Kathimerini Greece Newsroom
Thomas Friedman, American political commentator, author and weekly columnist for The New York Times, tells Kathimerini that the ongoing war in Ukraine will probably be resolved with “a dirty deal” that will include the loss of a part of eastern Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv’s accession to NATO and the European Union.
The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner describes former president Donald Trump as a populist whose possible return to the presidency would be a blow to American society while it would be welcomed by China and Russia with enthusiasm.
Friedman, who will participate in the 11th Athens Democracy Forum, taking place from September 27 to 29, also talks about the threat that liberal democracy faces in many countries around the world, including the US itself, but says that he cannot afford not to be optimistic about the future.
Let me start with Ukraine. How do you see the situation developing? Any prospect for an end to the war?
I was just in Kyiv and I have a couple of reactions. When you talk to Ukrainians, including soldiers, they say two things: One is that we will fight to recover every square inch of our territory, and the other is that we are very, very tired. And that there’s a tension between those two things. But I do believe something very important is at stake. I’m proud of my country for supporting them. I believe it was the right thing to do. I believe this will only probably be resolved with a dirty deal, where Putin will end up with some part of eastern Ukraine – how small will depend on events on the ground. In return, Ukraine – he will have to agree or turn a blind eye – will be in NATO and the European Union, both.
Yes, and that may not be overnight obviously, but it will be over time. You cannot have a stable ceasefire without Ukraine in NATO. Otherwise, Putin will come back, and if there’s the fear of Putin coming back, no refugees will return and no investors will come in. So if we’re going to ask Ukraine to cut a dirty deal, you need to have a NATO security guarantee so Putin won’t come back. And I think Ukraine entering the EU over time – however long it takes to get its regulatory, its anti-corruption systems in place – would be as big a game changer – actually bigger – as East Germany unifying with West Germany. You would add to the European Union 40 million more people, the country that produces more engineers than any other country in Europe, a country that’s the biggest grain supplier in the world outside of Russia, and the country that has the biggest standing army in Europe other than Russia. Adding Ukraine to the European Union over time, I believe, will be a tipping point for Europe, and for Europe vis-a-vis Russia. I think the best Putin policy of the West is Ukraine and NATO, because then you will have a successful modernizing, marketizing Slavic democracy in Ukraine living every day as a living breathing contrast to Putin’s Slavic kleptocracy in Russia. In my mind, this story has always been about Ukraine and the EU, not about Ukraine and NATO. NATO expansion was always Putin’s friend. Putin could just say, “Look at me” to his people, “I am defending you against NATO, which wants to invade and impose its godless pro-gay culture on our society.” NATO expansion was Putin’s friend. EU expansion is Putin’s enemy because it demonstrates everything Putin’s Russia is not. And so, in my view, it was always about EU expansion. Those are my sort of basic thoughts regarding that.
Will that change in case – and it’s a very real possibility – Donald Trump returns to power? And how will the relationship of the US with Europe and China be affected?
From the very beginning Russia and China have always wanted Trump. Why does Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China want Donald Trump? It’s very simple. It’s obvious. Donald Trump is incapable of building any kind of alliance the way Joe Biden has done. Look at the alliance that Biden has built to counter China from Japan to Korea, to Vietnam, to India. Look at the alliance Biden has built in Europe to counter Putin. And both of those would be in complete danger of unraveling if Trump were to become president. I actually have a column that I haven’t written yet – it’ll be addressed to former President Trump – and it’d be saying, “Mr Trump, every once in a while you say something that is blindingly true.” It’s not often but every once in a while Trump says something that is blindingly true. And the same thing he said, recently, which was blindingly true, is that he could end the Ukraine war in 24 hours – 24 hours. And I’m going to say: “Mr Trump, that is exactly right, but you don’t have to wait to be president for that. If you just announced tomorrow to Putin: ‘If you’re waiting for me, you’re waiting for the wrong guy. I’m telling every Republican in the House and Senate to vote for more military and economic aid for Ukraine. If you’re waiting for me, you’re waiting for the wrong guy,’ nothing could change Putin’s calculations more, today, than that.” Trump can end the war in 24 hours. I’m exaggerating, but he could have a big impact. But what he’s wrong about is he doesn’t have to be president to do that.
Is the world heading in the wrong direction?
When you look across the world right now, what you see in four big theaters, I would say: “That was not the plan.” It was not the plan that China from 1979 till 2014 would gradually open more and more, two steps forward, one step back, and suddenly, under Xi Jinping, would make a gigantic U-turn. That was not the plan. Israel, we thought, always, would be a democracy. For 75 years, American policy was very simple: The job of the American government, and the job of American Jews was to protect Israel, from Arab and Iranian enemies. Then one day they woke up and they discovered their job was to protect Israel from a threat to its own democracy from within. That was not the plan. In Ukraine, people thought, “We’re in your modern Europe now, Putin would never invade, I can plan for education, life, one day I will be in EU,” and then, like a meteor from outer space, Putin invades and suddenly every young Ukrainian has to delay every job, education, aspiration they had and join the army and fight trench warfare of a WWI quality with the Russian army, half of whom are convicts. That was not the plan. And as I look out, from afar to my nation’s capital, the idea that Americans would actually mount a coup against their own government and try to take over the Capitol… That was not the plan. So the big question in the world today is how do we go from this sort of post-Cold War movement towards more openness, more democracy than ever, having suddenly aborted in these very important theaters, Europe, China, America, Israel / the Middle East, and go in reverse. That was not the plan.
