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India’s pluralism and democracy a blessing for the entire world, says Thomas Friedman

NYT columnist and author Thomas Friedman said India must cherish, preserve and revere its pluralism and democracy. Read the full exchange of ThePrint's digital Off The Cuff.

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New Delhi: Thomas Friedman, a columnist with The New York Times and author, asserted that the coronavirus pandemic has given a boost to globalisation like never before.

In an interaction with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at the digital Off The Cuff on 11 May, he said the coronavirus pandemic has given an opportunity for individuals across the world to compete, connect and collaborate globally.

Friedman also explained that even though trade and travel have slowed down, financial flows are moving as ever. This globalisation just pertains to individuals and will lead to seamless global interactions.

He maintained that globalisation has a bright future.

Read the full exchange here:

Shekhar Gupta (SG): You said globalisation has got a second life, elaborate a little bit

Thomas Friedman (TF): Obviously we aren’t travelling like we used to but then actually travelling was a pretty elite phenomenon. Trade will slowdown, financial flows are moving as fast as ever if you look at markets.

SG: If I may interrupt you, Reliance has so much money coming from global funds. Including Facebook.

TF: But this kind of globalisation of just individuals. Being able to connect, families connecting, newspapers, analysts connecting. All of us have this global interaction seamlessly, this is only going to get better. Six months from now … this Zoom platform … and I get there will be 10 Indian versions of it as well. I think globalisation has got a bright future, as the ability of individuals now. Not just companies and countries to act globally. And when there is a vaccine, God willing, the old version will come back as well.

SG: Two things have happened if I may say so. One this grand collaboration of scientists, this globalisation of science which we haven’t seen before. And also science has found a new respect in a world which only puts value to investment bankers.

TF: I think that is very true. We’ve all become students of epidemiology and we have our epidemiological heroes now.

SG: So could anyone have anticipated a terrible thing like this bringing science back in fashion?

TF: Well I certainly didn’t predict it. But a few people did, some did say that we are due for a pandemic. Not urging it, but Bill Gates and others had done Ted Talks, George W. Bush gave a talk saying it’s only a matter of time. When you look back at the last 20 years, I’ve lived through three and a half pandemics. The first was a geopolitical pandemic — 9/11, second was the financial pandemic — 2008, the third was an epidemiological pandemic called coronavirus and the half of one, which is coming. The mother of them all, is called climate change. So there is a reason this is happening and the reason we are both stressing out our geopolitical, economic and environmental systems and then overloading a globalisation network on top of it and you put the two together. You put those stresses and a wired world together, the ability to transmit those stresses now globally is bigger than ever before.

SG: Do you think climate change and how we are stressing the planet had something to do with this pandemic?

TF: Well I think there is no question, at least in my mind. We still don’t know how the virus emerged in Wuhan, China, and China is going to have to tell us how it emerged. But all these indications it was like SARS where we invade these ecosystems where we shouldn’t be, we do this as a globe. We kill the apex predators in these ecosystems and the iconic species and then we leave these broken ecosystems to the generalised species which can survive these predators, called rats, bats and primates. These generalised species co-evolve with these viruses and then we go and hunt them for wildlife. And then we sell them in wet markets in Vietnam and China and Central Africa, and once in a while, one of them jumps from one of these wild animals that co-evolve with these viruses in the wild. It jumps to domesticated animals, we eat them and you end up with these zoonotic viruses. Thats how SARS started, there is every indication that is how this started.

SG: You said China will have to tell us, can anyone say this about China? The Chinese do what they want to do.

