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The J CurveA New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall
By Ian Bremmer
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2007 Ian Bremmer
All right reserved.
and the J Curve
On February 10, 2005, North Korea's state-run Pyongyang Radio informed its captive audience that the president of the United States had developed a plan to engulf the world in a sea of flames and to rule the planet through the forced imposition of freedom. In self-defense, the newsreader continued, North Korea had manufactured nuclear weapons.
That evening, Rick Nieman of the Netherlands' RTL Television asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to respond to Pyongyang's assertion that North Korea needed nuclear weapons to cope with "the Bush administration's ever more undisguised policy to isolate...the Democratic People's Republic of Korea." Rice countered: "This is a state that has been isolated completely for its entire history.... They have been told that if they simply make the decision...to give up their nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons program, to dismantle them verifiably and irreversibly, there is a completely new path available to them.... So the North Koreans should reassess this and try to end their own isolation."
That's the official U.S. policy on North Korea: If North Korea submits to the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program, Washington will end North Korea's isolation and support the integration of Kim Jong-Il's regime into theinternational community. If, on the other hand, North Korea persists in developing its nuclear capacity, Washington will "further deepen North Korea's isolation."
To many, this policy is grounded in common sense. If North Korea begins to behave as Washington wants, the United States should reward the regime. If it does not, Washington should further seal it off. If Kim will quiet the relentless drumbeat of war and renounce his campaign to build an arsenal of the world's most destructive weapons, Washington should allow North Korea to escape its wretched isolation. If, on the other hand, North Korea insists on causing trouble, bargains in bad faith, ratchets up tensions in East Asia, violates its agreements, and perhaps even sells the world's most dangerous weapons to the world's most dangerous people, the regime must be swiftly and soundly punished. Kim Jong-Il and those who administer his government must be persuaded that his broken promises and misdeeds doom his regime to perpetual quarantine.
If this policy is properly applied, so the thinking goes, the message will be received far beyond North Korea. Common sense demands that Washington demonstrate that America stands ready to achieve its foreign- and security-policy goals with the sweetest carrots and sharpest sticks available. So the thinking goes.
But, as we'll see in the next chapter, this approach has failed to help Washington achieve its goals in North Korea. In fact, it has produced policies that have had virtually the opposite of their intended effects. Of course, U.S. foreign policies that produce the reverse of their intended consequences are not limited to either North Korea or the George W. Bush administration. Policy failures over many decades in Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Russia, and many other states demonstrate that policymakers need an entirely new geopolitical framework, one that captures the way decision-makers within these states calculate their interests and make their choices -- and one that offers insight into how more effective U.S. policies can be formulated.
There is a counterintuitive relationship between a nation's stability and its openness, both to the influences of the outside world and within its borders. Certain states -- North Korea, Burma, Belarus, Zimbabwe -- are stable precisely because they are closed. The slightest influence on their citizens from the outside could push the most rigid of these states toward dangerous instability. If half the people of North Korea saw twenty minutes of CNN (or of Al Jazeera for that matter), they would realize how egregiously their government lies to them about life beyond the walls. That realization could provoke widespread social upheaval. The slightest improvement in the ability of a country's citizens to communicate with one another -- the introduction of telephones, e-mail, or text-messaging into an authoritarian state -- can likewise undermine the state's monopoly on information.
Other states -- the United States, Japan, Sweden -- are stable because they are invigorated by the forces of globalization. These states are able to withstand political conflict, because their citizens -- and international investors -- know that political and social problems within them will be peacefully resolved by institutions that are independent of one another and that the electorate will broadly accept the resolution as legitimate. The institutions, not the personalities, matter in such a state.
Yet, for a country that is "stable because it's closed" to become a country that is "stable because it's open," it must go through a transitional period of dangerous instability. Some states, like South Africa, survive that journey. Others, like Yugoslavia, collapse. Both will be visited in Chapter Four. It is more important than ever to recognize the dangers implicit in these processes. In a world of lightning-fast capital flight, social unrest, weapons of mass destruction, and transnational terrorism, these transformations are everybody's business.
The J curve is a tool designed to help policymakers develop more insightful and effective foreign policies. It's meant to help investors understand the risks they face as they invest abroad. It's also intended to help anyone curious about international politics better understand how leaders make decisions and the impact of those decisions on the global order. As a model of political risk, the J curve can help us predict how states will respond to political and economic shocks, and where their vulnerabilities lie as globalization erodes the stability of authoritarian states.
