oh Jesus

by Joshua Foust on 1/5/2009 · 6 comments

I missed one new blog Foreign Policy is adding to its roster: The Call, by the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer. So is running a successful scam, little more than a left-of-center version of Stratfor, now the only requirement for being taken seriously? Bremmer, recall, is the author of
The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall
. In short, the thing was lazy and unfocused, but to an extent one would not expect from a young PhD out of Stanford running a successful New York consulting firm.

In another blog life, before I joined Registan.net, I wrote a review of it, which I’ll post below. But just keep in mind that this is now one of the people Foreign Policy thinks has great insight into how the world works (even fellow FP blogger Dan Drezner was unimpressed with it). My previous complaint about FP, which is that they couldn’t seem to bring themselves to hire interesting or outsider perspectives to introduce some vitality into the foreign policy discussion, is firmer than ever. I’ll keep an eye on these things for a bit, but my guess is I’ll go back to ignoring most of them, just as I did before.

Anyway, on with the review of Bremmer’s book.

In general, a universal political theory is a tough thing to come by. During the Cold War, the presence of the Soviet Union made things quite easy: the USSR was the enemy, and George Kennan’s idea of containment kept our foreign policy choices reasonably well-constrained. While Kennan basically invented four decades of foreign policy, it took on different forms, from domino theories to “pragmatism” to regionalism. What it boiled down to was supporting America-friendly dictators and trying to topple Soviet-friendly dictators. For much of Asia, South America, even Africa, life seemed a rather unfortunate choice between Soviet bankruptcy and brutality, or American bankruptcy and brutality.

Since the end of the Cold War, the impetus to control every country, or at least to keep them firmly established in a particular economic system, is greatly reduced from the frenzied decades of last century. There is only one world economic system, and countries choose to buy into it (South Korea), or they choose to reject it (North Korea). But what happens when a country, previously isolated from global economic and social flows, chooses to open itself up? How do we understand that transition, its chaos, and hopefully manage it toward a fully functioning society?

This is the question Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a large political consulting firm, tries to answer. His model is simple: using a standard J-curve, common in economic analyses (especially useful in the balance of payments problem), demonstrate the relationship between stability and openness. The gist of Bremmer’s argument is that modern, liberal democracies have a large amount of openness and stability—countries like the U.S. can go through serious electoral crises like the 2000 election without sliding into chaos [someone tell Igor Panarin –ed.]. The other part of his argument, the one that is getting him so much good press, is that countries that specifically reject openness also manage to acquire a good degree of stability. This is why, for example, North Korea can suffer untold suffering and famine without a revolt: the state is so closed, it controls all information, even thought.

Though is seems a hugely useful tool for unpacking the seemingly irrational actions of dictators —Bremmer claims Kim Jong-il behaves antagonistically because harsher sanctions make it easier for him to rule—The J Curve is not only not the new idea it seems, it doesn’t really work because it relies on stereotype instead of data.

In the 1950’s, James Davies came up with his own J Curve. Though oriented differently than Bremmer’s, the Davies J-Curve modeled how the gap between expectations and reality can eventually lead to armed conflict. At the time, it served as a surprisingly accurate way of modeling how conflicts in the Third World were coming about, as newly-independent colonies settled internal and external frictions.

Though he pays lip service to the Davies Curve, Bremmer stakes out much larger territory: by explaining everything through the lens of “stability” (a loosely defined, vague concept that incorporates the effects of and ability to withstand shocks, elections, violence, and natural disasters), he claims to accurately model why countries behave the way they do—sometimes rationally, sometimes brutally, sometimes puzzlingly. In this, he can at best be considered only partially successful. Bremmer chooses good enough cases to discuss his theory, but he at times indicates a curious misunderstanding of the realities within the countries he chose.

Take North Korea. I’ve explored at length in this blog how assiduously the Kim regime tries to brainwash his people—they have little to no idea people in the South, or anywhere else for that matter, eat more, earn more, and speak more. The concept of not worshipping one’s leader is foreign. The idea of choice in a supermarket is strange, and the danger and fear of stepping out of place is crippling.

Bremmer takes this isolation as indication that North Korea is firmly near the top of the little lip on the left side of the J-Curve. It is stable, but only because it is so closed. Following his logic, opening the country will lead to increasing instability, but also increased openness, eventually leading to the creation of an open and stable country. To do this, he draws an analogy with Romania under Ceaucescu—a similarly closed country, Romania went from closed to open in a matter of days. It’s that simple, Bremmer says: just keep pushing, even if in minor ways, and the country will just turn inside out!