TF: It depends on whether we play them or they play us because the Trump administration has been moronic when dealing with China. How should they have dealt with China on trade, this is a very important model here. What they should have done was sign the Trans-Pacific trade agreement, brought together 40 per cent GDP under American trade rules around the Pacific without China. And then gone to India and Europe and said, ‘you guys have trade issues with China too, you join with us’. Then called the Chinese to negotiations where it would be the world vs China under right trade rules. If that were the equation then all the reformers inside China and there are many of them would have been on our side. Instead, Trump said I am going to go alone against China, it’s going to be me against Xi over who has the biggest turf. I am going to go on a trade war with Europe at the same time and Canada and Mexico and South Korea. I am going to make it me vs Xi and what that does is trigger all the nationalists in China to rally around their President. It is just really really stupid. What I fear Shekhar is that he will do the same on the Wuhan virus. Rather than coming to India and Europe and the WHO, and say let’s make it all of us against China. And ask for an independent inquiry on where this came from. He is going to make it America vs China, trigger all the nationalists there and then basically we will have China split the rest of the world and they will get away without having a rigorous investigation.

SG: Is he poorly advised or he doesn’t listen to advice?

TF: Trump is a deeply ignorant man. He is ignorant, he is arrogant and he has a third rate team around him. He doesn’t listen or learn and I just hope we can survive his presidency and God forbid we have four more years.

SG: What are the odds you put on a re-election?

TF: Too soon to tell, I wouldn’t make any … the next six months are going to be wild.

SG: Science and economics. Economics has never needed science as much as it does now. Science is the Pentagon that needs to act to save the world right now. How do you see this complex equation evolve? So far people who have made the money didn’t take science so seriously. They thought the most boring nerds in the class went to science.

TF: So let me share with you about how I look at this problem globally from 30,000 feet and that will explain my answer to your question. My daughter, Natalie is the executive producer of a show which had pastors and churches all over America. They took excerpts from the Sunday Easter sermon and the last one was Michael Elliot who is the pastor at the National Cathedral in Washington. He ended the Easter sermon by singing, “He has got the whole world in his hand”. Just substitute he for she — Mother Nature. And she got the whole world in her hands. We as a species, the last time this happened was in 1918, have never experienced that feeling that she got the whole world in her hands. Now what is Mother nature? Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is. You cannot talk her up, you cannot talk her down. You cannot say Mother Nature what happened to recession? Would you take a few months off? She is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate and she always bats last. And she always bats a thousand. Do not mess with Mother Nature. Let’s start with the unique nature of this challenge. People have often used the unique term that “we are at war with Mother Nature.”

You never are at war with Mother Nature. In a war we could out mobilise and out strategise the Nazis and the Japanese to win World War 2. We could innovate and outspend the Soviet Union to win the Cold War. You can do neither with Mother Nature. This is among the many things she throws at us as a species to test who is the fittest and who should survive and get their DNA into the next generation. That’s what heat waves, storms, floods and viruses are. Who does she reward? She throws these threats at us. She rewards not the strongest, not the smartest, she only rewards the most adaptive. Which species of plants, animals and humans can adapt the best using chemistry, biology and physics, because those are her only currencies.

If your currency is ideology she will hurt you or summon you love, if your currency is politics she will hurt you or summon you love, if your currency is your next election campaign she will hurt you or summon you love. She rewards only one thing — who will adapt using chemistry, biology and physics the best. She always bats last and always bats perfectly. So that is the overall challenge we face.

The problem with Trump is he knows nothing about the natural world. He is a market guy. He only values things that are in money or markets. So early on in this crisis, when the market was still going up no matter what he was doing, he thought he was winning against Mother Nature. When the market went up one day in early March at a record level, he actually took a screenshot of it and autographed it and sent it to Lou Doggs on Fox News and that knucklehead showed it on the evening news. And Trump was doing all that, Mother Nature was silently, invisibly and exponentially, inextricably and mercilessly spreading coronavirus throughout our country. And she doesn’t like the market open at 9:30am and close at 4pm. And takes Saturday and Sunday off.

