A panel exchange with Thomas Friedman on US politics. â€˜In the decade that America should have been chasing China, we were chasing Al Qaedaâ€™ C Raja Mohan: Your columns have been all about the big domestic political debate in the United States. Tell us what you have been saying on the decline of America and the need for it to buck up? Thomas L. Friedman: Maybe I will start by saying that people have been asking me whether I am a Democrat or a Republican and I always answer that I believe in just three things and you tell me if it is Democrat or Republican. First, I believe something I learned from Warren Buffet. He said 99 per cent of what I have gotten in life comes because I am born in America at this time, with these opportunities and these institutions. The first obligation of my generation is to pass on these opportunities and these institutions to my kids. I think what is worrying about America, today, is there is a growing perception that my generation would be the first generation that does not pass on a higher living standard to their children. The second thing I believe is that 95 per cent of what I enjoy in life is related to clean air and water and forests, biodiversity and we have an obligation to pass that onto our kids. The third thing I believe is that a lot of bad things have happened in the world without America and not a lot of good. So if America gets weak, my children will not just grow up in a different America, they will grow up in a different world. And therefore, the biggest foreign policy issue in the world is the health of the United States of America. Right now, we are not as healthy as we need to be. That is my big concern. C Raja Mohan: This is not the first time people have talked about the decline of America. There was talk of it in the 1980s. So whatâ€™s new about the situation? Thomas L. Friedman: In the 1980s, the threat was Japan. Japan actually threatened one American town and one American industry. The town was Detroit and the industry was cars. Globalisation, represented by China, threatens every American town and every American industry. That does not mean we give up on globalisation; it means we have to build our strength to meet its challenges. All of Americaâ€™s problems are, largely, problems of our own creation. All of these are good news problems: more people in the world are participating in free markets, more people are able to access American technology, more people are living longer because we have better health care and more social security and more people have access to Twitter, so more hierarchies have been brought down. So every problem is a problem we created in some ways and are now challenged by. The biggest one is globalisation. If you follow American baseball, you will know we had a huge scandal in baseball. It was discovered that our most famous baseball players were using steroids. Instead of going to the gym to work out their muscles, they were taking shots. Basically, we did the same thing to the middle class. We gave them steroids. Those steroids are called credit default swaps, subprime mortgagesâ€”that you can get a house for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years. So when globalisation hit America, the middle class wages were flat for 10 years. In response, instead of telling people to go back to the gym and build healthier muscles, we gave them steroids. We also gave Wall Street steroidsâ€”in the form of deregulation and massive amounts of capital, cheap capital. Now, like those baseball players, we need to go back to the gym. To compete in the world, we have to build up our muscles again. I was in China recently for the World Economic Forum at the Tianjin convention centre in Beijing. The centre is so big, it would be a tourist site if it was in Washington. Construction of it began on September 15, 2009, and the project was completed in May 2010. Thatâ€™s in nine months. I know that with enough cheap labour and cheap capital and authoritarianism, you can build anything. But could India do that? Could America do that? Could Brazil do that? What worries me is what we see in China today and also in India is something we saw in ourselves earlierâ€”a â€˜can doâ€™ attitude to get the job doneâ€”bear any burden, pay any price but get it done. It is not Chinaâ€™s Maoism that we admire, itâ€™s their Reaganism. My ear is pretty well attuned to my society and for the first time you hear people are worrying about America. For the first time, people feel there is something wrong. So what is wrong? Actually, we know what is wrong, we have the right answers, we know what to doâ€”we know how to fix a budget deficitâ€”but for the first time, our system is now so grid-locked, our politics has become so tribal that we cannot actually get to the right answers. And what is terrifying is that people are winning this (mid-term) elections with bad ideas. I donâ€™t mind losing to good ideas but actually everything the Tea Party is running on are things we already tried and didnâ€™t work. Dhiraj Nayyar: Why is it that Thomas Friedman says all these things to Americans but nobody from the political leadership does? Wasnâ€™t Obama supposed to say precisely this to the Americans? Where did he go wrong? Thomas L. Friedman: This turns out to be the worst communicating administration in modern American history, barring none. That shocks me as it has shocked everybody. Sometimes I think that Obama did not fully understand why he was elected President. I believe he was elected for one reason: to do nation-building in America. The Americans intuited that we were on the wrong pathâ€”they knew McCain was a disaster, the George Bush administration was a disaster. So people looked to Obama to do nation-building. The great disappointment is that he didnâ€™t make a narrative. He didnâ€™t say, I am here to do nation-building at home and healthcare is nation-building at home, education reforms are-nation building at home, the energy policy is nation-building at home. Instead, he fell back on a traditional Democratic agenda of healthcare, etc., without putting it in a larger context. He was like a serial pragmatist and he fought each programme separately. And each one had a different coalition against him. He could never leverage the enthusiasm of all those young people who were with him to say, if you are against health care, you are against nation-building. The second thingâ€”and one that is in his defenceâ€”is that he inherited a colossal mess. Do you know what was the biggest strategic issue for Bill Clinton as President? How to handle Haiti. Obama inherited two wars and an economy that was going over the cliff. And then there were the Republicans who devised and lived by a simple strategy: to block every piece of legislation, to vote against everything in Congress. Another thing: we have a situation where activism has gone on-line in America and I think this is very dangerous. When I speak on college campuses, I speak on energy and the environment and I say, you kids you have to understand, Exxon Mobil, they donâ€™t have a Facebook profile; they are just in your face. Peabody Coal Company doesnâ€™t have a chat room; theyâ€™re in the cloakroom of the US Congress with bags of money where votes get counted. So if you want to make a difference, get out of Facebook and into somebodyâ€™s face, because your world may be digital but politics is still analogue. I meet young people who say they have blogged on issues and I say, â€˜Hey, you blogged about it? Thatâ€™s like firing into the milky way galaxy!