Serious readers of North Korea, however, will find the concept laughable. The cult of the Kims, for example, is stronger and far more pervasive than the cult of Ceaucescu ever was. Romania allowed tourism and had some minor economic relations with western countries going back into the 70’s. North Korea never has, though there is some promise in their new policy of allowing tourists to see the Mass Games. Similarly, Romania was within easy broadcasting range of fully capitalist societies, and did not have the massive army or offensive weapons North Korea does: if the country fell into madness like Yugoslavia, there were no nuclear weapons to worry about, nor was there a million-man army to disarm. And thanks to concerted efforts over decades by western agencies like Voice of America, Romanians had an inkling of life outside the Iron Curtain; all radios inside North Korea are soldered to state channels, leaving little opportunity for counter-propaganda.

Even more importantly, Romania was never part of a bifurcated state. Once the Kim dynasty falls, the North will want to integrate with the South, something neither country could sustain without total chaos and economic devastation. Unification in Germany, where the economies were several orders of magnitude closer in terms of productivity and income, still, almost two decades on, has a major dragging effect on Germany’s economy, as well as lingering social and fiscal problems the government has yet to solve. That distinction alone makes Romania a poor analogy, to say nothing of the other social problems at play.

In short, Bremmer grossly simplifies North Korea in pursuit of easy analogy. And I only know about this because I’ve studied North Korea in depth, though still not to any sort of academic standard—I have to assume his analysis of Cuba and Iraq are similarly sloppy. And that’s just in the first section of the book. Bremmer then tries to discuss how other countries can be pushed “down the slope” of the J-Curve—a deliberate push into instability and danger—to better open them up down the road.

Here, too, with Iran Bremmer misses the point: it’s not necessarily that the Ayatollahs are looking at a metric of stability and seeing how they can increase it; rather, it is far more likely they are looking at their religious beliefs and national pride and trying their best to promote them. I sincerely doubt the religious clerics are speculating that deliberate provocations will bring further sanctions and isolation, therefore strengthening their rule. It is rare (if that) for any leader, no matter his education or sophistication, to successfully pull off that kind of political calculus over a period of decades… and more importantly ignores basic human and national nature, which tends to be prideful and self-promoting. Iran gets a lot of cachet by standing up to America, and stability or no will probably continue to.

Indeed, it is far better to look at Iran through a somewhat cruder cost-benefit lens: when the religious clerics prefer piety to income, does economic liberalism help or hurt them? Clearly, if they care about keeping women veiled more than about fostering a middle class, dangling something like WTO membership (as Bremmer suggests) will have a laughable impact: rather than impressing on them the importance of opening up their economy, it is more likely they’ll just push back harder, interpreting increased incentives as weakness and desperation.

And that is the paradox Bremmer ultimately fails to address. He is absolutely right in noting that economic sanctions do nothing to advance American interests, and that rather than weakening a dangerous regime they tend to strengthen them. Bremmer is right, too, in noting that the American policy of isolation and threats is counterproductive. But he fails to mention the serious problems with his theories.

Take South Africa. By far the most conspicuous example of sanctions and isolation leading to positive change, Bremmer isolates it to a chapter titled “The Depths of the J Curve.” In it, he describes South Africa’s position up the left side of the curve under apartheid, and how President de Klerk eventually came to see liberalization as the only path towards a functional country. Bremmer seems to attribute South Africa’s change to a highly rational leadership, but again this misleading: for decades there had been an active, sometimes violent resistance movement. The ANC was internationally recognized as an oppressed political group, and Nelson Mandela had near universal sympathy for his imprisonment. The country was bankrupt both morally and economically and was rapidly collapsing, and the government did not have the tight hold on information and thought other countries Bremmer examines do.

In short, South Africa transitioned peacefully from authoritarian to democratic for precisely the reasons Bremmer says don’t work: a combination of international pressure, rational leadership, and more than a few pieces of luck. The country is lucky, for example, the oppressed black majority never went on a killing spree against the white minority, as has happened in neighboring Zimbabwe. While Bremmer says the combination of internal and external forces is probably right, he doesn’t draw the right conclusion from this: because the country had a multi-party political system, and a partially globalized economy, it felt the impact of sanctions far more than other countries. Similarly, the South African leadership did not enjoy being pariahs in the international system—they wanted to be a normal country.

So what next? How would you construct a policy that would allow a country to develop an internal pressure to change, combined with economic and social stigmas on the international level that will have an impact on the regime of a recalcitrant thug? Castro already enjoys a huge measure of admiration from western intellectuals. Iran enjoys the support of Shia Muslims around the world. North Korea has China and the South giving it unconditional food and economic aid. Burma faces no pressure to change.

Indeed, the conclusion Bremmer draws from South Africa is that it was lucky—lucky to have good leadership when it did, lucky to have a healthy and uncowed opposition, lucky to have the support and attention from key world powers. It was lucky, in his words, to have “favorable domestic and geopolitical circumstances and… the right leadership.” That’s great, and I’m sure we’re all glad South Africa didn’t implode. But what do we do about the rest?

