Sunday, January 21, 2007


The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall
Ian Bremmer
306 pages
Simon & Schuster, 2006

The description on the front flap of the dust cover says, “What Freakonomics does for understanding the economy, The J Curve does for better understanding how nations behave,” and, quite frankly, this is one of the most accurate sentence-long summations of a book I have ever read. Just like Freakonomics, The J Curve is a fascinating and illuminating read.

The central question that Bremmer intends this book to answer is, “How can we better understand the natural processes that erode the power of authoritarian regimes and nourish open governance?” As he indicates in the very first paragraph of the Foreward this process is important for us to understand in this age where political instability in one nation, or even within a small region of a state, can lead to a myriad of nightmare scenarios including regional economic instability and nuclear terrorism. He goes on to point out that this understanding is critical to formulating more effective foreign policy.

The center piece of Bremmer’s method of answering this question is the titular J curve. Basically Bremmer’s J curve plots the stability of a nation on the Y axis and the openness of the nation on the X axis. This curve, which resembles a check mark more than an actual J, has states with authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea and Cuba, on the left side of the curve and states with open societies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom on the right side of the curve. States will move along the curve from the right, a closed but stable society, through a period of decreasing stability but increasing openness, and then on to a period where both stability and openness increase. Movement along the curve is not exclusively from left to right with some states making moves to open their society and thus move to the right of the curve, however in the resulting instability the state then cracks down and moves back to the left of the curve.

After introducing the J curve model, Bremmer then walks the reader through several different examples of states at various points on the curve, beginning with three states which are on the extreme left of the curve, Cuba, North Korea, and pre-invasion Iraq. All three of the states are reasonably stable and closed to outside influences, even to the extant that the regimes will behave in a manner which causes the world to continue to cut them off and therefore propping up the current regime. This is particularly the case with North Korea, however Bremmer points out several instances where the Castro government has, during thaws in the U.S. stance towards Cuba, done things to force the U.S. government to resume a hard-line against Cuba.

Bremmer then discusses Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, three states which are on the left side of the J curve but are slowly moving down the curve with increasing instability and increasing openness. Russia is one of the states which moves back and forth on the curve. As the society starts to open up to democratic processes it dips towards instability. This makes the powers that be nervous which leads them to rescind the reforms, reverting the society to a more closed state. This was graphically illustrated in the Russian government’s reaction to the incident in Beslan where Chechen rebels took several hundred school children hostage.

Bremmer then takes the reader step-by-step through states which demonstrate the two other major positions on the J curve. The depths of the J curve are exemplified by Yugoslavia, a state which disintegrated once it reached the nadir of the curve, and South Africa, a state which successfully made the transition from the left side of the curve to the right side of the curve. He then discusses three states, Turkey, Israel, and India, which are currently on the right side of the curve which face critical decisions in the next few years which could have serious consequences for their stability or openness. Wrapping up the book Bremmer discusses the question of China, which is a special case where their stability and openness are not necessarily directly linked.

This book was a very enjoyable and surprisingly quick read considering the subject matter and I highly recommend it to any person with an interest in the rise and fall of states in the post Cold War world.

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