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The Daily Telegraph (30 Sep 06)
11 Oct 06
This topic was first cited in Singabloodypore (www.singabloodypore.blogspot.com/)
A new catchphrase is buzzing its way around the political salons of Washington and New York. Move over, “tipping point”.
The “J curve” is an explanation for the way the world works that is so simple that you can draw it on the back of a paper napkin (the book is published by Simon & Schuster). Indeed, its inventor, a boyish American political scientist called Ian Bremmer, spent years doing just that.
“God knows how many napkins I got through,” he says. “And my friends kept telling me, ‘Wow, write a book.’ So here it is.”
Bremmer, 36, is chairman and founder of the Eurasia Group, the world’s largest political risk consultancy.
When governments and businessmen want to know whether they should invest in a country with a dodgy government, or whether they should run a mile from it because the capital city is about to go up in flames, they come to him.
Eurasia is one of very few private companies that offers this service. That is why it can afford to occupy a fabulously chic suite of offices in New York. Bremmer takes me out on to the balcony overlooking Fifth Avenue and tells me, sotto voce, how much Eurasia is worth. “Promise not to print that,” he says.
Suffice it to say that Bremmer risked losing a fortune by taking a year out to write about his pet theory. Fortunately, the gamble paid off. The J Curve, published in Britain next month, is the intellectual accessory of the moment.
Bremmer’s sloping J (“a bit like a Nike swoosh”) is a shorthand method for tracking the fall and rise of nations as they open up to democracy and the markets. Some of America’s most heavyweight pundits – Francis Fukuyama, Strobe Talbott, Daniel Burstein – have warmly endorsed the book.
Meanwhile, the J curve fascinates the dinner-party bluffers who, five years ago, bored everyone senseless by explaining Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (a groundbreaking study of social epidemics which was able to explain why, for example, American teenagers suddenly rushed to the shops to buy Hush Puppies).
How does the curve work? The J is suspended between a vertical axis, “stability”, and a horizontal axis, “openness” (to both political and economic reforms).
At the top left of the graph are totalitarian dictatorships. North Korea is the classic example. At the top right are Western democracies, such as the United States and Britain. “Think about the presidential election here in 2000,” says Bremmer. “The other guy got more votes, the result was decided by a controversial Supreme Court vote, and what happened? Nothing. That’s stability.”
The world would be a much safer place if countries could leap across the top of the graph, staying stable while introducing democracy and free markets. But that is not what happens. Although dictatorships can be amazingly stable – Castro has been in power since Eisenhower’s presidency – the moment the prison door swings open, things fall apart.
Authoritarian states or command economies typically move down the J curve once their citizens taste freedom. And the downwards slope is usually pretty steep. The climb to the sunny uplands of free-market democracy, by contrast, is a painfully slow business. The slope may be gentle, but the journey can take decades, if it is completed at all.
“Let me show you,” says Bremmer, looking around for something to write on. “No napkins, I’m afraid, so it’ll have to be the back of my business card.” He writes a J, frowns through his horn-rimmed glasses, crosses it out and starts again. “Even after all this time I make the right-hand side too steep.”
For an example of a state in free-fall, look no further than Iraq. With every suicide bomb, this supposedly nascent democracy slips towards Somalian anarchy. And – President Bush take note – Bremmer’s analytical tool offers absolutely no guarantee that things will sort themselves out.
The good news is that some unlikely candidates make the grade. India, after independence, quickly turned itself into a socialist basket case, albeit a democratic one. Yet bold economic reforms in the 1990s have lifted it to a place half-way up the right-hand side of the curve. When you ring a public utility and get put through to Bangalore, that is a sign that India is heading in the right direction.
Overall, however, the big picture is positively frightening. “If you ask me whether the world is becoming a more dangerous place, I’d have to say yes,” Bremmer tells me, with just a hint of excitement in his voice. This is, after all, his area of expertise, and one that he has worked very hard to acquire.
The preppy button-down shirt and chinos are misleading. Bremmer describes himself as a “mutt” of Armenian and German ancestry who dragged himself out of the Boston housing projects to go to university at the age of 16. Initially he studied chemical engineering, but soon switched to political science, in which he has a doctorate.
By the time his teenage years were over, he had already rubbed shoulders with an impressive menagerie of corrupt Third World politicians and grasping oil men. His office wall is covered with photographs of Bremmer, looking like Ferris Bueller, deep in conversation with Bond-villain oligarchs.
It was these encounters that inspired Bremmer to construct the J curve. His critics might say that the device is no more than a statement of the obvious. He would reply that a simple conceptual tool can be more useful than multivariate analysis in answering crucial questions.
One of the biggest problems facing the world is that major nations who should have reached the end of the curve by now are nowhere near the top right. Saudi Arabia, for example, chose to bribe its population with oil money and placate religious extremists, rather than take the risk of moving down the curve. That was a mistake. To put it brutally: if the Saudis had moved further towards democracy in the 1980s, perhaps Ian Bremmer would still be able to see the Twin Towers from his office.
Then there is China, which Bremmer describes unambiguously as a police state. Events in the world’s fastest-growing economy perfectly illustrate one of Bremmer’s key points. “States can decide to turn round and head back towards dictatorship. You can travel in either direction along the J curve,” he says.