J curves aren't new to models of political and economic behavior. In the 1950s, James Davies developed a quite different curve that expressed the dangers inherent in a gap between a people's rising economic expectations and their actual circumstances. Another J curve measured the relationship between a state's trade deficit and the value of its currency. The purpose of the J curve in this book is quite different and much broader. It is intended to describe the political and economic forces that revitalize some states and push others toward collapse.
What is the J curve? Imagine a graph on which the vertical axis measures stability and the horizontal axis measures political and economic openness to the outside world. Each nation whose level of stability and openness we want to measure appears as a data point on the graph. These data points, taken together, produce a J shape. Nations to the left of the dip in the J are less open; nations to the right are more open. Nations higher on the graph are more stable; those that are lower are less stable.
In general, the stability of countries on the left side of the J curve depends on individual leaders -- Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin. The stability of states on the right side of the curve depends on institutions -- parliaments independent of the executive, judiciaries independent of both, nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, citizens' groups. Movement from left to right along the J curve demonstrates that a country that is stable because it is closed must go through a period of dangerous instability as it opens to the outside world. There are no shortcuts, because authoritarian elites cannot be quickly replaced with institutions whose legitimacy is widely accepted.
"Openness" is a measure of the extent to which a nation is in harmony with the crosscurrents of globalization -- the processes by which people, ideas, information, goods, and services cross international borders at unprecedented speed. How many books written in a foreign language are translated into the local language? What percentage of a nation's citizens have access to media outlets whose signals originate from beyond their borders? How many are able to make an international phone call? How much direct contact do local people have with foreigners? How free are a nation's citizens to travel abroad? How much foreign direct investment is there in the country? How much local money is invested outside the country? How much cross-border trade exists? There are many more such questions.
But openness also refers to the flow of information and ideas within a country's borders. Are citizens free to communicate with one another? Do they have access to information about events in other regions of the country? Are freedoms of speech and assembly legally established? How transparent are the processes of local and national government? Are there free flows of trade across regions within the state? Do citizens have access to, and influence in, the processes of governance?
"Stability" has two crucial components: the state's capacity to withstand shocks and its ability to avoid producing them. A nation is only unstable if both are absent. Saudi Arabia remains stable because, while it has produced numerous shocks over the last decade, it remains capable of riding out the tremors. The House of Saud is likely to continue to absorb political shocks without buckling for at least the next several years. Kazakhstan is stable for the opposite reason. Its capacity to withstand a major political earthquake is questionable but, over the course of its fifteen-year history as a sovereign state, it hasn't created its own political crises. How Kazakhstan might withstand a near-term political shock, should one occur, is far more open to question than in Saudi Arabia, where the real stability challenges are much longer-term.
To illustrate how countries with varying levels of stability react to a similar shock, consider the following: An election is held to choose a head of state. A winner is announced under circumstances challenged by a large number of voters. The nation's highest judicial body generates controversy as it rules on a ballot recount. That happened in Taiwan in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. Demonstrations closed city streets, the threat of civil violence loomed, local economies suffered, and international observers speculated on the continued viability of both governments. Of course, similar events erupted in the United States in 2000, without any significant implications for the stability of the country or its financial markets.
Stability is the capacity to absorb such shocks. Anyone can feel the difference between a ride in a car with good shock absorbers and in one that has no shock absorbers. Stability fortifies a nation to withstand political, economic, and social turbulence. Stability enables a nation to remain a nation.
LEVELS OF STABILITY
A highly stable country is reinforced by mature state institutions. Social tensions in such a state are manageable: security concerns exist within expected parameters and produce costs that are predictable. France may suffer a series of public-sector strikes that paralyze the country for several weeks. When these strikes occur, no one fears that France will renounce its commitment to democracy and an open society. Nor do they fear these shocks might generate a challenge from outside the country. No one worries that political battles within France might tempt Germany to invade -- as it did three times between 1870 and 1940.
States with moderate stability have economic and political structures that allow them to function reasonably effectively; but there are identifiable challenges to effective governance. When Jiang Zemin passed leadership of the Chinese government, the Communist Party, and the People's Liberation Army to Hu Jintao, very few inside China publicly questioned the move's legitimacy. If any had -- if Chinese workers had taken to the streets as French workers so often do -- the state would have moved quickly to contain the demonstrations. Whether China's rigid, political structure can indefinitely survive the intensifying social dislocations provoked by its explosive economic growth is another matter.
