Much of Thomas Friedman’s writings over the last few years have focused away from foreign affairs per se and more so on the area of domestic competitiveness. Friedman, like many other writers, sees domestic health and political culture as key to political power abroad. Where he differs, however, from other writers, is his visceral embrace of technocracy. Friedman posits the key to American survival is an enlightened class of experts skilled in technocratic arts of governance. Such notions are part of an older tradition of American grand strategy whose usefulness to the modern era is somewhat dubious.
Take his Sunday column “Serious in Singapore.” Friedman, having taken a trip to a 5th grade classroom in Singapore, extols the industriousness and creativity of the Asian city-state–in marked contrast to lazier compatriots back home. Sprinkled throughout the op-ed are paens to Singapore’s pragmatism and success in building a well-functioning society. The timing of the op-ed, which offers (qualified) praise to an managed state, is a little bizarre in light of a large-scale revolt against a large authoritarian state in the Middle East.
This theme is more explicitly explored in a much-criticized interview on China in which Friedman stated:
So I don’t–I, I–I’m worried about this, it’s why I have fantasized–don’t get me wrong–but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment. I don’t want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.
Friedman more fully fleshed out his views in a 2009 column about the health care debate:
Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.
Although these quotes may suggest otherwise, it is unlikely that Friedman really does see a Singapore or Chinese-style managed authoritarian capitalist state model as viable or desirable for the United States. It does, however, express a fear that there is something fundamentally irresistible about these states’ growing power that mandates that America borrow some of their energy and dynamism. His work meshes with a rash of popular fear that conjures up images of an army of Southeast Asian students accomplishing nearly superhuman intellectual feats in the classroom and the boardroom. Friedman’s constant odes to Asian competitiveness and industriousness and chiding of supposed American laziness fits well with this genre. It is also personal, as Friedman’s frequent visits to Chinese and Singaporean elementary school classrooms reveal.
Obviously, no one is going to argue that industrial-scientific mobilization is unimportant to political, economic, or military power. Although we often (rightly) malign technocentric thinking in strategic affairs, we all want to be the man with his hand on the Maxim gun at Omdurman rather than the charging Mahdists about to be shot to pieces. However, Friedman’s oeuvre goes beyond the familiar nationalist imperative to out-compete the opposition (a rather old American rhetorical trope since the late 19th century), into a love affair with industrial-era models of education, managed political systems, and enlightened experts. This positivist idea suggests that complex, intractable political-economic problems are solvable as long as the right people, equipped with the right tools, are allowed to operate free of ideological confusion.
Friedman’s idea runs counter to an impressive array of research in political science, anthropology, and economics ranging from Friedrich Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge in Society” to James C. Scott’s more recent classic Seeing Like a State. Scott and Hayek, furthermore, both reacted against modernist ideas that favored heavily planned political systems and economies and benevolent, omniscient classes of experts.
In sum total, the most bizarre thing about the vision of technocracy that Friedman presents is that it is in fact very old. The 1920s and 30s were full of Western political-military thinkers who were dubious or conflicted about democracy and were alternatively troubled or excited by the seeming success that authoritarian nations in Europe and the East had in turning their countries into formidable powers. Friedman fits squarely into a tradition that John Jordan aptly describes in his history of pre-World War II technocratic thought.
Some of these modernist ideas were valuable, many of them weren’t–for the simple and banal reason that most public policy problems are not engineering projects, an insight grasped long before TRADOC made “wicked problems” a household phrase in the American defense community. Investing in infrastructure, elevating pragmatic elites, and improving math curricula alone are not going to make America competitive. I suspect Friedman understands this too, if his extensive caveats to his own op-eds are any guide.
Rebuilding the domestic sources of American power is important element of any grand strategy, and a good deal of this will by necessity deal with industrial, educational, and economic issues. However, the idea that it can be willed as a kind of giant nation-wide engineering project goes against most of what we know about large-scale human problems. Most importantly, Friedman’s constant, almost Amy Chua-like valorization of Asian societies and governmental system also misunderstands the substantial barriers to political, economic, and scientific innovation present in those societies.