Bremmer is love with the idea of managing transition. And that’s fine as far as it goes (it’ll give his firm a lot of money), but what about a country that begins transitioning before it has those favorable conditions? The U.S. invasion of Iraq shoved the country to the dip in the J Curve, and (since apparently the curve is porous) the country is on the verge of “falling off” and becomming a “failed state.” So what do we do? It was clearly too early to topple the regime, as the conditions for a stable and open country to emerge were not present. What now? How about North Korea? Moving the country to a functioning modern economy will take decades. How will an elected leader, who, in every western nation serves for less than one decade, plan out a transition policy? How would Burma be massaged into opening itself? China? Bremmer only offers a tepid “keep on pushing more openness.”

And that’s the big problem with such grand theories. Bremmer’s effort is admirable in that he uses case studies that incorporate a wide variety of geographical, social, and political realities; but it is this diversity that is also its weakness. How do you account for exceptions? How do you account for the fact that, in the end, all countries are themselves exceptions, unique in enough ways to prevent easy generalization? This is tied to my critique of political theory in general: the world is so astoundingly complex, grand theories like this are, at best, loose guides to understanding how processes shape reality. China is trying to “beat the curve,” achieve economic and political openness without instability. By pointing that out, Bremmer is showing that his model does not apply to its most conspicuous target, to say nothing of the dozen other case studies he chooses.

On a grander level, by trying to use the principles of Reaganomics in global policy (”demand-side geopolitical strategy”), Bremmer is being lazy. It is not a crime to look at trends and common experiences, but to draw from that some sort of universal rule is the heart of fatal arrogance. You cannot reliably predict human behavior, no matter how complex your math. Similarly, blithely trying to undermine aggressive, dangerous leaders like Kim Jong-il may lead to the very sort of confrontation Bremmer claims should no longer be necessary. What would a U.S. President do if Kim Jong-chul, the supposed successor to Kim Jong-il, gets angry with the constant attempts to send in working radios, used cell phones, and VCRs, and decides to cross the DMZ? What if he begins openly selling missile technology, or even worse, nuclear materials?

The J Curve is a good enough introduction to international analysis, and good for getting a broad foundation in policy. But on anything other than a grand level, it fails. Like other Americans trying to find a solution to global problems, Bremmer favors action over inaction, assuming that “something must be done.” That’s both true and false: doing something can often mean doing nothing. As I’ve said before, Americans favor actions to sentiment. Such bias has a bad tendency to lead to disastrous action when inaction would have served our interests much better, like in Iraq. Is it worth triggering yet more crisis on the Korean peninsula, or is it better to phase out our involvement and let Korea and China solve their own problems? Are we better served by collapsing a country like Cuba, or letting the Cubans (and Americans) make their own choices? Bremmer sees these ultimate questions of national interest as peripheral—though he claims not to write a book on policy (merely “understanding”), he not only offers policy prescriptions throughout, but cleverly avoids answering the tough questions that accompany them.

In the end, no one is served by such incomplete, and frankly lazy, analysis.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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James January 5, 2009 at 11:34 am

Hey, take it easy on FP – they are probably all still really broken up about losing Huntington. That’s like Cato Institute losing Milton Friedman.

Joshua Foust January 5, 2009 at 11:45 am

James, I’d agree with you except for the fact that they made these hiring decisions long before Huntington died.

James January 12, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Ah, I see. Well Moises Naim never said he was smart … wait a minute, he might have actually said that a few times.

James January 12, 2009 at 6:15 pm

By the way, wouldn’t you consider Stephen Walt as an outsider opinion on foreign policy? It seems rare to find many in the United States willing to question the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. policy (and he and Mearsheimer have certainly suffered the consequences).


Joshua Foust January 12, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Wait, a famous Harvard professor who invented an entire school of thought in foreign policy and has written four books and hundreds of articles? Who sits or has sat on the editorial board of International Security, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Security Studies, Foreign Policy (since 1997, BTW), CIAO, International Relations, World Politics, and is an article referee for many others?

No, I really wouldn’t call him an outsider. He took an unpopular position but Steven Walt is hardly a foreign policy outsider. He is the very definition of the establishment.

LESD January 16, 2009 at 11:45 am

You really missed the point on the J Curve. It doesn’t argue, as you say, that outsiders should “just keep pushing [North Korea], even if in minor ways, and the country will just turn inside out.” That’s a ridiculous caricature of the argument I found in the book.

Its argument on countries like NK is simply that states that are stable mainly because they’re isolated will become dangerously unstable as they begin to open up. There is no guarantee that the country will survive the transition and become Sweden in a matter of days, as you suggest. As the book’s author points out, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union did not survive the transition.

And your comments on Iran….about “the Ayatollahs” and “keeping women veiled” suggest you know even less about Iran than you do about North Korea.

Finally, the attack on FP sounds like the whining of a kid who wasn’t invited to sit at the cool kid’s table.

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