Friday, September 1, 2006

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Thinking about The J Curve

I have a review of Ian Bremmer's The J Curve in today's Wall Street Journal (alas, subscriber only):

Ian Bremmer has a big idea, and the title of his book literally spells it out. He argues in “The J Curve” that the relationship between “stability” and “political and economic openness to the outside world” resembles nothing so much as the letter “J.”

Countries that close themselves off completely from outside influence—North Korea, for instance—can retain a measure of political stability. They inhabit the low up-curl of the J’s left side. Countries that are completely open—liberal democracies like the U.S.—are even more stable. They occupy the highest precincts of J’s tall main stem. As countries move from closure to openness, though, political stability will fall before it rises—they slide downward, at least at first, to the low well of the J. In some cases, the fall is so precipitous that it leads to failed states, such as Yugoslavia, Somalia and Nigeria....

For those who have paid little attention to the outside world for the past few years, “The J Curve” offers a useful primer. For everyone else, it will serve as a warning about the danger of fitting the world’s geopolitical complexity into a single letter.

You'll have to read the review to see why I was not convinced. Or, click here to view an excerpt from the book and draw your own conclusions.

I should also point out that I'm in the decided minority on being unimpressed, if these blurbs and these reviews are any indication.

Full disclosure: Ian was a few years ahead of me in the Stanford Ph.D. program in political science -- and he was nice enough to put me on The J Curve's blogroll.

posted by Dan on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM


The idea has been around for awhile and has even been treated with some real rigor. See the last item on this list, dealing with transitions to and from democracy:

You're in a healthy minority, along with me, in being unimpressed.

posted by: Jim Harris on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

For those of us who are not WSJ subscribers, it would be helpful if you could briefly mention your core objection. The excerpts did not answer the questions I might have about his model and its usefulness.

posted by: David Billington on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

Jim is right... I remember old permutations of the idea in the 60s and 70s that talked of an N curve... Whereas instead of openness the variable was economic development... Seymour Martin Lipset comes to mind.

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

What this is is an example of re-packaging of old ideas. I sure hope somewhere along the way Bremmer acknowledges his debt to James Davies, who came up with what was known as "Davies J curve" back when I was an undergrad in the '80s. "Big idea" my arse.

The difference is that Bremmer manages to make the J look like a J, whereas Davies' J looked more like it was lost in space (see for a look-see of his graph).

But the underlying idea seems to be the same, and by the way, What's not to like? It did a great job of explaining (back in the early '80s when we never knew if so much of Central America, and parts of Africa and eastern Europe would go capitalist or commie -- or constantly swung from one to the other) the danger of rapidly rising expectations in what were then called Third World countries and the risk of revolution. I don't remember the details but do remember that Davies J curve answered a whole bunch of questions.

See Davies, James C. 1962. "Towards a Theory of Revolution".

posted by: St. James the Lesser on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

Nonsense. What transition in Nigeria? It is a failed state ab ovo.

posted by: jaimito on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

What transition in Nigeria? It is a failed state ab ovo.

posted by: jaimito on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

I don't want to sound pompous, but hasn't everyone known that transitions to democracy are often destabilizing and taken advantage upon by ethnic demagouges (ie Yugoslavia). I feel this has been kinda common knowledge in fopo circles for a while now. I guess we can thank Malcolm Gladwell for this. You can't have a big idea until it has a cool graph to describe it! If only transitions to democracy and international grand strategy could be described by New York legalzing abortion or perhaps by a journalist traveling and watching soccer for a year...

posted by: Matt on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

This insightful theory has, of course, actually been observed in fancy computer simulations.

I think they called it civ.iv

posted by: pascal's bookie on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

I think Daniel has neatly eliminated some of the nuance of Bremmer's book in forming his review. I've had a chance now to take a look at the book, and it's clear that he has ignored the fact that Bremmer allows that the whole curve itself can move upward or downward in terms of stability. So, a country that moves from closed to open after, say, discovering huge oil reserves, would experience less absolute instability than the same country in an alternate universe that lacked the black gold. Then, the change in stability is a relative one for any nation, regardless of its stability in absolute terms.

I think Drezner has it wrong in suggesting that stability could in fact be the independent variable. Openness, as Bremmer _does_ define it includes openness within a nation's own borders. Despite its industrial-strength Cisco routers that keep objectionable content from the larger world off of the Chinese internet, the Chinese government has relatively little control over (anonymous) internal communication.

I was a little suprised to see this negative a review on a book that has been praised by Francis Fukuyama among others. Could this be some form of sour grapes as Bremmer has parlayed his Stanford Ph.D. into a lucrative political consultancy while Drezner toils in relative obscurity (not a knock on Drezner necessarily--his credentials are admirable, but he's probably not pulling down big dollars). Yeah, the concepts may be a little dumbed down for a general audience, but calling the takeaways "banal" smacks of that old green-eyed monster.

posted by: Rob on 09.01.06 at 09:17 AM [permalink]

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