“The paradox is that the very economic openness that makes China so exciting to foreign investors is also creating terrific social unrest. For example, mobile phones and the internet allow ordinary people to co-ordinate demonstrations.
“And do you know how many protests and riots there were in China last year? Eighty-seven thousand. Special police units have been set up in 36 cities to counter ‘terrorism’, but their real purpose is to head off the threat of large-scale violence, which is growing with every passing month.”
China thought it could beat the J curve, jumping from closed stability to open stability. Now it is finding out that this is not possible, and the smell of panic is spreading. “The state employs 50,000 security officials whose sole charge is to monitor chat rooms and to police the internet,” says Bremmer. “But they’ll be busy. There are 100,000 new internet users in China every day.”
What everyone wants to know is how unstable China will become before true democracy kicks in. The fear is that economic and ethnic tensions may reach (to coin a phrase) a tipping point at which the state unleashes the most shocking brutality in order to stop the country breaking up.
Bremmer is still cautiously optimistic that Beijing will pull through, if only because the West cannot allow China to fall apart. The collapse of the world’s largest supplier of cheap manufactured goods – and a voracious consumer of raw materials – could plunge the world economy into recession.
The state that really worries Bremmer is Iran. A few years ago, Teheran seemed to be moving from the bottom of its curve towards democracy: liberals won seats in parliamentary elections, while young people were visibly embracing Western values.
Now it has a ranting Holocaust-denier as president who calls for the destruction of Israel and is racing ahead with a nuclear programme. And all with popular support. “It’s hard to believe that, not long ago, Iran was the third most liberal regime in the Middle East,” says Bremmer.
What went wrong? As the revolution faltered, the mullahs stepped up their suppression of free speech, and they were able to do so by playing the oldest trick in the book – they conjured up American and Zionist bogeymen in order to unify public opinion. And along came a demagogue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected president last year, to help them do it.
Nothing covers up a surreptitious slide back up the J curve more effectively than an outbreak of popular nationalism. But Iran remains a semi-democracy – which means that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs must work hard to sustain the mood.
“The regime knows it has a limited window of opportunity to consolidate its power, and it won’t do that if it sits on its hands,” says Bremmer.
“Iran had a problem – its youth were well-disposed towards Western values. So what do you do in that situation? You provoke a crisis by picking a fight – denying the Holocaust, arming Hizbollah, pressing ahead with nukes. It doesn’t just make the Iranians feel important, it also emboldens the Shia majority in Iraq and encourages Shia everywhere to unseat relatively stable Sunni regimes.
“The nuclear weapons issue is crucial. They are not usable in themselves – you’ll get wiped out – but, boy, they make a difference to your standing in the world. Do you think North Korea would be getting so much money from China if it didn’t have nukes? Everyone wants them now. My guess is that Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are wishing they hadn’t sold out so cheaply by getting rid of them.”
And that brings us to the tricky subject of Russia. “After the end of the Soviet Union, Russia seemed headed towards the right side of the curve,” says Bremmer. “Then, thanks to a combination of mismanagement in Moscow and lack of commitment from America, we lost the plot. Putin has led Russia back to the left-hand side.” Towards stability? That depends. The scariest passage in The J Curve is where Bremmer discusses Russia and terrorism.
“Russia is the only country in the world with the combination of unaccounted-for radiological material, specialised scientists who are significantly underpaid, and well-organised terrorist groups,” he writes.
In other words, pundits who expect the world’s first “dirty bomb” to explode in an American city centre could be looking in the wrong place. No wonder the Russians are rediscovering their taste for authoritarian government.
“What we need to realise is that, if the world moves faster, then the speed with which things go wrong picks up,” explains Bremmer. “Terrorists need less and less space in which to operate – and the people who commit atrocities are by no means highly trained operatives enmeshed in a global conspiracy.”
The Madrid bombers, he suggests, were psychotic amateurs with local grievances. “Put it this way: if my company was advertising for skilled terrorists, they wouldn’t get past reception.”
Yet Bremmer cannot work up any enthusiasm for the “war on terror”, which he suspects is about as effective as the “war on drugs”. “There comes a point at which the cost of homeland security outweighs the cost of terrorism,” he says. “Make it impossibly difficult for people to get visas, and the elites of the Islamic world – businessmen and young, educated people – will stop visiting America. And that really is dangerous.”
Bremmer’s own philosophy is simple: go out and meet the rulers of developing countries, however corrupt or cruel. If you want to know what is going to happen to energy prices, study tribal back-stabbing. Hence those photographs of Third World ministers, some of whom rather stretch the definition of the word “politician”.
One picture shows Bremmer chewing the fat with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. “Now there’s a ruler who enjoys considerable support from his people, who know that he doesn’t spend his time skiing or chasing after Czech models,” he says.
Then there’s a snapshot of a ludicrously youthful Bremmer smiling at a hatchet-faced thug who appears to be ploughing his way through a bottle of vodka.
“Ah yes, I know who that is,” he says, and rattles off the name of the foreign minister of some godforsaken central Asian republic. “I remember that dinner. It was just before he was shot.”
SDP’s question: Where’s Singapore on the curve and which direction are we headed?