The Lexus and the Olive Tree
by Thomas Friedman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2000
review by Brad Pokornoy
Published in One Country: Volume 11, Issue 1 / April-June 1999
In June, Amazon.com, the huge internet bookseller, listed more than 400 books about "globalization." Which raises the question: why yet another book on the topic?
Perhaps because, as Thomas L. Friedman writes in The Lexus and the Olive Tree: globalization has become "the dominant international system at the end of the twentieth century - replacing the Cold War system it now shapes virtually everyone's domestic politics and international relations."
A Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent and now the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, Friedman has few academic qualifications as an expert on globalization. His degrees are in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. Yet, as he puts it himself, he is an inveterate traveler, having crisscrossed the globe numerous times in his work for the Times. This has enabled him to talk to a wide range of world leaders, financial experts and ordinary people everywhere, and their quotations - combined with Friedman's own considerable powers of observation and analysis - give weight to the book.
Mr. Friedman's main message is that whatever the considerable upheavals and negative effects that have been triggered by the processes of economic globalization which are remaking the modern world, those processes are here to stay and the adversities they cause can only be ameliorated by facing them squarely and learning to ride with the current instead of trying to stop it.
"Globalization," he writes, "is driven by enormously powerful human aspirations for higher standards of living and by enormously powerful technologies which are integrating us more and more every day, whether we like it or not. Theoretically, these aspirations and technologies can be choked off, but only at a huge price to society's development and only by building ever higher and ever thicker walls."
He traces globalization - a term he generally uses without modification even though his main focus is actually on "economic" globalization - to "three fundamental changes" in "how we communicate, how we invest, and how we learn about the world" that occurred in the late 1980s. "[T]oday there is no more First World, Second World, or Third World," he writes. "There now just the Fast World - the world of the wide-open plain - and the Slow World - the world of those who either fall by the wayside or choose to live away from the plain in some artificially walled-off valley of their own "
Mr. Friedman believes that this new wide open world is bringing more benefits to more people than is widely realized, despite the vociferous backlash from individuals and groups that have lost jobs, power or a sense of connection to their culture from globalization's effects.
Among the benefits Mr. Friedman lists are: a general trend towards democracy and transparency in government worldwide; rising standards of living for those countries who have decided to play by the economic rules of globalization; and, last but not least, a general absence of war between countries who have "plugged into" the globalization system.
These benefits, Mr. Friedman writes, come about largely because of the pressures of the "electronic herd," which is his term for the thousands if not millions of investors and financial analysts who today direct or divert billions of investment dollars into or away from a country "with the click of a mouse." In a process that is almost Darwinian by nature, he explains how global investors, with access to all kinds of electronic financial information about the flows of money into and out of a country, act in self-interest to force governments that want to thrive economically towards transparency, democracy, financial reform and, ultimately, peace.
"We keep looking at democratization as an event - like the fall of the Berlin Wall - but actually it's a process," he writes, adding that the actions of investors worldwide are among the most important forces in this process. "This is because of the herd's ability to get inside the wiring of countries, in ways that governments and even human rights organizations cannot. The herd can impose pressures that few governments can resist."
Mr. Friedman does not turn a blind eye to the problems and dislocations that are caused by globalization, and the backlash it has stirred. Indeed, the title of the book stems from his choice of two symbols - the Lexus automobile and the traditional olive tree - to represent the two "poles" of globalization and its effects.
After visiting a highly automated Lexus factory in Japan, he decided that that particular brand of luxury car well represents all those in the world who are "intent on building a better Lexus, dedicated to modernizing, streamlining and privatizing their economics in order to thrive in the system of globalization." The olive tree, for Mr. Friedman, represents "everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world - whether it be belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion, or, most of all, a place called home."
"In the Cold War system, the most likely threat to your olive tree was from another olive tree," he writes. "It was from you neighbor coming over, violently digging up your olive tree and planting his in its place The biggest threat to your olive tree today is likely to come from the Lexus - from all the anonymous, transnational, homogenizing, standardizing market forces and technologies that make up today's globalizing economic system."
The real test, then, is whether it will be possible to create a healthy balance between these two ideas, in how well "we learn to strike the right balance between globalization's inherently empowering and humanizing aspects and its inherently disempowering and dehumanizing aspects." The final chapters of the book are aimed at suggesting how Americans and American policy might promote such a balance.
Bahá'ís would certainly agree that humanity's collective happiness and prosperity in the near future will indeed depend upon how we balance the forces of modernity with our innate sense of human identity. However, Bahá'ís would suggest that the real answer to this conundrum requires a deeper, more complex analysis that goes beyond the mostly economic point of view in Mr. Friedman's book.
Although he takes note of an earlier phase of globalization in this century, Mr. Friedman's focus is mostly on the last decade of financial upheavals, industrial innovation, and the effects of the information revolution. Bahá'ís, however, view the current effects of economic globalization as spin-offs or side-effects of a profound, divinely guided process in which humanity is being led out of its collective adolescence towards an age in which its inherent oneness will be broadly recognized as the real truth about our nature.
Bahá'ís would suggest that a balance between modernity and human identity will require recognizing that all of our olive trees are essentially "one," to use Mr. Friedman's terminology - and that the balance can be found only by sharing your olive tree with others and opening yourself to the idea that, as Bahá'u'lláh wrote more than a century ago, "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens."
In other words, the roots of the various olive trees that contain our various national, cultural or regional identities go deeper than Mr. Friedman imagines, to a common source of basic spiritual and moral values that are at the heart of every religion. Recognizing that those roots actually connect us all - instead of separate us - is the real key to bringing justice and equity to the challenges posed by the effects of a steadily intensifying globalization that extends to virtually every arena of human endeavor.