Low-stability states still function -- they are able to enforce existing laws and their authority is generally recognized. But they struggle to effectively implement policies or to otherwise change the country's political direction. These states are not well prepared to cope with sudden shocks. As an oil-exporting nation, Nigeria benefits from high energy prices. But its central government is unable to enforce the law in the Niger Delta region, where most of Nigeria's oil is located. A group called the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force has repeatedly threatened "all-out war" against the central government unless it grants the region "self-determination." The rebels briefly shut down 40 percent of Nigeria's oil production in 2003 and forced President Olusegun Obasanjo to negotiate with them. The problem flared again in 2005 and 2006.
A state with no stability is a failed state; it can neither implement nor enforce government policy. Such a country can fragment, it can be taken over by outside forces, or it can descend into chaos. Somalia fell apart in 1991, when several tribal militias joined forces to unseat the country's dictator, and then turned on each other. Since then, warlords have ruled most of the country's territory. Their rivalries have probably killed half a million and made refugees of another 750,000. More than a dozen attempts to restore order, mostly backed by Western benefactors, have failed. Any Somali leader who intends to restore Mogadishu's authority over all of Somalia's territory will have to disarm tens of thousands of gunmen, stop the steady stream of arms trafficking, set up a working justice system, and revitalize a stricken economy. Meanwhile, there are warlords, extremists, smugglers, and probably terrorists with a clear interest in scuttling the process. And while political conflicts in France don't encourage Germany to invade, there are clear threats to any future stability in Somalia from just across the border. One of the few African nations offering to send peacekeeping troops to help Somalia reestablish civil order is Ethiopia, a neighbor with a long history of troublemaking there. The arrival of any foreign troops, especially Ethiopians, could reignite Somalia's civil war.
In August 2005, South Africa went public with concerns that its neighbor Zimbabwe stood on the brink of becoming just such a failed state. Representatives of South Africa's government said a sizable loan designed to rescue Robert Mugabe's country from default on International Monetary Fund obligations might be conditioned on Mugabe's willingness to include the opposition in a new government of national unity. South Africa has good reason for concern. When state failure strikes your neighbor, the resulting chaos can undermine your stability as well, as refugees, armed conflict, and disease spill across borders.
DEMOCRACY AND STABILITY
Democracy is not the only -- or even the most important -- factor determining a nation's stability. To illustrate the point, consider again the U.S. presidential election of 2000. Did America sail through the political storm with little real damage to its political institutions simply because the United States is a democracy? Taiwan is a democracy too, albeit a less mature one, but its citizens felt the jolt of every pothole on the ride through its electoral crisis. In Turkmenistan -- not a democracy by any definition -- the open rigging of presidential elections produces hardly a ripple, nothing like the unrest produced in Taiwan. Much of Turkmenistan's stability is based on the extent to which its authoritarianism is taken for granted; a rigged election is not the exception. Democratic or not, countries in which stability is in question are more susceptible to sudden crises, more likely to unleash their own conflicts, and more vulnerable to the worst effects of political shock. Yet, for the short term, authoritarian Turkmenistan must be considered more stable than democratic Taiwan.
At first glance, the J curve seems to imply that democracies are the opposite of authoritarian states. The reality is more complicated. In terms of stability -- the vertical axis on the J curve -- police states have more in common with democracies than they do with badly run authoritarian regimes. In other words, in terms of stability, Algeria has more in common with the United States than it does with Afghanistan. Consolidated democratic regimes -- Germany, Norway, and the United States -- are the most stable of states. They can withstand terrible shocks without a threat to the integrity of the state itself. Poorly functioning states -- Somalia, Moldova, or Haiti -- are the least likely to hold together. But consolidated authoritarian regimes -- Cuba, Uzbekistan, and Burma -- often have real staying power.
THE ELEMENTS OF STABILITY
A nation's stability is composed of many elements, and while one of these elements may be reinforcing the state's overall stability, another may be undermining it. On the one hand, Turkey's possible entry into the European Union enhances the nation's political and social stability. So long as Ankara remains on track for EU accession, Turkey's government has incentive to implement the reforms the Europeans require -- reforms that strengthen the independence of the nation's political institutions, increase media freedoms, decrease the army's influence in politics, and protect the rights of minority groups, such as Turkish Kurds, who might otherwise provoke unrest. The accession process also binds Turkey more closely to European institutions.
On the other hand, the presence in northern Iraq of militant members of the Kurdistan Workers Party heightens concern that instability there could spill over into Kurdish communities in southeastern Turkey and threaten Turkey's security. Ankara is also concerned that, if Iraqi Kurds achieve greater autonomy, they may seek to regain control of the oil-rich northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk, in order to create the financial base for a future independent Kurdish state with claims on Turkish territory.
