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  • Exploring Globalization
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
The Lexus and the Olive Tree. By Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. 394 pp.

With the possible exception of “civil society,” no term has risen to greater prominence in the political discourse of the 1990s than “globalization.” In fact, these two terms have something in common: Both tend to be used quite promiscuously, without a clear or agreed-upon definition of exactly what they mean, and yet each obviously captures a very real phenomenon—one that is not wholly new but has suddenly taken on a new salience. Just as an extensive literature has grown up to debate the meaning and significance of civil society, so there is now an outpouring of work devoted to analyzing the nature and import of globalization.

Thomas L. Friedman’s best-selling book, described by one reviewer as setting the standard for “books purporting to teach Globalization 101,” is not likely to satisfy those seeking scholarly rigor, but it does offer a remarkably readable, lively, and thought-provoking treatment of the subject. Friedman is a highly intelligent and broadly knowledgeable journalist. A shrewd observer, he also possesses a knack for coming up with telling anecdotes and colorful and pithy formulations. (Unfortunately, not all of his many metaphors are felicitous, and one of the most awkward has been chosen as the title of his book: The Lexus is meant to represent the “age-old human drive . . . for sustenance, improvement, prosperity and modernization,” while the olive tree represents “everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world,” p. 27.) [End Page 166]

Friedman has a penchant for big ideas and sweeping generalizations. If not a disciplined thinker, however, he is certainly a many-sided one. Thus he avoids the trap of fixating upon one particular aspect of his subject and subordinating everything else to it. In fact, he comes closer to the opposite vice of eventually qualifying everything he says by adducing another way of looking at it. At one point, he even goes so far as to state, “If there is a common denominator that runs through this book it is the notion that globalization is everything and its opposite” (p. 331, italics in the original). Fortunately, his analysis is a great deal sharper than this logic-defying assertion would suggest.

Friedman first identifies globalization as today’s “overarching international system shaping the domestic politics and foreign relations of virtually every country” (p. 7). In this sense, it is the successor to “the Cold War system.” Friedman knows his history too well, however, to contend that the globalization of the 1990s is entirely unprecedented. He notes that the period between the mid-1800s and World War I—which he calls the “first era of globalization”—was also marked by an extraordinarily high degree of international trade and capital flows. In his account, the subsequent period between World War I and the end of the Cold War was “a long time-out” between these two eras of globalization. This division is surely too schematic. The World Wars themselves, of course, were global in character, and while the post-1945 world was divided into Soviet and Western camps, the Cold War period witnessed the rise of multinational corporations and the growth of what was then called “interdependence.”

Nonetheless, I think Friedman is right to argue that there is something qualitatively different about the globalization of the 1990s. The new computer and telecommunications technologies make possible a degree of international exchange that was simply never possible in the past. And these technologies are accessible not only to governments and corporations but also to civil-society groups and even individuals. Moreover, as Friedman rightly points out, in past eras capitalism’s claim to global supremacy was always powerfully contested by alternative ideologies. Today it reigns all but unchallenged.

The Cold War system, of course, was formed by the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. What, then, defines the “globalization system”? Friedman cites three principal features: the virtually universal spread of free-market capitalism, advances in integrative communications technologies, and a new homogenized culture that largely amounts to Americanization on a...

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pp. 166-170
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