Explaining the J Curve
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In a contentious new book of globalization agonistes,”The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,” Ian Bremmer makes the cunning argument that the way to topple tyrannies such as Saddam Hussein’s in 2003 or Castro’s and Kim Jung Il’s and President Ahmadinejad’s in 2006 is to send the tyrants an invitation to join the World Trade Organization. No more crusades for regicide. Offer your bonds to the bullies: an extreme sort of soft diplomacy.
What is the J Curve? It is a clever tool to talk about rogue and failed states and the empires they threaten in the Twenty-first Century. Primarily the J curve is an investment visual for hedge funds and the people who love them in order to follow their money into the most- and/or least-risky markets on Earth. Mr. Bremmer is a guru of a so-called political risk consultancy, which is fancy talk for a hedgie think tank.
Simply, the J curve according to Mr. Bremer’s Eurasia Group is drawn on a bar graph with “stability” as the X-axis and “openness” as the Y-axis. By stability, Mr. Bremmer means the ability to withstand shocks from the outside, such as a terror attack, as well as the ability to avoid shocking yourself, such as a market crash or a coup. By openness, Mr. Bremmer means that citizens have access to information both from outside the state and from fellow citizens, such as perfectly describes the internet. What is striking about the J curve is that a maximum tyranny such as North Korea, on the extreme left of the curve, is almost as stable as a maximum free society such as Denmark on the extreme right of the curve. The distinction with the difference is what happens to a nation when it moves from being the prison of North Korea on the left to being the liberated salon of Denmark on the right: the stability dips severely.This is the J shape, so that a country that throws off its tyranny will plunge into chaos quickly and keep sinking into Hades for some time before it can hope to rise to new enterprises as an open society.
It is too tempting to be bloodless about this tank-thinking, as if you are studying Earth on a radio telescope from fifty thousand light years away. Mr. Bremmer, who writes cleanly, samples from current and past states to illustrate his opinion of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Most brutally stable on the far left of the curve are Kim Jong II’s North Korea, the Castro brothers’s Cuba, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Currently slipping from intolerant stability to the long depths of chaos are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. At the depths of the curve, when all hope is murdered, are South Africa after apartheid and Yugoslavia after the Soviets. And now climbing from the depraved depths toward enhancing openness, according to Mr. Bremmer, are Turkey, Israel, and India. Coyly, Mr. Bremmer sidesteps China and calls the PRC a dilemma.
Mr. Bremmer’s puckish proposition that the way to end Saddam Hussein’s right side of the J curve regime was not to sanction (U.N. choice), not to appease (Arab choice), not to invade (American choice), but rather to welcome Iraq into WTO and other capitalist risk management markets, which has the great irony of being logical and impossible at the same time.
What hedgies do not readily entertain is that the historical record is filled with events that describe illogical possibilities that actually happened and changed the map, such as the contest between revolutionary Bonapartist France and imperial merchant England. Waiting out Napoleon’s bloodthirsty vanity would not have worked, even over half a century of patience. Further, it is unimaginable, on reading the London Times in 1805, that anyone could have constrained the Admiralty from sending out Nelson and Collingwood to find the combined French and Spanish fleets. Horatio Nelson closing on the enemy at Trafalgar can sound as if he is schooling George Bush as he closes on Saddam at Baghdad: “When I am without orders and unexpected occurrences arrive, I shall always act as I think the honour and glory of my King and Country demand. But in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”
Mr. Bremmer’s genius does illuminate the present bootless homicide in Baghdad, however, because in order to gain the gift of an open democracy, Iraq must pass through the depraved low point of the J curve. Elections are not the objective. Stability with free-flowing information in a capitalist forum is the mission, and that will take time and intrepidity.
It is also fair to suggest, out of earshot of the trendy hedgies at their trading desks, that America can help along the liberation of the criminal regimes of Pyongyang and Teheran and Havana and Damascus by following more of Nelson’s genius, “The business of the English commander-in-chief being first to bring an enemy fleet to battle on the most advantageous terms to himself; and secondly to continue them there until the business is decided.”
Mr. Batchelor is host of “The John Batchelor Show,” now on hiatus.