History, geography, culture, and other factors give each state its own particular strengths and vulnerabilities. As a consequence, each state has its own J curve, though each curve retains the same basic shape. North Korea's J curve is much lower than Saudi Arabia's, because North Korea lacks the resources, like oil, that can raise stability at any given level of openness. When oil prices rise, a country like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Nigeria brings in more revenue and can use the extra cash to create jobs, buy a new weapons system, fund a social safety net, hire more people to monitor Internet traffic, or any number of other measures that increase short-term political stability. India's J curve is higher than Pakistan's because its history of multiparty politics allows it to better absorb shocks to the system than the more brittle governments of its neighbor, where the military has a well-established history of intervention and suppression of dissent. Government crackdowns enhance stability in the short run, but overreliance on them for peace and tranquillity breeds underlying social tensions that must be continually managed. Over time, the management of these tensions saps government resources and energy.
If stability is a measure of a state's capacity to implement government policy in the instance of shock, how do we define "shock"? There are natural disasters -- a drought in Sudan, an earthquake in Japan, a tsunami that destroys lives in Thailand and sends floodwaters raging across coastal Indonesia. There are man-made shocks -- the assassination of an influential Lebanese politician, a terrorist bombing in the Philippines, a flood of refugees in China, a secessionist crisis in Mexico. There are shocks that originate inside a country -- a government default in Argentina. There are shocks that come from outside -- the 9/11 attacks.
No country, stable or unstable, has the capacity to prevent all shocks from happening. But less stable states are more likely both to produce their own shocks and to experience shocks from beyond their borders. Shocks in an unstable state are also more likely to be larger in magnitude -- ill-considered environmental policies make weather extremes more likely; inadequate health care provokes more frequent outbreaks of infectious disease; poor economic planning raises youth unemployment.
It's important not to confuse shocks with instability. Over the next five to ten years, reasonably stable left-side-of-the-curve states like Syria, Venezuela, Iran, and Russia may be forced to absorb a number of shocks. Syria may face serious divisions within its ruling elite. Venezuela could experience a return to widespread labor unrest. Iran may wander into military confrontation with Israel. A drop in the price of oil could punch holes in Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian coffers and produce civil strife. But the effects of these potential shocks are likely to be limited. Syria remains one of the most effective police states in the world. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez remains popular enough to fend off direct challenges to his presidency. Iran's security apparatus remains loyal to the ruling religious conservatives, and Russia has yet to produce a viable and dynamic political opposition. Serious cracks may appear in the foundation of any of these countries ten years down the road. They're all vulnerable in the long term to challenges to their immature political institutions. But none of them are headed for real unrest this year or next. For now, stability in each of these states is relatively high.
If the worst shocks don't materialize, unstable countries can survive for a surprisingly long time. They just have to be lucky. Take Ukraine: before the election crisis in late 2004, Ukraine's stability was never hit with a large enough wave to sweep it away. In the turbulent years in which Leonid Kuchma held the presidency, a series of low-level controversies rattled the country. Ukraine endured widespread social discontent and substantial poverty, with living conditions little improved from Soviet times. Demonstrations demanding Kuchma's resignation and parliamentary no-confidence votes were common. Russia regularly interfered in Ukraine's domestic politics -- even threatening at times to cut off most of the country's supply of natural gas. Despite all this, Ukraine avoided the big one -- the shock substantial enough to push Ukraine's government out to sea.
The Berlin Wall once seemed the world's most formidable barrier. It was an illusion. In their haste to build the Wall literally overnight, East German soldiers added pebbles to low-quality cement to make the Wall sturdier. It stood for more than a quarter century as a symbol of the impenetrability of the Communist world for those on the western side and the futility of hoping for a better life for those to the east. But in 1989, a few blows with a hammer and chisel brought down the Wall with the same stunning speed with which the nations of the Warsaw Pact slid down the steep left side of the J curve toward irreversible change. Without the swing of the hammer, the Wall might still stand. But once the shocks of 1989 began, the Berlin Wall was no match for even a single solid blow.
Unchallenged instability does not necessarily lead to crisis. But the probability of state failure is highest when governments have the least political capital with which to respond to turmoil -- the very moment when these states are most unstable. Think of state failure as the pull of a magnet under the J curve. As a country approaches the bottom, one sudden shock will have a destabilizing effect and can easily lead to collapse. An August 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev failed. But his government never recovered from the blow to its legitimacy produced by the fact that it was Boris Yeltsin and other reformers, not Gorbachev, who faced down the coup plot. Four months later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
The nation-state that replaced it -- the Russian Federation -- narrowly missed some serious political shocks of its own in the early and mid 1990s. The 1993 standoff between the Kremlin and the Russian Duma ended only when Boris Yeltsin shelled his country's parliament building. A war with Chechen rebels turned disastrously costly and had to be abandoned. Despite all this, the country avoided the series of earthquakes that were devastating the former Yugoslavia. Russian markets were chugging along with the high confidence -- if not quite irrational exuberance -- of international investors.