â€™ Dhiraj Nayyar: Does Obama have the chance to recover? Thomas L. Friedman: Itâ€™s up to Obama. He is a very reserved person. He may be great in front of 8,000 people but he is not totally comfortable in front of eight. He is an inward, reserved kind of person, wonderful when he speaks and sincere, there is no phoniness there. He is as smart as you would presume he is. But people didnâ€™t know what he wanted. He tends to say, Iâ€™ll do what the Senate passes but we want to know what his take is on issues. He adopted a strategy of letting the House Democrats lead on issues like the energy policy; he didnâ€™t articulate his view on health care. People donâ€™t know what he thinks. But I donâ€™t think it is over for him because he has done a lot of good stuff. Sunil Jain: The US and Europe are basically third world countries with first world incomes. Do you think that Europe and the US are actually going to implode much faster than any of us believe they would? Thomas L. Friedman: What is difficult about this moment compared to what we call the greatest generation is that the greatest generation faced problems that were immediate, inescapable and existential: The Great Depression, Nazism and Japanese fascism and the Cold War Communism. So they had to be serious. And because they were serious, they could ask us for sacrifice and we sacrificed. Flash-forward to today and the grasshoppers generation. We ate through everything like hungry locusts. Today, our problems are unfolding incrementally, at a very slow rate. We are in a decline of the worst kind. Itâ€™s a slow decline and itâ€™s very hard. Meanwhile, we are in a news environment where everyone has a blog, everyone is a noise-maker and we are getting distracted by shiny objects. For instance, we spent an entire week debating the views of one gentleman on whether he is comfortable flying with Muslims. In the flat world, there is nothing like a local story. Everything goes immediately national or international. And for the US President to try to navigate through this very difficult echo chamber, to get his points across is very difficult because it gets noisier and noisier all the time. People ask me if I would like to go into government. I say, I would, on one condition: I get to keep my column in the New York Times. I pity anyone in public life in America who does not have a column twice a week in NYT to defend and define themselves because others can so define you and knock you off your game. Sunil Jain: In India, the industry has always been a beacon of change even when the politicians donâ€™t want it. We have industry leaders who are pro change, saying we want FDI, etc. That doesnâ€™t seem to be the case in USA or Europe. Thomas L. Friedman: You are so right. In 2004 Carly Fiorina, the head of HP, came to Washington DC to lobby for outsourcing and she said a job is not an American right. She was pilloried for that in the blogosphere. And she is running for office in California and one of the main ads against her is that statement. You know you are really in trouble when the truth gets you not elected. Earlier, industry used to come to Washington to lobby for broad principles, free trade, educational reforms, etc. Now they come to lobby for sub-section 1, paragraph 3b of the repatriation of foreign income from Surinam and then they get out of Washington as fast as they can! Ashutosh Bhardwaj: You spoke of the problems America is facing. Is it because of the inability to be self-critical? Is it because American society lives in a cocoon, insulated and isolated from the world? Thomas L. Friedman: I donâ€™t think so. A lot of people are ringing the alarm bells. But this meets a wall when it hits the political system. Thatâ€™s where the breakdown occurs. Somehow the political system cannot translate this into the kind of initiatives to give us the responses we need. So itâ€™s not the lack of people talking about the issues facing us but the political system has gotten so perverse that it canâ€™t respond, and that is what is really dangerous. Manu Pubby: There is a feeling that the US is still struggling to deal with the rising military power of China. China seems to have taken the lead over US with more innovative military technology. Do you agree? Thomas L. Friedman: I donâ€™t think so. China can project power in the South China Sea, we can project power all over the world. Shekhar Gupta: Put another way, is the growth of China throwing you off-balance? Thomas L. Friedman: China is different for us and for you. China is your neighbour. When I speak about China, I am speaking about a metaphor, a symbol of the challenge of globalisation. The damning critique you can make of America right now (and I havenâ€™t thought this through yet) is that in the decade that we should have been chasing Chinaâ€”as a metaphor for globalisationâ€”we were chasing Al Qaeda. Some historians may argue we got the threat completely wrong, that Al Qaeda was a police problem and China, as a symbol of globalisation, was the existential problem. I am reluctant to say we blew it, but in retrospect, this is what I would say: these wars have cost us so much more in time, bandwidth, people and money than we had anticipated. Directionally, they were right but the fact is that it is going to cost us trillion of dollars and that doesnâ€™t begin to capture the human cost and the bandwidth. The reason I argue against the surge in Afghanistan is not because I think we could not win the warâ€”with enough money and American troops, we can do it. But at a time when China has five moon shotsâ€”high speed rail, high speed technology, biodiversity, electric cars, green cities, our single moon shot is Afghanistan. And when Afghanistan is your only moon shot, you know you are in trouble.