The Lexus and The Olive Tree by Thomas L Friedman

As the war clouds hover over the skies of Russia and Ukraine, I am reminded of Thomas Friedman’s book Lexus and the Olive Tree which I had read a long time ago, for one reason.

In the book, Friedman puts forth a rather cheeky “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention”, where he goes on to explain that No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.



Category: Book Reviews
Author: Thomas L Friedman
Originally Published: 2000
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2nd edition
Pages: 469
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, Self Help, Economy

I doubly checked if Ukraine also had a McDonald’s and found that it did have more than one! Maybe I must presume that the two will not go to war indeed, going by this.

The book is a commentary on the way nations are embracing globalization in the wake of new technological advances and volatile geopolitical environment. It takes cue from the two metaphors which he experiences while on his stint covering world economies, from Japan to Jerusalem, fro New York Times.

At his visits to the Lexus factory in Tokyo, he is fascinated by the robots that do most of the work, especially the one that has a small wire to wipe off the small drop of rubber dangling from the robotic arms after being applied to the car’s windshield.

The Olive tree is symbolic of the human zeal to retain traditions, for which the people of Beirut and Jerusalem were fighting for. The world, according to Friedman, is struggling with two battles- people who want development and prosperity, symbolized by the Lexus and those who want to preserve and retain the age-old traditions, like the olive tree.

When taken together, he warns that too much obsession with the olive tree means forging bonds and creating communities to the exclusion of others.

In the cold war system, the biggest threat to the olive tree is that your neighbor may come up, uproot your tree and plant his in its place, or from the Lexus, symbolic of a force that tries to homogenize and standardize everything in the garb of advancement.

So Russia today is at loggerheads with Ukraine because the latter may join the NATO and if so does, the US forces can come up to its borders easily.

Using real life examples, like India’s Nuclear test of 1998 that led to US sanctions, when Friedman visited New Delhi only to realize that India’s Olive tree may have been uprooted but it was also replaced by the Lexus. The people, the politicians and the common man alike, felt good about the new found ‘Respect’ among those nations who never looked beyond the US and China in India’s context.

The democratization of technology, healthcare, finance means that there’s a phone in every hand, there’s computers embedded at every place and object, there’s an instrument to help you in your finances at every stage. And geographical borders have kind of merged when it comes to putting all this in place. As aptly put forth by Cuban leader Raul Valdes Vivo, Cuba is no more an island. There are no islands in the world anymore, it’s one world.

Friedman’s travels across the globe chronicling the developments and witnessing how the new rises in spite of the old, led him to comment from experience. From the villages of China to the towns and cities of Indonesia, Brazil and India, the US and elsewhere, he notes how the old and new co-exist even as one tries to tip over the other at times. There is the economic gap which is widening but it would turn into globalization’s Achille’s heel if it widens more. As the world unifies in the cyberspace, using a common language and a common code, there is the utopian reality but one which could turn disastrous in the absence of restraint and ethics. That’s the core of the dilemma of the Lexus and the Olive tree

Key takeaways

  1. Globalization has come as a change maker- which on one hand is leading to more ease of life while on the other, it is the lurking threat of losing our core identity that is making people cling to the old like never before
  2. Technology and the internet has been a great leveler when it comes to geopolitical clout that nations enjoy.
  3. Codependent Economies, industry, markets and finance is more important today than mere enmity with neighboring countries, leading the world to become a unifying platform.

Why I recommend this book
Because I consider Thomas Friedman as a person who can see the whole picture as he pieces together disparate bits of global polity. He can spot trends and never fails to reason them out. Read this book if you, like me, are interested in how the world is shaping while we were sleeping and how it will look 10, 20 and 100 years down the line. If it was Alvin Toffler’s Power Shift that spoke for the world as it would be back in the eighties, today authors like Harari and Friedman are filling in those shoes.

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