But then Russia's luck ran out when a real shock hit. In August 1998, a newly appointed, out-of-his-depth prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, made a political decision to simultaneously devalue the Russian ruble and default on the government's debt. Investors quickly discovered that Russia's calm had been the eye of a hurricane. Only a deliberate climb up the left side of the J curve toward more authoritarian, less transparent governance ultimately helped Russian elites restore political and economic stability.
This raises an important point about the shape of the J curve: the left side of the curve is much steeper because a little consolidation and control can provide a lot of stability. It is faster and easier to close a country than to open it. It's more efficient to reestablish order by declaring martial law than by passing legislation that promotes freedom of the press. Nations with little history of openness and pluralism have a habit of responding to turmoil with a centralization of state power; that habit is a hard one to break. The Kremlin's recent moves toward authoritarianism are therefore not surprising. Russia's government committed itself to democratic reform only in 1991 -- following a thousand years of authoritarianism.
Russia's crisis makes another point about stability: it takes a lot more than money to build it. Filling the world's deepest pockets of instability with cash will not by itself protect a state from the worst long-term effects of a political shock. The Marshall Plan to rebuild countries devastated by World War II was a success because it quickly mobilized resources to help restore normalcy to nations with a history of stable governance. Not all states have such a history.
Most developing countries have no experience of stable normalcy to return to. Throwing money at social and political problems in order to finance the construction of new infrastructure ignores the problem revealed by the J curve: developing countries become less stable before they become more so. It's one thing to build a new parliament building. It's quite another to populate the building with legislators dedicated to pluralist governance. The latter takes time, and before it can be achieved, the process of building an open state requires a period of significant instability.
Finally, some kinds of shock can be minimized. A nation can avoid unnecessary and destabilizing actions that bring a state into conflict with other nations or with its own citizens. Visionary leaders like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and David Ben-Gurion, for example, limited their new states' territorial ambitions when failure to do so might have compromised their ability to build stability at home.
CAPITAL MUST BE SPENT
Economic reform -- especially reform to begin a transition from a centrally planned to a market economy -- creates enormous social dislocations. Inefficient industries have to be closed; workforces have to be "downsized." This downsizing swells the rolls of the unemployed, lowers living standards, decimates aspirations, and may well provoke dangerous unrest. The most volatile moment for any emerging market -- and the time when the reform process is most likely to fail -- is precisely at the inflection point between the two systems. Governments have a finite amount of economic capital at their disposal to maintain a functioning state. Reforms require the expenditure of that capital. That's why economic reform is destabilizing.
The same holds true for political reform. Political capital -- the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of the governed -- is as precious as economic capital. Movement from a command political structure to a consolidated, effective democracy requires that this capital be spent. As a government undertakes political reform -- either voluntarily or as the result of processes beyond its control -- the account risks running into deficit. An example: Russian President Vladimir Putin recognizes that his country's social safety net is fiscally unsustainable. Because his popularity rating has long been at 70 percent, he has some capital to spend on reforms that, among their least desirable consequences, sharply undermine the purchasing power of pensioners. Once those reforms are implemented, Russia's senior citizens feel the pinch, and some of them take to the streets. Putin blames others for the reform program's worst effects, but his popularity falls. Street demonstrations encourage Russia's would-be opposition to challenge the now-less-popular president on other issues. Investors express concern that other needed reforms may now be postponed as Putin seeks to refill the Kremlin's political coffers with new capital.
Brazil's President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva is swept into power by previously disenfranchised voters who hope the country's first "left-wing" chief executive will aggressively spend government revenue to reduce the wealth gap between Brazil's richest and poorest citizens. But because Lula is enormously popular, he has a war chest of political capital to spend on another urgent priority -- a demonstration to international investors that he will honor the promise of his predecessor to reserve a preestablished percentage of Brazil's government revenue for the repayment of international debt. Lula has the political capital to spend on this unpopular move -- and he spends it.
Bowing to pressure from within and without, Egypt announces it will hold a multicandidate presidential election. Egypt's rulers have not historically felt obliged to factor domestic approval ratings into their decisions as directly as the presidents of Russia and Brazil now do. But they too have domestic constraints to consider as they create policy. They must let off pressure for change in increments to avoid unrest -- even a political explosion.