So if you don’t respect her and if you are not completely coordinated on how you respond to her … because the viruses are evolved to find any crack in your armour. And if you are not about chemistry, biology and physics, then she will hurt you and someone you love. And that is what we are slowly learning in the US. So Americans are staying despite Trump lifting the lockdown, because they are listening to Dr. Fauci. To the scientists and epidemiologists who understand physics, chemistry and biology, and not the politicians.

SG: So Dr. Fauci has become quite the star all over the world, including India. What is it about Trump that someone like Fauci has survived in the White House? I think he is a prime candidate for a Trump firing.

TF: Give it time. Trump retweeted the firing tweet, just give it time. Nobody emerges from Trump’s orbit larger than they came in. They only emerge smaller, or more sullied or harmed.

SG: Best thing that can happen to you in the Trump orbit is that he fires you.

TF: He hasn’t tagged me on Twitter so I feel pretty protected.

SG: I have a question from John Elliot, who used to be the Financial Times bureau chief in Delhi and now runs Asia Sentinel. He said, trick question — in what order would you list these presidents/ PMs for positive contributions. Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson and why? Xi Jinping first.

TF: Xi missed this. He failed to understand what was happening in Wuhan and failed to respond both domestically and globally with the speed he should have and the transparency he should have. But he recovered after a few weeks and used the Chinese system to curtail the spread of the virus. That is how I would rate Xi Jinping. Right now though, I think he is courting trouble by trying to bully the world into not demanding a transparent investigation into where the virus came from.

SG: Modi?

TF: I am far away from India, and I have not followed it closely. But it strikes me that he was pretty quick to order a national lockdown. Not easy in a country like India where so many people live in very dense conditions. And such a high poverty rate in rural areas. Where just washing your hands regularly let alone social distancing is not easy. But seems to be that Modi has been more effective than not. And the virus has not spread in India at the speed, scope and scale I would have expected. Now that may be for epidemiological reasons, climate reasons, latitudinal reasons, I don’t know. But for now Modi deserves a decent grade.

SG: Boris Johnson?

TF: Boris Johnson was unfortunately freaked out unnecessarily by the Imperial College epidemiological study by Neal Ferguson which predicted that if UK adopted a herd immunity approach as Sweden had, what Boris Johnson and his advisers had wanted to do, he was knocked off that impulse. He went for the conventional broad lockdown and the UK is suffering now, both economically and epidemiologically. I don’t think they are happy where they are, from what I have read.

SG: What has he done right?

TF: He has taken the virus seriously and they did a very stringent lockdown. Everyone who has done a lockdown all that did was spread out the virus, flatten it, rather than getting an immediate spike. So your hospital system isn’t overwhelmed. But you aren’t really making any headway in terms of gaining immunity, either through a vaccine or naturally.

SG: And Donald Trump. Something positive he has done?

TF: He will tell you that the most positive thing he did was stop incoming flights of Chinese from China early on. And I would give him credit for that. At the time probably wasn’t such an easy call and he should get credit for that.

SG: I have a question from Uday Kotak, one of India’s most prominent bankers and a global star from corporate India. He said you have been talking about life BC and AC (Before coronavirus and After coronavirus). Explain that a little bit.

TF: This is a world shaking event, Shekhar. Trends that were apparent are not vastly accelerated after corona. Whether it is what you and I are doing right now (never done before), but which we will do in the future I am promising you. Financial trends of the collapse of tradition retail. Financial education trends in e-learning. All of these trends which were there BC — before corona, seem to be vastly accelerated by corona and will create a new world in all these areas — finance, education, journalism, after corona. I don’t think they will go away. I feel like i’m sitting across the room from you. It is 85 per cent as good, not a 100 per cent. I am missing the serendipity of talking to your staff, but in terms of the core quality of our interaction I feel as though we are sitting across the desk from each other.

SG: Will companies have smaller offices? Will they hire fewer people? Will these consequences also be there?

