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Thomas Friedman: America's global voice

  • Story Highlights
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author: "I'm not in a popularity contest"
  • On U.S. and global economic situation: "We gave the world financial SARS"
  • On Barack Obama: 'Is he ready to be as radical as the moment?'
By Dean Irvine
CNN
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(CNN) -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman is never short of a word or two.

Thomas L. Friedman: "Incredible opportunities masquerading as insoluble problems."

Thomas L. Friedman: "Incredible opportunities masquerading as insoluble problems."

The celebrated commentator occupies a position in his profession that many of his contemporaries would rival. He gets to go where he wants, when he wants and write about what he thinks, or as he puts it: "I get to be a tourist with an attitude."

Officially, he's The New York Times' foreign affairs columnist -- a position he's held since 1995 -- as well as the author of five books. Through his syndicated column his opinion has become a recognizable American voice on the international stage, and with it has come a sense of responsibility.

"I agonize over every column. Precisely because I know it is going to be read by a lot of people and it's going to be in Google forever," he told CNN. "So there is that sense of responsibility, but at the same time you do have to take the attitude of 'This is what I think. This is why I think it.' I'm not in a popularity contest."

Before his current position, Friedman served in various posts at the New York Times, including chief economic correspondent, chief White House correspondent and bureau chief in Beirut and Israel.

His reporting from Lebanon in 1983 and work in Israel in 1988 won him Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting.

Taking in the world provides never-ending fascination, he says. "I have the best job in the world, I mean, somebody has to have it." He's recently trained his eye on how America can reassert itself by leading the way in green technology, encapsulated in his latest book "Hot, flat and crowded."

As he admits, the environmental aspect is not the point of the book; really it's a treatise on how America "lost its groove and why we need to get it back by taking the lead in the energy revolution."

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One man who will need to take a pivotal role is the incoming U.S. president, Barack Obama, Friedman says.

"I have a lot of high hopes for him. I think we are very lucky to have someone with his raw material as the next president. I think he brings together several things that we haven't had," Friedman told CNN.

Whether Obama can solve the raft of problems he faces is another matter. "Is he ready to be as radical as the moment? Really have the courage of our crisis? At the end of the day it's gonna be Barack Obama and (Chinese President) Hu Jintao. We're not going to get out of this without cooperating and working closely with China," Friedman said.

While presenting a view from the United States, Friedman is still able to do a mea culpa on America's behalf when it comes to the current economic crisis. "We were in the middle of a huge credit bubble which in its own way was a Ponzi scheme. We gave the world financial SARs. We just spread it around the world."

An optimist by nature -- "I do live by the motto that pessimists are usually right, but all the great change in history was done by optimists" -- he's sanguine when it comes to the planet in the current climate of economic depression and environmental urgency.

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"What I'm basically arguing is that you can look at the world today that is hot, flat, and crowded and you can have one of two reactions. One reaction is to say 'We're cooked, let's party,'" he said.

"That's not the way I'd look at it. I'd look at it the way John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, once described. I look at these problems that come from hot, flat and crowded and what I see are incredible opportunities masquerading as insoluble problems."

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