Is Tom Friedman over the hill?

February 18, 2022 • 9:45 am

I put up a post a while back about the short “shelf life” of public intellectuals. The author, Tanner Greer, used NYT columnist Thomas Friedman as an example of a public intellectual whose shelf life had passed a long time ago, largely because Friedman is no longer immersed in the world of on-the-ground journalism that sparked his earlier fame. According to Greer, Friedman is just coasting on his former renown, and not coming up with new ideas that excite the public.

Well reader Ken took issue with this, even though it wasn’t my opinion (I never read Friedman). Ken gave me a link to one of Friedman’s articles and added this:

IMO, time to give Biden a little credit.

I think you hosted a recent article that used Friedman as an example of a former journalistic powerhouse in decline.  I’m just not seeing it.

The article he linked to his this one, which says that Biden’s been pretty canny about his recent dealings with Putin. And so I read it. (Click to read screenshot.)

It’s been a few days since this came out, and the situation is getting more dire, but do I think Friedman is overrated as a public intellectual?

I can hardly tell from reading one column. All I can say is that it was okay, and perhaps there was one idea in it that was new, but I’m not sure. I can’t say Friedman is shopworn, but neither can I say that his thoughts particularly excited me.

Most of his ideas here have, in fact, been expressed by others.  Friedman does say that people who see Biden as superannuated don’t realize that he’s been pretty canny about the Russian situation (I didn’t think the title was particularly clever). The kernel of Friedman’s analysis is this:

Putin has been on such a run of outmaneuvering the West and destabilizing our politics that it is easy to overrate him. It is also hard to believe a word that comes out of his mouth. But if Putin was sincere when he said Tuesday that he was “ready to continue on the negotiating track” to ensure that Ukraine never joins NATO and was also pulling back some of his menacing forces — U.S. officials say there’s no sign of that yet — it’s because Biden’s statecraft has given Putin pause.

Specifically, the Biden team has mobilized enough solidarity among the NATO allies, enough advanced defensive arms transfers to Ukraine and enough potentially biting economic sanctions on Russia to put into Putin’s mind the only thought that matters: “If I go ahead with a full-scale invasion and it goes bad — wrecking Russia’s economy and resulting in Russian soldiers returning home in body bags from a war with fellow Slavs — could it lead to my own downfall?”

That is the only calculation that matters, and Biden has done the best job a U.S. president could do, given the asymmetry in interests between America and Russia on Ukraine, to frame it. Ukraine is not only right next door to Russia, but it’s also a country whose fate and future are vitally important to Putin personally. By contrast, most Americans could not find Ukraine on a map and feel zero emotional attachment to its future. And, as Putin found when he seized Crimea in 2014, Americans will not send their sons and daughters to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

So Biden has had to thread a real leadership needle. He could not credibly threaten direct U.S. military force. Therefore, he had to do the next best thing: assemble a solid-enough coalition of NATO allies. Get enough of them to ship arms to Ukraine. Convey to Putin exactly what crippling economic sanctions will be piled on his economy, banking system, factories and cronies if he invades Ukraine. And make clear that an invasion will actually produce the NATO that Putin fears — one that is totally united, with more NATO troops and maybe even missiles moving closer to his border. It might also spur non-NATO members Finland and Sweden to deepen their ties with the alliance.

That will leave Russia with only one friend in the world: China. And China has no friends, only vassals.

Well, the last line is clever, even if the praise of Biden isn’t new. And, in fact, Biden does seem to have done the best job he can in this situation given the fact that he doesn’t want a shooting war between U.S. and Russian troops—and he’s right about that. And Biden’s made the proper threats, even though most of us know that those threats are pretty hollow and probably won’t deter a man like Putin. (I swear, when I try to figure out what Putin’s up to, I always think of Tom Nagel’s article “What is it like to be a bat?” Putin is a bat to me, and probably to Friedman, too.)

