The Book Club

Can a Chart Explain Global Politics?


“Simplify, then exaggerate.” I spent much of my time as editor in chief of the Economist trying to disown that description by one of my long-distant predecessors, Geoffrey Crowther, of the right approach for an Economist article. While claiming that the modern Economist is above such tactics, I could not deny that it is a fair description of journalism in general. It could also be applied to books that use simple graphs to explain current affairs—of which Ian Bremmer’s The J Curve is a fine example. But it is an example with an intriguing twist. Bremmer uses his simple chart to show why global politics is, in fact, highly complicated.

Bremmer’s target—quite like yours, Fareed, in The Future of Freedom—is the all-too-common notion that there is a smooth and even inevitable path that countries follow from dictatorship to democracy, along which others can readily nudge them. The Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” is only the latest example of this delusion. The troops invading Iraq, remember, were to be greeted by cheering crowds throwing flowers.

The J Curve.

We all know far too well that even if some did cheer, many threw bombs. Bremmer’s chart explains why. It maps two things: stability, on the y axis, and openness, both internal and to the world, on the horizontal x axis. * Bremmer’s argument is that history shows that the most stable countries are often also the most closed: North Korea, Cuba, China under Mao, Soviet Russia. But as countries become more open, they generally become more unstable in the first instance, as existing institutions are challenged and undermined, and the old power holders lose their grip. Only as and if new institutions are built and gain legitimacy, credibility, and power will stability rise again. Hence the J. There is nothing inevitable about escape from the unstable bottom of the curve: The country could move in either direction.

I found this a useful representation of what happens as institutions and regimes change and, certainly, a salutary warning against the view that democracy will grow as naturally as flowers in the spring. The book’s main interest for me, however, lay not so much in the chart that gives it its title but in the fine and revealing case studies that Bremmer lays out to establish how complicated the political form of states really is. He outlines the situations in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and China adeptly and looks also at countries, such as South Africa, that have made a successful transition to democracy; at others, such as India, where democracy has survived seemingly against the odds; and at Russia, where democracy has lately been foundering. The conclusion? That there is no clear rule that can guide us in judging which countries will move up the J curve and which will not. It all depends. Societies are fragile and complex organisms.

Bremmer, though, left me with a question nagging at my mind that I’d like your view on, Fareed. Responding to the Bushies’ supposed “freedom agenda,” Bremmer makes the assumption that the right objective of foreign policy, by which he and I mean American foreign policy, is to help countries get to the right-hand side of the J curve, where they are both open and stable. But is this correct? He criticizes those, in the current as in previous administrations, who think that the best way to change countries is to punish “bad” regimes through sanctions or even military attacks. This tends to permit authoritarians to close their countries even more, on the pretense that they are under siege by the American devils, ramping up nationalist support. The examples are familiar: Cuba, North Korea, Iraq under Saddam, now Iran. So, he argues, the right strategy is to encourage openness, using citizens’ liking for openness as a pressure on their dictators. He cites the success of the 1975 Helsinki human rights accords in gradually opening up the Soviet Union and its satellites as the prime example of the best approach.

My problem is twofold. One, that this example of how things were done better during the Cold War rather compresses history: It took almost 30 years of the Cold War before we got to Helsinki, so as a criticism of the state of American policy five years after 9/11, it is not all that telling. Second, the reason it took so long to get to Helsinki is that foreign policy does not have one objective (stable, open states) but several, often conflicting, ones. Bremmer tacitly accepts this when he himself advocates a military attack on Iran to stop it developing nuclear weapons, even though this is surely guaranteed to drive it back up the closed portion of his J curve. He tries to counter this point by suggesting, rather against the gist of his own book, that Iranian leaders might thus be deterred from their current aggressive, nationalist stance. They might, or they might not.

Foreign policy, like the politics of state stability, is a complicated matter. Short-term goals often conflict with longer-term ones. Countries can’t be marched easily to democracy, stability, and friendliness; but that doesn’t make it always wrong to try, or necessarily wrong sometimes to drive dictators back into their shells, if it serves a more immediate U.S. interest. Do you think we should have a single, clear objective for foreign policy, Fareed? Or do you agree with me that such a thing is unrealistic?


*Correction, Oct. 16, 2006: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly confused the references to the x and y axes. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.