TF: I have no doubt about it. I have spoken to corporate leaders who have their people sitting at home. People like it more. It is cheaper, more efficient. Shekhar, The New York Times has been closed since the first week of March. We are not opening our offices till 8 September. It’s 11 May. We have gained a million more online subscribers. We now have six million online subscribers. You think we are going back to the old way? There is not a chance.

SG: If I may tell you, in the last two months, we have tripled our readership.

TF: Can I ask how many online readers does ThePrint have?

SG: Right now. Last month we had 20 million unique visitors. We are four months from turning three. Even our Youtube page is adding 3,000 subscribers a day. We are sitting at 850,000 subscribers, we are going up.

I have again another corporate leader from India — very well respected — Deepak Parekh. In the question, he has said countries now have to spend to revive their economy. But many countries like India are now also frightened by rating agencies. Post 2008, there were questions about how much we can trust rating agencies. Today, do you think some of these global pressure points have to ease and rating agencies also have to see that the countries that spend to revive their economies have to be treated differently.

TF: I hope they will, Shekhar. But there are the rating agencies and there is the market. The market will do its own math in terms of currency, its value and its debasement. I think this is going to be a particularly excruciating question for development countries that don’t have the ability to have the treasury issued bonds and be able to put a cushion under us. I am really worried about this. I don’t know enough economics to be able to give an authoritative answer to that question, Shekhar. I will just say that I fear a lot of people will be debasing their currencies globally, just printing money to necessarily save their most vulnerable. And then we will see a spike in gold.

SG: K.V. Rajan, former Indian ambassador, now runs Ambassadors’ Economic Forum, asks — will there be a redrawing of global supply chains to reduce dependence on China? And can that lead to a major shift towards India. That’s a question everybody wants to ask. In India, we declare victory too soon, we know it’s a problem. Should we start looking at this as an opportunity?

TF: Be very careful. Because China is using its own system. It’s already back at work. They reopened Disney China today. They are going back to Disney world in China and you can’t get near to a Disney world in Orlando. Alright, and so what’s happened is that China has actually got its supply chains back up. And it looks even more reliable partner for manufacturers because they have been able to work their way through a pandemic. So I’d be very very careful about predicting that we don’t need to depend on China anymore. It may be in six months just the opposite — that is we are even more dependent on China because we are still in a roiling mess. If India has hope of supplanting China in markets in terms of supply chains, it’s going to really have to get its act together right now. That being said, on issues of basic raw materials for medicines, people will want to bring some of those critical supply chains back home, no matter what the cost. But that will affect India, which is a big global supplier of so many basic medicines and components of vaccines. I would be very careful about any prediction that China is finished or this is America or India’s moment. We all have to perform now and the world is watching.

SG: And as you said, the Chinese are already going to Disney. So Tom, a lot of us had thought that America was now going backwards and China was rising in the world. Also China is more inter-dimensional in different ways — good and bad. What kind of America do you see emerging out of this, irrespective of who wins?

TF: Well Shekhar what this moment has revealed is something I wrote about in 2011 with my friend Michael Mandelbaum in a book about America called That Used to be Us. How America lost its way in the world it invented and how we can come back. So it has been clear to me for a decade that we aren’t who we think we are. We are like someone who says — we are exceptional. Shekhar, did I tell you we’re exceptional. Let me show you the honorary degree on my wall. It says that America is exceptional. But being exceptional is not like an honorary degree on your wall. Being exceptional is something you have to earn and re-earn and prove and re-prove every day. But we got into a habit of me taking you into my library Shekhar, and showing my exceptional degree. And thinking that was enough. We aren’t who we think we are. We are actually a really disorganised state who did the riskiest thing we have ever done in our history, elected a fraud, a huckster and ignoramus as our president. We thought we were going to get lucky and get through the four years despite having elected him. And instead we got the worst crisis in a century and maybe in our history while this guy is our president. And so the biggest sentiment I find from friends around the world is pity. I remember people hating America, I remember people feeling bullied by America, I remember people resenting America, but I never remember people pitying America.

