSCOM conference in Mumbai and say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we have got the same name, we look the same, we talk the same, we have got the same DNA, there's only one thing missing and that's governance.'
I think India has a powerful potential to influence Pakistan in a positive way as much as Saudi Arabia influenced it in a negative way. To me, it's a struggle. Is it going to be call centres or madrassas? And Pakistan, that's the real battleground. Is it going to be IITs for Pakistan or only Islamic universities that only teach religion? I have no problem with Islamic universities, I just want them to teach other things than just religion.
India and Pakistan are beginning to talk, India and the US are strategic partners, but Pakistan has been designated a Major Non-NATO Ally. There's been a lot of heartburn on the Indian side regarding the manner of the announcement. Do you see that affecting India-US or India-Pak relations?
If I had a choice between being designated a Major Non-NATO partner or ally of the US and being part of the outsourcing of America's defence, or I could have Infosys and Wipro and being part of the outsourcing of the American economy, I would choose the latter. That is to say, if I were India, I would just ignore this. I don't think it's important at all because there is something deeply organic about the Indian-American relationship that's evolving. It's built on so many different levels, it's built on Indians coming here and starting companies or working for companies and going back to India. We are developing a symbiotic relationship.
The Pakistan-America relationship is currently entirely at the top. Some might argue it's one man to one man. The India-America relationship is built from the ground up, it's people to people, and I hope the Pakistan-America relationship would become people to people, I don't want it to be based on one man to one man.
But India has to show more self-confidence. Sometimes it gets a little rattled. If I look at these relationships in terms of their real weight -- and you measure the weight of a relationship people-to-people, not man-to-man, leader-to-leader -- they are not even close. It should be Pakistan that should be rattled. I would like Pakistan and America to have a people-to-people relationship and that's only possible when Pakistan's a democracy, when people can choose.
What is driving the America-India relationship is that we have voluntarily chosen to be partners in a very intimate way. You are running the backroom of our companies. Who cares if we designate you a big strategic NATO ally? It's meaningless, to me at least. Sometimes I think India needs to calm down a little bit.
What about the US-India trade imbalance, which is heavily skewed in India's favour? Also, India has taken the leading in opposing the US on agricultural subsidies at the WTO rounds. How will that trade deficit affect the India-US relationship?
I can't speak specifically on some of these issues because I'm not up on them. But what I would simply say is that my strategy towards India is not to complain about outsourcing. It would be to open those sectors of the Indian economy that are still closed to what we do best: insurance, finances, financial banking.
You know that I am against agricultural subsidies. I want farmers in the developing world to develop and I want our farms to be used to improve our environment.
Going back to Pakistan, what do you make of the 'nuclear WalMart', as it has been described by some?
Honestly, I haven't followed it. It is very disturbing. Obviously, A Q Khan was out of control.
But do you think it was possible for him to have acted alone?
I have no idea. As you know from my columns, I have not explored that deeply and I have a bad habit of not commenting on things I don't know about (laughs).
Besides ties with the US and Pakistan, India and Israel have been growing closer, despite the fact that India has traditionally been a supporter of the Palestinian cause, and later opposed the war on Iraq.
The war on terrorism has clearly nudged India and Israel together; they feel they share a common enemy. At the same time, globalization has very naturally shoved them together, because they have this enormous amount of business they can do, there's a lot of comparative advantage between the two. Israel has its hi-tech sector, very advanced, equivalent of Silicon Valley in some ways, and they are particularly good in military technologies, so it's a lot of comparative advantage. I think that's a good thing.
I'm glad it's happening, but I don't want it to happen against the Muslim world. It will flourish, and only flourish, and reach its full potential if there is some kind of peace arrangement where India, which has a substantial Muslim population, doesn't have to do this in secret. It's happening for some organic reasons, but there needs to be some sort of peace context where India can feel totally comfortable and totally good in forging ahead with this relationship and not have to do it in secret.
India has the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. But the war on terror is largely seen as a war against Islam. How can India counter that and what is your opinion on that perception?
I believe the war on terror is not a war with Islam, it's a war within Islam. We as outsiders, whether India or the US, it's our job to use our influence anywhere we can to help the good guys defeat the bad guys, to help those who believe in tolerance and pluralism and democracy defeat those who believe in intolerance, jihad, authoritarianism, and terrorism. And if there is no war within Islam, and the bad guys are allowed to set the agenda, then there will be a war with Islam.
But I don't think we are there at all. Right now we are seeing the war within Islam play out and we should do everything we can to make sure the good guys win.
How do you see that playing out, the war within Islam, because a lot of them are dictated to by religious clerics and leaders?
I supported the war on Iraq not for WMD. The only justification for my argument was the regime. It is so important to create a space in the heart of the Arab Muslim world where people who believe in tolerance, pluralism, and modernism can stand up and speak out.
It's interesting, because the preachers were supposed to condemn what happened [the killing of four US contractors in June], but let's see what they said (reads from a news story on his computer: 'They condemned the mutilation of the bodies, but did not criticize the killings...').
Do you think the war in Iraq is going to be another Vietnam for the US?
It's not Vietnam. It may end like Vietnam, but it's a totally different context. And I believe that trying to fight the war of ideas within the heart of the Arab-Muslim world by partnering with the Iraqi people by trying to build a decent state in the heart of their world is not only the right strategy, it's the only strategy.
It may be though that it's a fool's errand. It may turn out that the politics and culture of that part of the world is just too encrusted to break through. It may be, but from a national security point of view, it wasn't just the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do. And Lord knows I grieve for every soldier that's been killed there and I don't say that lightly. But do I believe that their being dispatched there was an unconscionable deployment of our troops. From a national interest point of view, it was right and rational.
Has this administration done it the best way they could? Absolutely not. But if you think the status quo was benign or that the only reckless thing here was doing something about it, was trying to change it, then I tell you the status quo brought us 9/11, the status quo brought us two Arab human development reports. So that's my feeling, it may not work, we are right in the middle of this.
But I'm putting this at a national security level. But if you were the mother or father of someone who was killed, your heart would ache as someone who advocated this and it hasn't worked. So from a personal point of view, I would apologize; but from a national interest point of view, your son did not die in vain, did not die in some ridiculous adventure, this is not Mogadishu, this is not even Vietnam. There is a real, underlying logic to fighting the war on ideas and doing it this way.
But it may be that we are just too radioactive and that part of the world is just too encrusted for us to change, and at some point here, we are going to make that calculation.
As a columnist, how does it feel to know that your column was picked up by a Saudi prince as a peace proposal? How do you react to something like that?
I'm thrilled! My motto as a columnist has always been: 'Do you want to make a point or do you want to make a difference?' I'm not here to beat my breast and make a point, I really want to make a difference, not because I am a megalomaniac who wants to control the world, but because I have children and I want them to grow up in a better world than the one I grew up in, a less dangerous world than the one they are growing up in now, and one that is as peaceful as the one I grew up in! That's what motivates me, that I am a parent, that's the key to what makes me tick.
I love my country, I think it's the greatest country in the world, I am an unabashed American patriot, ok? And I want it to flourish and thrive, for the sake of my kids and because I believe America is a blessing for the world.
We do a lot of stupid things, and we have done a lot of stupid and bad things in history, but very few good things happen in the world without America somehow being involved. I believe a strong and healthy America is essential for the progress of the world.
I like to think I am very independent and unpredictable because I have got my eye on my own horizon, what I believe is good for America and for the world, and I think people get that about me. So if my peace proposal inspires the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, that makes me feel really good.
Photograph: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Uday Kuckian