I think Putin will invade, and I don’t think anything Biden’s done would have deterred that. (Again, I fervently hope I’m wrong!).  Friedman still thinks there’s a substantial chance that Biden will make Putin blink, and there will be no invasion. I hope he’s right, but punditry’s a hard game. I’m not going to write another post if Putin does invade proclaiming “Friedman was WRONG!”

In the second half of the article, however, Friedman sort of undercuts himself by listing all the reasons Putin SHOULD invade Ukraine, staring with a sentence in all caps:

Again: NONE OF THIS MAY STOP PUTIN. He may not have grasped, or just doesn’t care, that his threat to seize Ukraine and forcibly return it to Russia’s historical sphere of influence has evoked for the NATO allies nothing less than the specter of Hitler’s forced “union” of Austria with Germany, imposed through annexation in 1938.

He mentions the Ukraine’s ties to Russia (Stalin killed millions there via forced starvation). Putin is, says Friedman, isolated from advisors with sense, and, of course, the Russian is worried about NATO.  But here’s Friedman’s big idea: it’s not about NATO but about the EU.

What struck me most from a trip I took to Ukraine in April 2014 was how many young Ukrainians I met were dreaming of Ukraine becoming a full member of the E.U. — not NATO — precisely to lock in their frail democracy and lock out corruption and Putinism.

. . . No, the Ukraine crisis has never been exclusively about Putin’s fear of the expansion of NATO’s forces to Russia’s borders. Not even close. His greater fear is the expansion of the E.U.’s sphere of influence and the prospect that it would midwife a decent, democratic, free-market Ukraine that would every day say to the Russian people, “This is what you could be without Putin.”

Now of course Friedman got this idea from his visit to Ukraine 8 years ago, but he did publish it as a generalization. If it’s a new take on the situation, that’s good, BUT it has no effect on the present situation.  And if Putin is really worried about Ukraine joining the EU and not NATO, why isn’t he beefing about the former?

My opinion: it’s an okay column, but it doesn’t want me to read more Friedman. Nor does it put me off on him. With so much to read and so little time, I’ll read him only when a reader tells me he’s written something great.

And feel free to weigh in if you think Friedman really is a “journalistic powerhouse”.

23 thoughts on “Is Tom Friedman over the hill?

  1. Thank you for taking the time for highlighting Mr. Friedman! I find him always to be a worthwhile read. My personal take is that earlier in his career he was “boots on the ground” journalistic powerhouse. More recently, I think he excels at capturing complex situations fairly while extracting the key points in an incisive manner, perhaps better than any other columnist that I’m aware of.
    (Another person I’ve come to check in on regularly is Jennifer Rubin at WAPO, who takes on narrower topics but with similar aplomb.)

    1. I agree with kd33. First, who am I to judge Tom Friedman? He, like Jennifer Rubin, Bari Weiss, John McWhorter, a number of international affairs staffers who have more recently broken through into the public sphere such as Fiona Hill and Michael McFaul all seem to me to base their analysis and follow-on opinions on facts as they can divine them either from first source on the ground data or their historically reliable human sources. I certainly do not always agree with these folks, but i trust that they are carrying out an honest and rational analysis based on available data and their broad-and deep experience-base. And that is all any of these public intellectuals owe us IMO. Most of them work very hard to communicate what they have figured out to us (writing a long form magazine article is not easy; writing a book is very hard work). These peoplehave to be frustrated with the audience that the extreme right commands for its misdemeanors and lies, and that the extreme left and woke commands for its intransigence and post-modern irrationality…thus statements from time to time like Bari Weiss’ “I’ve had it with Covid”. Let’s give then some slack and appreciate them at least on average and not at their worst in this increasingly frustrating world.

      1. And wrt public intellectuals, let us not forget our host, his formal expertise in life sciences and acquired expertise in matters dealing with faith, the incredible range of expertise that weit has drawn from commenters, and the daily effort he puts in to produce this website everyday … pro bono. Thank you Jerry!

