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Opinion: A Theory of Everything

By Thomas L. Friedman
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times


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As President Bush meets other world leaders this weekend, and tries to patch things up between America and the rest of the planet, I find myself looking back and asking: What's been going on here? After 9/11 people wondered, "Why do they hate us?" speaking of the Muslim world. After the Iraq war debate, the question has grown into, "Why does everybody else hate us?"

I've sketched out my own answer, which I modestly call "A Brief Theory of Everything." I offer it here, even more briefly, in hopes that people will write in with comments or catcalls so I can continue to refine it, turn it into a quick book and pay my daughter's college tuition. Here goes:

During the 1990's, America became exponentially more powerful -- economically, militarily and technologically -- than any other country in the world, if not in history. Broadly speaking, this was because the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the alternative to free-market capitalism, coincided with the Internet-technology revolution in America. The net effect was that U.S. power, culture and economic ideas about how society should be organized became so dominant (a dominance magnified through globalization) that America began to touch people's lives around the planet -- "more than their own governments," as a Pakistani diplomat once said to me. Yes, we began to touch people's lives -- directly or indirectly -- more than their own governments.

As people realized this, they began to organize against it in a very inchoate manner. The first manifestation of that was the 1999 Seattle protest, which triggered a global movement. Seattle had its idiot side, but what the serious protesters there were saying was: "You, America, are now touching my life more than my own government. You are touching it by how your culture seeps into mine, by how your technologies are speeding up change in all aspects of my life, and by how your economic rules have been `imposed' on me. I want to have a vote on how your power is exercised, because it's a force now shaping my life."

Why didn't nations organize militarily against the U.S.? Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World," answers: "One prominent international relations school -- the realists -- argues that when a hegemonic power, such as America, emerges in the global system other countries will naturally gang up against it. But because the world basically understands that America is a benign hegemon, the ganging up does not take the shape of warfare. Instead, it is an effort to Gulliverize America, an attempt to tie it down, using the rules of the World Trade Organization or U.N. -- and in so doing demanding a vote on how American power is used."

There is another reason for this nonmilitary response. America's emergence as the hyperpower is happening in the age of globalization, when economies have become so intertwined that China, Russia, France or any other rivals cannot hit the U.S. without wrecking their own economies.

The only people who use violence are rogues or nonstate actors with no stakes in the system, such as Osama bin Laden. Basically, he is in a civil war with the Saudi ruling family. But, he says to himself, "The Saudi rulers are insignificant. To destroy them you have to hit the hegemonic power that props them up -- America."

Hence, 9/11. This is where the story really gets interesting. Because suddenly, Puff the Magic Dragon -- a benign U.S. hegemon touching everyone economically and culturally -- turns into Godzilla, a wounded, angry, raging beast touching people militarily. Now, people become really frightened of us, a mood reinforced by the Bush team's unilateralism. With one swipe of our paw we smash the Taliban. Then we turn to Iraq. Then the rest of the world says, "Holy cow! Now we really want a vote over how your power is used." That is what the whole Iraq debate was about. People understood Iraq was a war of choice that would affect them, so they wanted to be part of the choosing. We said, sorry, you don't pay, you don't play.

"Where we are now," says Nayan Chanda, publications director at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization (whose Web site yaleglobal .yale.edu is full of valuable nuggets), "is that you have this sullen anger out in the world at America. Because people realize they are not going to get a vote over American power, they cannot do anything about it, but they will be affected by it."

Finding a stable way to manage this situation will be critical to managing America's relations with the rest of the globe. Any ideas? Let's hear 'em: thfrie@nytimes.com.

Thomas L. Friedman is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.


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