The Return of Bipolarity: Tom Friedman Prophesies a New Round of Global Conflict (and Mostly Gets It Wrong)

EDITORIAL, 5 Feb 2024

#834 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

In a recent long opinion article for the New York Times, pundit Thomas Friedman announces “a titanic geopolitical struggle between two opposing networks of nations and nonstate actors over whose values and interests will dominate our post-Cold war world.”  (NY Times, January 26, 2024, p. A26).  This perception is not silly.  The essentially unipolar hegemony enjoyed by the United States since the end of the Cold War is surely under fire, and new constellations of power and influence are forming.  But Friedman’s description of the emerging conflict is a sophomoric mashup of historical theory and primitive moralism. It is as if he were a sportscaster announcing a match between villainous and heroic boxers or wrestlers.

Welcome to the Fight of the Century!  In the far corner is the Resistance Network, consisting of nations like Iran and Russia, and organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, that are “dedicated to preserving closed, autocratic systems where the past buries the future.” (You may hiss now). In the near corner is – no, not Rocky Balboa, but the Inclusion Network, “trying to forge more open, connected, pluralizing systems where the future buries the past.”

Guess which network the United States, the NATO countries, Israel, and Ukraine are part of!  We “secularizing, pluralizing, more market-driven” nations are the wave of the future – in Friedman’s adoring terms, the home of “business conferences, news organizations, elites, hedge funds, tech incubators and major trade routes.” Wall Street is our Main Street!  We weave things together like high-tech globalists should, and our reward is not just power but legitimacy.

The Resistance baddies, by contrast, want to return us to the rotten old days of great power competition and backward-looking cultures. They are good only “at tearing down and breaking stuff.”  What it is, exactly, that they are resisting?  Friedman can’t or doesn’t want to say.  His conclusion is that the members of this network “have shown no capacity to build any government or society anyone would want to emigrate to, let alone emulate,” while the Includers, by contrast, “have the potential to redefine power structures and create new paradigms of regional stability.”

Whew!  To those old enough to remember the Cold War, this sort of good guy/bad guy analysis (if it can be called “analysis”) will be entirely familiar.  We – the “Free World” – strong and virtuous, were the party of free politics, free enterprise, and free fire zones. They – the Commie Conspirators – stood for nothing except unfreedom. We were the progressive future; indeed, Cold War apostles like Frank Fukuyama taught that, after us, there could be no history to speak of. They were the barbaric, prehistoric past.

The rest of the Friedman essay develops the policy implications of these stereotypes.  For example, we (the U.S.) should give the Ukrainians everything they are asking for to fight the Russians and more, since they represent the Inclusion Network’s interests in Europe at a bargain basement cost. And we should convince Bibi Netanyahu to accept some sort of harmless Palestinian ministate so that Israel, the Gulf States, and the Saudis can become a “cultural, investment, conference, tourism and manufacturing center” that dominates the Middle East and undermines the power of the Resistance Network.

Assume for a moment that a new bipolarity in international affairs is developing, with Russia, Iran, China, and their allies on one side (although Friedman’s odd treatment of China – to be discussed in a moment – muddies the water) and the United States and its allies on the other. If so, what drives this conflict? What is it about? And what about the major players so far non-aligned, such as Brazil, Turkey, and India?  The moralistic, neo-Cold War response is to distinguish between “our” superior institutions and good intentions and “their” inferior and evil ones and to consider non-alignment immoral.  But all this leaves us without a clue as to the real ideas, emotions, and interests in play on both sides.

Friedman’s silence on this score is calculated.  What he doesn’t want to admit is that the Resisters are resisting domination by the richest, best-armed nations in world history, the United States and its G7 allies, successors to the European empires that colonized and exploited the globe’s non-Western peoples from the sixteenth century onward.  As soon one recognizes the historic character of this resistance, one understands that China, formerly the poorest and most brutally colonized nation on earth, is not only a member of this network but its leader.

This, of course, is why the US elite is currently so anxious to make a “pivot” from European and Middle Eastern affairs to Asia, and why it is so busily attempting to create an Asian equivalent to NATO in the form of a rearmed Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the pundit will not recognize China as a party to the “titanic political struggle” he claims to be describing, much less as the leader of one side.  Instead, he describes the Asian giant as a neutral!  The Chinese leaders’ “hearts, and often pocketbooks, are with the Resisters,” he opines, “but their heads are with the Includers.” At first, this categorization seems purely bizarre.  Then one thinks of the Chinese efforts to make peace between certain elements of the two competing networks – for example, Beijing’s attempts to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Finally, however, Friedman’s motivation becomes clear: China is excluded from the Resistance Network because it is economically and technologically so advanced!  Its government may be authoritarian, but it doesn’t fit the stereotype of the backward-looking, culturally stagnant society without a future that the pundit has constructed to discredit the Resisters.

“Their heads are with the Includers,” indeed!  But there is little doubt that the Chinese will continue to challenge the hegemony of the U.S. and its allies on virtually every front, using programs like the Belt and Road Initiative and organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS alliance to achieve their goals and those of the other Resisters.  Friedman’s neo-colonial stereotypes of advanced Includers and backward Resisters can actually help to define those goals.  The imperial powers have always claimed cultural and political superiority to their subjects – and they have often been more “developed” in certain ways.  Great wealth and physical security do give masters more room to play, take risks, and innovate than their impoverished, endangered servants.  But if one loses sight of the basic division between “top dogs” and “bottom dogs” (as Johan Galtung puts it), one entirely misses the point that power and “development” go hand in hand.

The Resisters do not want to be included in the masters’ world order. They want the power to decide their own fate.  As Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, the natives do not want the settler’s status: “they want his place.” Fanon also wrote scathingly of the inability of native oligarchs and politicians wired into colonial and neo-colonial networks to represent their people’s real values and interests.  It is time for Western global hegemony to end, but we have yet to see whether the new order proclaimed by Resistance leaders like China will be more than an updated version of imperial rule.

This conclusion, to put it mildly, is bizarre.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Feb 2024.

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One Response to “The Return of Bipolarity: Tom Friedman Prophesies a New Round of Global Conflict (and Mostly Gets It Wrong)”

  1. Excellent analysis, Professor, and thank you for dissecting of this all-too-frequent American search for THEM and US confrontations in world affairs. I found Friedman’s article confused and verbose. How could we persuade US administrators – and columnists – to adopt a more nuanced view of international politics? I suppose we would have to restructure Washington so that the Pentagon becomes a executor of policy, instead of the main influencer determining US foreign policy.

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