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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 17:39 GMT 18:39 UK
The J Curve
The openness graph
Ian Bremmer's J Curve is a visual tool that suggests why some countries are in crisis and unstable while others are prosperous and politically solid.

The book explains: "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".

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By Ian Bremmer

Extract one:

J Curve

"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.

Extract two:

All states are in constant movement on the J curve. Some states fluctuate within a relatively narrow range. Others, particularly those closest to the bottom on either side of the curve, experience wider swings. Left alone, a left-side state will slide toward instability because authoritarianism must be continuously reconsolidated. Kim Jong-Il, Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenko, the clerics who rule Iran, the military junta that dominates Burma, the autocrats of Central Asia, the Saudi royals, the Kremlin elite, the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and all the people who enable their autocratic rule spend enormous time and energy reinforcing regime stability and resisting the natural pull of greater political, economic, and social openness.

As the energies of globalization open up the least politically and economically developed areas of the world, as the citizens of closed states learn more about life beyond their borders and discover they don't have to live as they do, tyrants must expend more and more effort to isolate their societies. These states can now fall more swiftly and suddenly into instability than at any time in history. That's why right-side states must be more concerned than ever by the internal developments within left-side states. Social unrest in China, the Saudi education system, a security vacuum in Afghanistan, ethnic tensions in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, and market volatility in Argentina each have a more immediate impact on geopolitics and economics than ever before.


The Bush administration has now moved beyond the "axis of evil" focus of the post-9/11 period toward a new strategy based on the active promotion of democratization in states Condoleezza Rice has called "outposts of tyranny." In part, this shift reflects Washington's recognition that military regime change - even credible military pressure - is prohibitively expensive as a major component of U.S. foreign policy. The administration lacks both the material resources and the political capital to continue to use these tools in all but the most extreme cases. In essence, the policy is an attempt to undermine authoritarian states and to push them toward the right side of the J curve with a less costly mix of political pressure and public diplomacy.

But the strategy is dangerous precisely because the Bush administration hasn't fully articulated how states that aren't ready for the transition can withstand the buffeting they'll face in the depths of the curve. Foreign policymaking is not an abstraction, and a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to failure. The twelve states visited in this book demonstrate nothing so clearly as that each country has developed a political, intellectual, economic, and social culture that is unique.

In an authoritarian state, opposition political organizations are suppressed, their activities are outlawed, their leaders are jailed or killed, and their supporters are intimidated into silence. As a result, opposition within these states becomes radicalized; opposition activism becomes, by definition, antistate activity. To suddenly hold open elections in such a state is usually to pit the most extreme elements of society directly against one another in a contest in which both sides know the vanquished will lose everything they value. In such a case, moderate parties may not have had the time or the resources to build a political base in support of responsible reform-oriented governance and to offer voters an alternative to the bitterly opposed extremes.

The damaging effects of pushing for comprehensive change in a society that isn't ready for it can last for years. Having scheduled open elections for early 1991, the Algerian government recognized in late 1990 that an Islamist party associated with terrorist cells was set to win. The state cancelled the elections and declared a state of emergency that still exists today. Because the groundwork for stability based on openness was not prepared before elections were to be held, the Algerian government suspended the nation's constitution in order to prevent a collapse into the depths of the J curve. A number of right-side-of-the-curve states had supported the premature elections. Faced with a geopolitically destabilizing result, they found themselves backed into support for the suspension of civil liberties - the opposite of what they had intended.

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