The world's most authoritarian leaders hold significant political capital. Kim Jong-Il, Fidel Castro, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have full control over their countries' levers of authority: the police, army, legislature, and judiciary. As long as that remains true, very little threatens the continued rule of these regimes. As authoritarian leaders spend political capital and institute reform, political opposition groups may gain the capacity to mobilize and challenge the existing system. The countries become less stable. That's why leaders like Kim, Castro, and Lukashenko don't institute political or economic reforms unless they believe their survival may depend on it.
The left slope of the J curve is much steeper than the right side because a country that is stable only because it's closed to the outside world can fall into a deep crisis very quickly. Weeks after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaus¸escu basked in the glow of the nearly hour-long standing ovation that marked the "re-election" meant to extend his forty-year rule, governments across Eastern Europe (East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia) began to crumble. A Ceaus¸escu speech from a balcony overlooking a public square in Bucharest was, for the first time in decades, interrupted by hecklers. Days later, following a brief public trial, his bullet-ridden corpse was tossed into a ditch. When such regimes finally fall, they fall hard.
As mentioned before, the reverse is also true: a closed country can substantially reinforce its stability -- and become even more authoritarian -- through the implementation of measures that further isolate the nation's people. When the king of Nepal wants to sack his prime minister's government and reestablish his own personal authority, he cuts international phone lines, shuts down Internet access, and closes other media outlets. Castro jams antiregime radio broadcasts from Miami. When hard-line Soviet conservatives launched the ill-fated 1991 coup against Gorbachev's government, early word of the putsch created a race by both sides to television and radio stations. The coup plotters wanted to control the airwaves; opposition groups wanted journalists to continue broadcasting news to the outside world. In 1991, openness triumphed over the attempt to stifle dissent. Unfortunately for Russia, that wasn't the last time soldiers with rifles entered a Moscow television station.
In any left-side-of-the-curve state, it's easier to close a country than to open it. But once mature political institutions are fully constructed and embraced by a nation's people, they are a lot more durable and do far more to protect the viability of the state than any police state tactic can. And communications technology can't be controlled forever. In February 2005, Chinese citizens celebrated the Lunar New Year by sending and receiving a total of 11 billion text messages. If text-messaging had been as readily available in the spring of 1989, the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square might well have ended differently. What happens the next time a spontaneous large-scale demonstration in China takes on a life of its own? That question may already have been answered in the Philippines. Text-messaging there helped topple a government in 2001. Opposition organizers used text messages to direct 700,000 demonstrators to Manila's People Power shrine to demand the removal of then President Joseph Estrada.
In moments of acute crisis, which the Tiananmen Square protests might have become, staying on the curve and avoiding the total collapse of the state requires a resolute move up the curve -- in one direction or the other. A regime may try to stabilize the state by closing it as quickly as possible. That's the logic that led Deng Xiaoping to order tanks to crush the prodemocracy demonstrations. Or a government may try to reform its way toward the right side of the curve by increasing democracy, transparency, and openness to the outside world. South Africa's governing African National Congress allowed for the creation of a well-publicized "truth and reconciliation commission" whose sessions were open to the public and the media in order to prevent fear and thirst for revenge from becoming the primary drivers of the nation's politics. Following each of modern Turkey's military coups, the army quickly passed executive authority back into civilian hands, honoring the Turkish tradition of civilian rule. Left or right, the state must move away from the dip in the curve. If it doesn't, the state will collapse and fall off the curve into chaos.
Some economists assume movement along the curve is one-way only, left to right, "developing" to "developed." They refer to developing states as "emerging markets" (ever heard of a "submerging market?"), with the underlying presumption that hunger for progress and modernity and the invisible hand of international markets push these countries toward maturity and their political structures toward greater degrees of independence. A state, they believe, may hit bumps along the long road toward freedom and prosperity, but the market will prevail and the country will ultimately develop.
But emerging markets need not emerge. If their political leaders don't have enough economic capital to carry out the process, they may be forced to abandon it. That's the fear of international investors in Brazil whenever Lula loses a domestic political battle. They wonder if he still has the popularity and political will to tell his people that money sitting in the Brazilian treasury can't be used to build new hospitals and factories in the countryside because it's needed to pay off debt to the IMF. The Treuhandanstalt, a commission set up in the newly reunified Germany to enable inefficient East German industries to privatize with a minimum of social dislocation, was constantly buffeted by political controversy. It made progress in fits and starts, and pressure to slow -- or even backtrack on -- forced privatizations sometimes carried the day.