      2. It seems to me that a career spent while being in regular danger in the literal front lines of international news is probably not a long term life for most journalists. The constant travel, the danger (once again) – must lead one to think that maybe there is more to life than being on a plane to somewhere most days of the year. What about growing some roots, and settling down?

  2. Putin has proven that the US and Nato will not send troops to defend Ukraine against Russia. This is a de facto guarantee that Ukraine won’t join Nato, so Putin has gotten what he wanted. Now the serious negotiation can begin on intermediate nuclear weapons. Friedman as usual misses the entire point.

  3. I don’t know about “journalistic powerhouse” but I still like his writing and value his opinions. He’s more of an opinion guy now. (Perhaps he always was. I don’t know his history.)

    That Ukraine seeks to be closer to the EU rather than NATO is an important point, IMHO. It wants to be a smart, vibrant country like those in the EU, not a dull, gray beast like Russia. This is also what Putin fears most. Putin is simply using NATO as his excuse to try to drag Ukraine closer, pretending that it is aggressively moving on the homeland. The discussion is only about NATO because Putin wants it to be.

  4. I’ve heard pundits in the UK make the same point about a democratic Ukraine with a successful Western-style on Russia’s border being the thing that Putin really fears, and I doubt they have pinched it from Friedman.

    Given Putin’s propaganda insists on the intrinsic similarities between Russians and Ukrainians his citizens might well decide that they want, and are capable of achieving, freedom and prosperity too if they see their immediate neighbours enjoying them.

    1. Greg, I too once held the Pulitzer Prize in high regard, back when I believed that telling an accurate as well as an important story was part of the Pulitzer formula. Since that has recently proven not to be the case, I’m not sure the committee’s appreciation of Mr. Friedman’s work means very much.

  5. One reason why Putin worries less about Ukraine joining the EU than Ukraine joining Nato, is that joining Nato is relatively easy and can be done relatively quickly; only the military has to be ready. Joining the EU for the Ukraine would take at least a decade of painstaking legal and societal reforms in all sphere’s of life in Ukraine. Look at the Western Balkan countries that have been on that path for years and are not even close. This is not to criticise the EU, the difficult process of becoming a member reflects how intense the integration between EU countries is.

  6. As I mentioned in a comment to the previous post, I’ve long thought Friedman overrated. And, as far back as when he began churning out bestselling books, his sometimes clumsy and corny prose has been the target of mordant mockery by more stylish writers.

  7. My thoughts were stated in the earlier post. I do not think anyone here can predict what Putin will do. Being a critic of pundits is not my bag. I follow the news when I can and make my own judgements. Everyone is a critic these days – a dime a dozen.

    The point is, everyone here spends most of their time being a critic of democrats of all varieties. I wonder why that is? Putin is scared of democracy in Ukraine and that is what his problem is. Just like the republicans here in the U.S.

  8. I have no opinion about Tom Friedman’s current status as a pundit, but I think he is probably correct
    that Putin fears Ukraine’s relationship with the EU. Putin’s former placeman in Ukraine, the inept kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from power exactly over this issue. According to Wiki: “Yanukovych rejected a pending EU association agreement, choosing instead to pursue a Russian loan bailout and closer ties with Russia. This led to protests and the occupation of Kyiv’s Independence Square, a series of events dubbed the “Euromaidan” by proponents of aligning Ukraine toward the European Union.” The Euromaidan movement was widely denounced as “fascist” in the propaganda issued in Russia (and by a predictable segment of the western Left), in agit-prop aiming to conflate the terms “fascist”, “NATO”, and “EU”.

    In late February of 2014, Russian troops took over the Crimean peninsula, and Mr. Yanukovych arrived in Moscow, where he bought a $52 million house and went into retirement. The mansion outside Kiev he fled was somewhat more upscale, containing “a private zoo, underground shooting range, 18-hole golf course, tennis, and bowling”. The zoo’s inhabitants included ostriches which, Mr. Yanukovych later explained, “happened to be there”. From 2004 to 2010, an American political consultant named Paul
    Manafort also happened to be there, in Mr. Yanukovych’s employ. Manafort later worked for a certain
    better known political figure in the USA, was convicted of tax and bank fraud in Virginia and of other
    offenses in Federal court, but received a pardon on December 23, 2020 by outgoing President Trump.

