Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Useful J-Curve

“The J-Curve” is the title of a new book by Ian Bremmer that demonstrates that a J-curve may explain pretty well the nature of nations and why they rise and fall. I found the book fascinating.

The J-curve assumes that 2 characteristics of countries may be used to explain most of what happens to the countries. The 2 characteristics are Stability and Openness. Stability is determined by how many and what strength of shocks a country can endure and still remain a country. U.S. is stable: it has endured 9/11 in tact as a nation. Yugoslavia was so unstable it broke apart.

Openness is a measure of how much a nation is in harmony with what's going on in the rest of the world. U.S. is open since it is a driver of globalization. North Korea is not open, since it is isolated from the world.

Bremmer forms a graph showing how Stability is related to Openness. He calls it a J-curve because the left or the point of minimum openness is at a fairly high point of Stability. Then as Openness increases, Stability decreases to a minimum - the bottom of the J-curve - before coming to the right side where the more open society is the more stable society.

Autocratic countries are not open. Yet they are stable because the dictators control everything. Thus, North Korea is stable and will remain stable unless it opens the country to the outside world.

South Africa, several decades ago, was stable with its system of apartheid. When Mandela opened the country it slid towards a less stable point - the bottom of the J-curve - before entering the right side of the J-curve. The country is not now so far up on the right side, so it is vulnerable to sliding back into chaos if it does not increase its openness further.

The U.S., of course, is way to the right on the J-curve, being both open and stable. A good place to be.

Bremmer analyzes a few different countries this way. He demonstrates why it is so hard to convince autocrats to open up their countries. If you do try to make such big changes, as we are trying to do in Iraq, you must be ready to go through a period of chaos before reaching the right side of the J curve.

Read the book and become an overnight expert on foreign policy. I'm kidding. But it will provide you with valuable insights about foreign affairs.

Posted by Paul Siegel at June 6, 2007 7:00 PM
Comments
Comment #222478

Paul

The problem with all historical patterns is that we must look back. We impose patterns to help us understand, but they are not the truth.

After a long time, we start to think things are inevitable. It now seems inevitable that the communist Soviet Union broke down, while communist China did not. It really did not have to be that way.

History is made by many decisions. The patterns only make sense afterwards and sometimes the patterns are actually in our minds, like cloud patterns.

All these guys with impressive patterns are good at predicting the past, but not so good at the future. Almost nobody predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, even if everybody says they did. If you look at sources from 1988 or even 1989 - even after it fell people didn’t believe it.

Posted by: Jackj at June 6, 2007 9:19 PM
Comment #222484

Paul - read Jared Diamond’s epic follow-up to ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’, which is entitled ‘Collapse’.

If you can get past the shocking typo on page one, it’s an excellent read.

And it may give you some pause before deciding that the US is as stable as the J-Curve suggests.

Posted by: Jon Rice at June 6, 2007 10:02 PM
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