SG: You see, the government’s learning lessons from this because suddenly the government now world bank. IMF nothing is going to be helpful. In fact, Modi used that line in his first speech while announcing the lockdown. He said that every country is on its own now. No country will come and help you. What lessons do you think will the countries and governments learn? Will they become more control freak? For example running business which is a problem in India and I have Anil Agrawal who is the Chairman of Vedanta, who asked that will this get governments to become more tempted to get involved in businesses or be more interventionist at domestic levels or will it teach them to let their economies grow and reduce their footprints from business except for countries like India where govt still does a lot of business.

TF: Well I have always felt that the secret to America’s sauce was our public private partnership. The fact that government created a kind of enabling infrastructure and that the market and free market launched after that. But that model was based on governments that constantly invested in what I call the big five. Infrastructure — ports, airports, roads, telecom. Education — the best school, K 12, Universities etc. The most government funded research to push out the boundaries of Science or business scold pluck off the flower and turn them into new great companies called Intel, Google and Microsoft. The most immigration so we can get the smartest brain in India to come to America and run Google and Microsoft and Adobe and Workday. I can go down the list of American companies now run by India-Americans. Thank you India for educating these people and then sending them to America. And then lastly, there have been the best rules to incentivise investment and prevent recklessness. Those were our big five. Those were how we got and every president nurtured them going back to Lincoln — when he built the national railroad, started the more active state universities. We have gotten away from investing in those big five and that is the government’s role at a minimum and then let business play off that platform. I can’t speak for India and I don’t know what’s going on there now, but I can say America has gotten away from them.

SG: The rule of five is a good one for the governments and that is essentially what the governments should be doing. In fact, when we see India’s ease of business ratings, one area where India does very badly is enforcement of contracts.

TF: Always have.

SG: China has been pushing its neighbours. We see they do some things with Japanese, we also have Chinese walk into contested areas and push Indian soldiers around — something which we haven’t seen for some time. These things don’t happen by some coincidence in China, isn’t it?

TF: Yeah I am sure that there is always a temptation. I am not speaking about the specifics, I don’t know, honestly. But there is always a temptation when you have internal stress to deflect attention by creating external enemies. And Trump has been doing that with Xi, Xi has been doing that with Trump. What you are telling me suggests that maybe that is going on with China as well. That is the way to rally people to the flag and deflect their attention. You have a problem at home, externalise them by finding a foreign enemy so one can rally around rather than criticising you.

SG: So Narendra Modi has invested a lot of equity in Donald Trump. Lots of hugs saying my ‘friend Trump’ or ‘my friend Modi’. And there is a feeling that Trump likes Modi and vice versa and Trump can deliver a lot that India needs. Do you think Modi has calculated right or wrong?

TF: I totally understand what PM Modi is doing. There is only one American president at a time. This can pass me goodies that are important for India, India’s people its economy, its geopolitics. I understand what PM is doing and I’d be doing the same myself. There is no interest in creating a fight with Trump. He is only going to be there four years. But in those four years it’s a job of whoever leads India, and if it were the Congress party, I would guess they would be doing the same thing. Not picking a fight with this mercurial character but rather trying to get the most out of him and protect yourself.

SG: Will America survive four more years of Trump?

TF: America will not survive as we have known and with four more years are, our institutions will not hold. It will be a disaster.

SG: And if that happens in America, this will have a knock on effect on the rest of the world.

TF: The America you knew will no longer be there.

SG: The strong man model is on test because if you see Trump, Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Netanhyahu Modi, Bolsonaro — this whole world is being run by alpha make and a lot of people think this model works. Do you think this model coming unstuck or do you see this model sustaining itself fo some more time. Because the cocktail is the same — its nationalism, its protectionism, it is me being a He-Man.

