The author of The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Thomas L. Friedman, has returned to Viet Nam for the second time after almost twenty years. During his six-day visit from Tuesday to Sunday, he planned talks with Vietnamese policy makers, scholars, businesspeople and students. The internationally renowned author of six best-sellers and recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes met with Vietnamese media on the first day of the trip. He talks with Nguyen Khanh Chi.
Inner Sanctum: How has the world changed since you wrote The World Is Flat?
First of all, I have to confess that I got it wrong. The world is so much flatter than I thought!
All the trends that I found in 1994 when I started that book have continued even faster than I could imagine. In 2011 I wrote a book about America called That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back with foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum from Johns Hopkins University.
When I sat down to write the new book, the first thing I did was to get the first edition of The World Is Flat off my bookshelf. When I wrote The World Is Flat, Facebook did not exist, Twitter was still a sound and iCloud was still in the sky.
So what is this telling you? It tells you the world is going from connected to hyper-connected and from inter-connected to inter-dependent. The whole system has gotten much more inter-dependent.
One thing that has happened is called inversion. First of all, your friend can kill you faster than your enemy. So, if Greece's economy collapses today, then my retirement will be affected. Greece is in NATO. We have a mutual defence treaty with Greece. If Greece is attacked by Turkey, we have to defend Greece, but Greece can kill me now in the inter-dependent world. The other thing that happened is that your rival's collapse is more dangerous than their rise. If China goes from eight per cent growth to one per cent growth, my wallet would be affected.
Inner Sanctum: One of the goals of your trip is to talk about Viet Nam's challenges and opportunities. So what are they?
Frankly, that's hard to do in a short space. But I can give you the broad headlines.
The most important thing a country or a company or an individual needs to do is to start every day by asking these questions: "What world am I living in?" "What is the biggest economic and technological trend in that world?" "How do I as a country, a company or an individual align myself with those trends to make the most of them?"
Countries that don't plan for the future tend not to do well. And it's the same with individuals.
Individuals need to think: what are the big trends out there and how do I get the skills to take advantages of those trends?
The trends that are talked a lot about include hyperconnectivity or inter-dependence and the fact that average is over. This means how do I invest in infrastructure and human capital? And I think those are big challenges for Viet Nam.
Inner Sanctum: What are the disadvantages for a country like Viet Nam living next to a giant like China in the time of globalisation?
Viet Nam can change many things, but not its geography. When countries forget their geography, bad things happen. What competitive advantages can Viet Nam have?
The most important competitive advantage you can have is being in a place where people want to start business and innovate. Innovation and the start-up of businesses are really the currency and the engine of growth. What's the key to having more innovation and start-ups? It's no secret. It's the American story.
One is trust. When there is trust in the rule of law, the predictability of law, we can share. The ability to share and collaborate is critical to innovation.
If the floor is hard, I can jump really high, but if the floor is soft, i.e. there is no trust, I can't jump very high. So remember trust, rule of law, and patent protection.
So trust is critical and innovation is critical because Viet Nam is a middle-income country. You still have companies like Toyota or General Motors coming here to build big factories for 5,000 workers but they also build those factories in America, where they have 5,000 robots and 500 workers.
For Viet Nam to grow, you need one person to create jobs for five, five people to create jobs for 20, 20 to create jobs for 50, 30 to create jobs for 80 because the day when GM comes here with 5,000 jobs is really disappearing. The ability to create trust, more trust than China, and the ability to create jobs, that's where you can compete with China.
Inner Sanctum: How did you become a columnist? What advice do you have for young journalists?
I always had an interest in opinion writing but in the New York Times in the old days you had to be a reporter before you could be a columnist. I was the Times' bureau chief in Beirut, in Jerusalem, chief diplomatic correspondent covering Secretary of State James A. Baker III, then chief White House correspondent covering Bill Clinton, then chief economics correspondent. After I did all of those jobs, the New York Times thought I might be ready to be a columnist.
I would say that that's a really good experience. For me, it really works. Because I'm not an ideological columnist so I don't start from the left or the right, looking at the whole world through my left lens or through my right lens. I'm just the opposite: I start with the world and put it through my own pragmatic lens. When I started as a columnist, I tried to find what was actually going on.
If someone says I'm biased in my column, I'd say "Thank you." As a news reporter, if you say I'm biased, it's a problem. As a columnist, if you say that, you're telling me I'm doing my job. — VNS