The BRICS, could they present themselves as the answer?
I think the BRICS is the most overrated institution on the world stage. The EU is based on real economic interests and solidarity, NATO on real strategic interest in solidarity, the G20 on the need for the biggest economic powers in the world to talk to each other. The BRICS, any organization that has China and India in it, two countries that are to the death rivals, how is it ever going to do anything coherent except complain that somebody else wrote the international system? To which I say to Mr China: “Come over here. How did you do in the system that the developed powers in the West built? You just brought more people out of absolute poverty faster than any time in the history of the world and went from a country that was really in broken poverty to the second largest economy in the world, maybe soon the first, and a global powerhouse. Which rule is it you want to change? Could you explain it to me?” So the whole thing is just BS, it’s just based on nothing. I just think it’s a meeting shop. What do these countries have in common except that they’re not a big power? So I think it’s an association looking for an agenda.
A quick note on artificial intelligence. Should we be worried? Should we be hopeful?
Obviously AI is here to stay. I think it will be extremely disruptive and it’ll be disruptive of jobs for people who are wearing the kind of shirt you’re wearing – a white-collar shirt. And look, we have two strikes in the country in America right now, one is the screenwriters strike, and the other is the auto strike, and they’re both about AI to some degree. Autoworkers are wondering what happens with electric cars and how many autoworkers they will need after that. The screenwriters are worried that, so many things that had to be done by humans, simple things like when George Clooney had to be translated into Japanese they had to hire a Japanese-speaking actor, but now they can just do it with AI, and that’s going to be true for more and more things. Now we know from the history of the world that if horses could have voted, there never would have been cars. So, there’s always this kind of progress that destroys old industries and generates new industries. But when you’re in the middle of it and you don’t know what the new jobs are going to be in an age of AI, it’s very unsettling. And then there’s the national security aspect to it, which I think we really have to make sure we’ve got our arms around. So, this is a big moment.
What do countries like Greece do when faced with their Western orientation, their membership in NATO, in the EU, but also Chinese investment? We have the Piraeus port.
It’s a very good question and I haven’t really thought enough about it because, for every country, it’s hard to turn down big investments. I think that it’s the kind of thing that you have to ask yourselves: Is this a one-day win-win as we get a bunch of money and China gets a port? Or is it a long-term win-win? What is it about deals like that that will make Greece stronger in the long run? So it’s all about what you do with that influx of cash from China. Do you invest in education skills, 21st-century industries? Or do you use it to go on vacation? Because you don’t want to wake up one day and discover you sold everything except the Parthenon and you don’t have really much to show for it.
Obviously, you’re not covering developments in Greece, but what’s the perception of its role in the area?
Don’t take this wrong, but Greece is not on our radar screen, and basically, that can be a good thing.
We were on the radar for the wrong reasons in the previous decade.
No one’s really thinking or worrying about Greece. If you give a Rorschach test to Americans: Greece, what would come back first? Wonderful place to vacation. We wouldn’t associate it with instability, a lot of the bad things going on in the world. If more of our allies were like Greece, which is going along trying to figure it out its own way, American foreign policy would be a lot easier.
A final question on liberal democracy. You noted Israel, a country you care about a lot. But it’s also Europe, the US, I would say the world. How do you see it playing out?
I believe we’re in a moment where a combination of forces has been eroding the two pillars of democracy, which are truth and trust. Without shared truth, we don’t know which way to go, whether it’s on a pandemic or how to manage AI or clean energy. Without trust, we can’t go there together. And we have a lot of big hard things we need to do. Big hard things have to be done together. And so liberal democracy is being threatened today, I think, by three or four things. I can only speak about America. It’s all about the pace of change. In America, sometime in the last 20 years, people went to the grocery store and the woman at the checkout counter wasn’t wearing a baseball hat. Then, they went into the men’s room if they were a man, and there was a woman there, and she seemed to have a penis. Then they went to work and their boss had rolled a robot up and seemed to be studying their job. So all the three things that anchor us, our sense of home, our sense of social norms, and our sense of work, all got disrupted.
That is fertile ground for populists, particularly a populist like Trump, who can come along and say, “I can stop the wind.” When Trump used the metaphor of a wall, it wasn’t just for immigrants – “I can stop the winds of change” – and so what happened is those three changes in our sense of home, social norms, and work, kind of created a boiling pot in America. Then Mark Zuckerberg came along and he turned the heat up on the pot and really made it boil. Then Donald Trump came along and took the lid off the pot and made it possible, profitable, and permissible to say and do things about our neighbors, to our neighbors, and about our democracy, that no one had ever done before. I believe that same process, in different sorts of ways, has mirrored itself in a lot of different societies, and that leads to people looking for a strong man, a strong woman who can stop the wind. And so we see that across all these democracies now. And so we’re caught between a hard left and a hard right, and what we need to build is a hard center.
Are you hopeful that we will or that the world will?
I’m always hopeful. I have a new grandson, 2 years old. I can’t afford not to be hopeful, so I’m always in there, fighting. That’s why I’m fighting. I write about three things. I write about Ukraine, I write about Israel, I write about Trump, because I believe if Ukraine goes Putin, Israel goes autocratic and America goes Trump, the world I want to leave for my new little grandson won’t be here.