TF: Well I will just be speaking generally. If you are to nominate the leader who has managed this crisis the best across the whole world, it is actually the alpha female. It is really (German) Chancellor (Angela) Merkel who has handled this best. I think it’s way too soon to tell Shekhar, whether this model of elected majoritarian leaders who behave very autocratically — whether this is a future, ether this is a phase, I don’t know but how they handled this crisis will have a big influence on that, I am sure.

SG: So I have Shailaja Bajpai, my colleague, she said, you clearly want to see Joe Biden as the next president after nov 2020, but in TV interviews, he has often seemed asleep. Do you really think he can beat Trump?

TF: Yeah Trump is an amazing political animal, We haven’t seen anything like him. I have great respect for his political skills. Biden is old and he shows it but he also has the thing that people are looking for a lot now in contrast to Trump. That’s decency, warmth, the ability to connect at the human level. Biden has assets, he is not there by accident. But he also has some obvious weakness and thats is just his physical stamina.

SG: But do you think the democrats were right in preferring him over Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

TF: I certainly do. I actually was a Bloomberg supporter. I thought that democrats would have been best with Bloomberg as their candidate but he wasn’t the man of this time. Too many people looking for something different.

SG: Why did you prefer him over Sanders and Warren?

TF: Two reasons Shekhar, One is — looking at substance, the ability to actually lead. Bloomberg’s experience of many years of running the biggest city in America very successfully around issues of infrastructure, education, economics, he really knows these issues.

Number two, as I wrote about him, he is a rattle snake with a heart of gold. He is really tough. And to go up against Donald Trump, you need the fangs of a cobra but to win America you need a heart of gold and Bloomberg had a heart of Gold in terms of helping people by how he governed and through his philanthropy. So I thought he had a machine, Shekhar, that was built to last. Remember he runs the biggest data science company in the world other than Google. So he knows how to use the internet. So I thought that he had a machine that could really take on Trump. You gotta need a machine but for whatever reasons, a billionaire running now in the current climate is just very hard.

SG: What was the flaw with the other two because they seem to excite the young a lot more.

TF: Sanders was a democratic socialist and about a third of the democratic party believed in something called democratic socialism. That means about the sixth of the whole country believed in it. So it was never going to scale. And fortunately a group of African American women in South Carolina basically saved the party by saying — forget all that stuff. Biden is a guy, we are voting for Biden. And you know why they did that Shekhar? It’s very interesting. There was incredible wisdom I think these African American women have acquired in church down in South Carolina. There was such wisdom there, they looked to the candidate, they looked at the challenge and they said — there is just one thing we need. Someone to beat Trump. They did the math and calculated who was the best to do that and they pulled the lever for Joe Biden. And they were not voting on race, they weren’t voting on women, they understood the biggest issue in the country is four more years of Donald Trump. We owe them a huge debt for their wisdom.

SG: In Cricket they say choose the right bowler for the right batsman. Last question is from our Political editor D.K. Singh who says that from early 2014, you said Indian economy was like a super highway. About four years later in November 2017, you said if India was stoked, I‘d buy it. Would you still buy it in May 2020?

TF: I said India was a super highway though where the side walks weren’t finished, the lines of the highway were not drawn and the street lamps were out. I say still may be the super highway down the road, that’s what I meant. So just to get it right.

I am a huge sucker for India. I think a country with 1.3 billion people, speaking a hundred different languages, having free and fair elections every five years is a miracle. And if India were like Syria today, the whole world would be a different place. So Indian pluralism and the innate democracy I believe is the blessing for the world. It must cherish that, it must revere it and it must preserve it. Because India’s pluralism and basic democratic impulses is vital for India’s success and is vital for the world’s success. It must respect it, cherish it and preserve it for India’s sake and the world’s sake.

SG: Do you see any dangers there?

TF: I see some dangers lately. I’d be lying If I say I didn’t. I worry about some of these trends. I have not studied them closely but I know what I read in the paper and I am just going to repeat that India’s pluralism and its democracy is an underline piece to all its success and it’s so important for India and the world.

Thank you very much Tom.

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