Political development works the same way. Just as economic capital is a necessary but insufficient condition for state development, leaders must be willing and able to spend political capital to bring about reform. Even before his death in 2004, it was clear Yasir Arafat would be remembered as a man with a genius for steering the ship of the would-be Palestinian state through storms. But he is also remembered as a man who lacked the political will to finally bring that ship into port. To have political capital is not enough. You have to spend it. Otherwise, an emerging democracy may never emerge.
It's a lot safer on the left side of the J curve than at the bottom. A leader may take the vessel out of the harbor, by instituting real reforms to bring pluralism into government and entrepreneurial energy into the economy, only to lose his nerve as the first threatening waves of instability crack over the bow. That's what happened in Burma in the early 1950s. One of Asia's most promising developing countries completely cut itself off from the outside world. A little over half a century later, it is one of the world's most repressive. The regime is reasonably stable, but its long-term position becomes more precarious as the world outside its borders changes. And, of course, leader X may know that political reform is, for himself at least, political suicide. If China becomes a genuine democracy, its current political leadership will be swept aside. The same is true for Kim Jong-Il, Fidel Castro, the clerics who rule Iran, the Saudi royal family, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, the Burmese military, Alexander Lukashenko, and many others. Only those who believe they might survive reforms are likely to genuinely pursue them.
All states are in constant motion on the J curve. In left-side-of-the-curve states, there is a constant tension between the natural pull toward greater openness and an authoritarian state's efforts to continually reconsolidate power. Street protests and widespread strikes open a country to both greater communication among opposition activists and international media attention, and move the country down the curve toward instability. The state responds by declaring martial law and a news blackout to increase stability by closing the country. Even in a right-side state, unrest in a volatile region and the state's response to it can produce movement in both directions along the curve.
In addition, the J curve itself is in motion up and down. When, for example, a natural disaster strikes, a nation's entire J curve may slip lower. Such a shift indicates that, for every possible degree of openness, there is less stability. The curve can also shift higher. If a state's economy depends on oil revenues, and the global price for oil moves higher, the added revenue increases stability at every possible level of openness.
When a powerful tsunami hit Indonesia in December 2004, its horrific effects pushed the country's entire J curve lower. But the massive inflow of international humanitarian relief aid shifted the entire curve higher again, because, once the money arrived, the country became more stable at every level of openness.
There are many factors that can suddenly and powerfully shift a state's J curve up or down. Drought conditions in India, a substantial move in energy prices that alters Nigeria's growth prospects, an IMF loan for Argentina, or an earthquake in Pakistan can all provoke a sudden shift in these countries' stability at every level of openness.
Clearly, some states are more vulnerable to these shifts than others. Hurricane Katrina had less effect on U.S. stability in 2005 than the tsunami had in Indonesia a few months earlier. That's in part because the United States enjoys a much higher level of economic, social, and political stability than Indonesia and is far less vulnerable to shocks. A country with a smaller economy is more vulnerable to economic and social shocks than one with a larger economy.
Finally, a country whose economic growth depends too much on the revenue produced by one commodity will face J curve shifts that occur more often and with greater effect. A drop in oil prices will destabilize Venezuela far more than it will a better-diversified oil-exporting state like Norway.
If consolidated authoritarian regimes tend to be more stable than democracies in transition, and if stability is critical to averting disaster in today's world, why not drop the whole question of reform and bolster those closed authoritarian regimes? Many have accused the United States of precisely that approach. We'll look closely at policy challenges in the final chapter but one question in particular is worth briefly addressing here. Why push for political reform in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, and other states on the left side of the J curve that are at least somewhat friendly to U.S. interests? In the interests of global stability, why not encourage them to consolidate domestic political power? There are several reasons.
First, the most stable authoritarian regimes are obviously the world's most repressive. The dynamism necessary to survive in the modern world comes from the intellectual energy and freedom to innovate of a nation's people. In addition, dictatorships can't last indefinitely. The costs of protecting a consolidated authoritarian state from cataclysmic instability can't be sustained forever. These states will eventually collapse under their own repressive weight and the energy released will send them hurtling down the left side of the J curve without brakes -- or a steering wheel. In an age of weapons of mass destruction and transnational terrorism, the damage such states can do on the way down is unprecedented in human history.
