The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall by Ian Bremmer. Simon and Schuster. 2006. 306 pages. $26.
The Roman philosopher Cicero once observed, “Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered.” In the context of the twenty-first century, we may interpret that to mean that, when tyranny falls, it falls hard.
According to author and politicalrisk consultant Ian Bremmer, the undemocratic governments of the twenty-first century-China, Iran, and North Korea-would do well to learn this lesson sooner rather than later. In The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, Bremmer puts forward a sound, convincing, and optimistic hypothesis as to why autocratic states are, in the twenty-first century, doomed.
According to Bremmer’s J curve theory, backed by dozens of real-world examples, economic and cultural exchange on a global scale enhances the stability of free nations. Reciprocally, the globalizing forces of digital communication and free markets work to destabilize undemocratic regimes. This implies that closed nations are inexorably bound for a period of instability as the pressure of globalization undermines the power of their authoritarian governments.
If you were to chart this progression on a graph, you would put non-free states on the left and free states on the right, with the top and bottom representing stability and instability, respectively. As the line progressed from left to right-from repressed to free-it would dip closer to the left and then climb slowly up the right. States on the left side of the curve are in trouble. Having already gone through the transition, states on the right are safer and become increasingly more so as they move away from instability and toward openness.
“In any left-side-of-the-curve state, it’s easier to close a country than to open it. But once the 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,” says Bremmer.
The proposition should be an encouraging one for dissidents and human-rights advocates as it suggests that the tide of history is working in their favor. But Bremmer cautions that the descent along the left side of the curve is a dangerous one. The “bite” of the newly liberated mob can have disastrous consequences. For instance, North Korea’s slide toward instability, when it finally does occur, could result in a humanitarian crisis and a scattering of loose nuclear fissile material across the globe. Instability in China, if it were to become too violent, could have devastating effects on international markets.
Assuming that Bremmer’s hypothesis is valid and instability automatically follows totalitarian rule, the question arises: What can open nations like the United States and its European and Asian allies do to help closed states face up to-and then survive-instability? Bremmer’s answer: The West should avoid overtly aggressive policies such as sanctioning and boycotts, and certainly avoid military regime change. These tactics play directly into the hands of totalitarian governments seeking to prolong their rule by casting themselves as the guardians of a “persecuted” people. Rather, the best policy for the West is direct economic and cultural engagement with those very states it is most inclined to “isolate.”
“How can outside actors enable reform in China? The worst choice the United States and others could make in trying to bring China through instability toward the right side of the J curve is the choice Washington has made in its relations with North Korea and Cuba,” Bremmer writes. “Isolating the Communist leadership will only encourage China’s leaders to tighten their grip on power and to suppress the energy for change already forming inside the country. When a country becomes more stable at every possible level of openness, that country is better fortified to withstand the stresses of change. That’s why, for example, the United States government acted wisely in rising above partisanship to renew most-favored-nation trading status for China during the 1990s.”
It is interesting to note that Bremmer’s book was released just before North Korea’s testing of a nuclear bomb, which resulted in a United Nations vote to heavily sanction the country.
Bremmer is a gifted writer, and his book does an admirable job of evaluating the state of freedom around the globe. While the author’s affection for free markets occasionally boarders on the religious, The J Curve’s overall message is a welcome one. Could the answer to the world’s worries about North Korea, Iran, and other undemocratic states really be so simple: that to defeat our enemies we need only embrace them? If so, then perhaps Abraham Lincoln was right when he said, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
In this sense, both Bremmer and Lincoln seem a touch naïve, or at least disingenuous. Extending “most favored nation status” to China has produced great results for the Chinese economy, but mixed results for the state of liberty in that country (and terrible results for the U.S. trade deficit). Also, while Lincoln did take steps to reach out to an alienated and conquered South, in terms of destroying his enemies, he had some help from Sherman, too.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2006.