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”.