Authoritarian states are only as stable as the hold on power of an individual leader or group of oligarchs. The viability of such states has little to do with stable institutions. In Cuba, Fidel Castro is the revolution. Loyalty to the Cuban government is loyalty to Castro himself. When he dies, the chances are good that the Cuban Communist Party will have to work hard to establish new political capital with the Cuban people. It can be done. The Bolshevik movement survived the death of Lenin in 1924 -- although the Communist Party preserved his body to help preserve its legitimacy and Stalin's methods might now be difficult to duplicate.
Individual personalities -- cult of personality or no -- are far less durable than institutions. As a consequence, authoritarian states tend to be much more volatile. The process of political succession is dangerous for an authoritarian state's stability, because much of the political capital vested in an individual dies with him. Maintaining stability in a closed society requires quick reflexes. Time for strategy is a luxury dictators can rarely afford. Following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination, Hosni Mubarak assumed power and moved to limit political volatility by jailing as many of his and Sadat's enemies as he could. It was not Egyptian law that determined the nature of the regime; the regime dictated the law. Mubarak protected Egypt's stability by jailing senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- those he considered most dangerous to his government.
Consolidated authoritarian regimes shouldn't be bolstered, but that doesn't imply that the correct policy is "regime change" -- certainly not in the military, statue-toppling sense. The right approach to closed states is usually inducement and containment. Societies can be persuaded to accept policies that open the country incrementally to the outside world and build a dynamic and financially independent middle class capable of changing society from within. That's why the United States is right to help promote Chinese and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization and might do well to offer support for eventual membership even for North Korea. None of these governments wants to empower potential opposition groups by allowing them independent control of financial resources, but all want to dynamize their economies. Egypt has been induced to increase trade ties with Israel through deals that open American markets to Egyptian goods made with a fixed percentage of Israeli inputs. That will profit an Egyptian middle class that will one day provide the engine for change in Egypt. If Pakistan's middle class were as vibrant as India's, the country might not have a military ruler or so many young religious extremists.
Where inducement fails, containment can prevent behavior that destabilizes states, regions, and the world. The only viable approach to North Korea's nuclear program is probably aggressive enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a quarantine on weapons and weapons technology entering or leaving the country. In the most extreme case, air strikes may prove the only way to slow the development of Iran's nuclear-weapons capability until change from within alters the way Iran defines its national interest.
Thus, the developed world should neither shelter nor militarily destabilize authoritarian regimes -- unless those regimes represent an imminent threat to the national security of other states. Developed states should instead work to create the conditions most favorable for a closed regime's safe passage through the least stable segment of the J curve -- however and whenever the slide toward instability comes. And developed states should minimize the risk these states pose the rest of the world as their transition toward modernity begins.
The J curve provides the ordering principle for this book. The next four chapters will focus on individual states -- their place on the J curve and the direction they may be headed. This structure is meant to give the reader a framework with which to understand the pressures and motivations that guide these countries' leaders and, as a consequence, how policymakers should interpret the challenges these countries pose for the effective implementation of policies toward them.
The chapters that follow bring together countries that pose vastly different kinds of challenges for the United States and the world. Some countries' policy choices are critically important for the future of American foreign policy, and the actions their leaders take have global significance, as in North Korea, Iran, and India. Some, like Cuba, have very little direct impact on global security, but illustrate what the J curve can teach us about the effective formulation of foreign policy. Some states, like Russia and China, already test the wisdom and resourcefulness of U.S. foreign policy and play vitally important roles in global politics. Others, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, are unlikely to alter the global order for several years, but will eventually reach a moment of truth in their political evolutions that demand foresight from all whose futures they might change. An analysis of policy toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq demonstrates how costly ill-considered strategies can be and how counterintuitive some of the solutions are to the world's most intractable foreign-policy problems. There are two other historical cases, South Africa and Yugoslavia, which provide important examples of what happens when states slide all the way down the curve into the most dangerous levels of instability.
Chapter Two is devoted to three countries near the peak of the left side of the J curve: North Korea, Cuba, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Chapter Three examines states that remain on the left side of the J curve but risk an eventual slide toward instability: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Chapter Four moves down the slope into the dangerous central section of the curve for a look at two countries that have been there: South Africa and the former Yugoslavia. Chapter Five features three countries on the right side of the curve, examines how they got there, and considers what factors will determine whether they stay: Turkey, Israel, and India. Chapter Six is devoted to a single country, the state whose political, economic, and social development and whose potential for instability pose the greatest challenges for the United States and the world over the next generation: China. The seventh and final chapter will offer some policy conclusions and a few ideas about the future of stability and globalization.
Copyright © 2006 by Ian Bremmer
Excerpted from The J Curve by Ian Bremmer Copyright © 2007 by Ian Bremmer. Excerpted by permission.
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