  9. Agreed, not a whole lot new. But sometimes a journalist/commentator’s job is just to express to the public in a clear and understandable way what the folks behind the scene are thinking. He seems to do that okay.

    I’d quibble however with the notion that what the US is doing is focused on ‘making Putin blink.’ Stopping an invasion is the ultimate goal yes, but when we broadcast pictures of Russian forces, that isn’t for Putin – he already knows we know. And it isn’t for the US public – they aren’t going to support a hot war no matter what. It’s for our European allies. Putin is eventually going to invade and justify it with a “we were attacked and now we are just defending ourselves!” excuse. Without any pictures, many EU countries would likely be willing to accept that and let it happen. It can be a convenient political excuse for inaction by them. But with the pictures out there, that response is going to be much more embarrassing, much less politically tolerable. This is our way of getting a bandwagon going. Same idea for economic sanctions; we broadcast our plans and intent not because they will hurt Putin so horribly he’ll think twice (they won’t), but because that puts France etc. on the spot to do something similar, and all of us sanctioning together may cause him to blink where no amount of US sanctions alone could.

    The target of our info dumps, IOW, is Europe, not Putin.

    1. I think what you are partly describing is what we call diplomacy. Getting the NATO nations on the same channel against Russia is part of the game plan. No, we are not going to start a war with Russia but we are also not going to follow him around like the puppy dog Trump would be doing.

  10. Friedman and Bret Stephens is as good as it gets intellectually, nobody can come up with a new version of the Bible in every writing!

  11. I really liked From Beirut to Jerusalem, but Friedman’s schtick is to put his words into the mouths of some man on the street(cab drivers, street food vendors, etc.)and it gets tired pretty quickly.

    1. Yes, he does report words of the man ( and not infrequently woman ) on the street, though I found this quite interesting at least when it comes to the Arab/Muslim world. After all, how many other writers from the standard western media outlets actually report the political viewpoints of such people? For me, what is tiring is what other Western journalists/media outlets publicise, which is to report the words of non-White people who are suffering, telling us how miserable their lives are in terms of food, health etc. Kudos to Friedman to occasionally break that journalistic staple.

      In addition, one year he spoke for an hour at the Auckland Writers Festival. He gave a very credible performance indeed as an intellectual who could communicate in a non-obfuscatory manner. I attended about ten international speakers at that festival, and none were more interesting than Friedman. He could think on his feet as well. I asked him a question on secular stagnation, which wasn’t part of his talk, and he answered very capably for a non-economist, summarising Larry Summers’ position as part of his reply.

  12. I find myself fatigued with media types trying to breathlessly “excite” and “entertain” me, whether it’s on the news or op-ed pages. E.g., for the last decade or so I’ve found the NY Times news articles “ledes” more times than not quite irksome and something to wade through to get to the substance of the articles. (Though I confess I perhaps perversely look forward to reading the ledes to see how much more fatuous they can get.) More and more NPR features news segments with an undercurrent of music. Is this to engage and excite and entertain me? I can’t help but be distracted by the bloody music, by all the editing gymnastics required to feature one-sentence-only quotes, and by program hosts’ breathless one-sentence-only back-and-forths. I contemplate taking a Valium or a good drink of likker to tolerate it if it gets any worse.

    Wherefore art thou, Eric Severeid?

    (I’ve recently laid eyes on a 5th grade writing assignment consisting of a letter of advice/opinion essay to another imaginary 5th grader. The first item in the writing “tool kit” is the admonition to start the letter with a “hook,” something to get the advisee’s attention, to “excite,” as if it were a “lede.” Why is that necessary? Someone asking for/needing advice doesn’t need to be coaxed to pay attention.)

    Regarding Ukraine and Russia, Andrew Bacevich of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has some sensible thoughts, easily enough found online, including podcasts.

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