Today's date:
Winter 2007

The J Curve

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and author The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He can be reached via e-mail at

New York — New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s argument that the world has become “flat,” that emerging markets have emerged and billions of new participants are now joining the global economy, is an appealing one. We all want to believe that the latest wave of globalization has given everyone a stake in global stability. But many countries are still burdened with governments that isolate their citizens from the outside world. For these states, and the people held hostage within them, the world isn’t flat. It’s J-curved.

The J curve is a tool that reveals what it is that makes a country stable—and how likely it is to remain that way. It is a visual representation of the relationship between a country’s stability and its “openness.” Stability refers to the ability of a country’s government to weather a political, economic or social crisis. Openness is a measure of the extent to which people, ideas, information, goods and services flow freely in both directions across a state’s borders and within the country itself.

In an open state, citizens can place an international telephone call, use the Internet and travel abroad without restriction. They have access to reliable information about events elsewhere in the country and are free to discuss them publicly. These are the states that can plug into the global economy as Friedman has described. The government of a closed state, on the other hand, does not recognize these freedoms as rights.

Some countries (the United States, France, Japan and others) are stable because they are open. Other states ( North Korea, Iran, Cuba and others) are stable precisely because they remain closed. In each of these countries, a governing elite has isolated citizens from the outside world and from one another.

Imagine a graph on which the vertical axis measures a state’s stability and the horizontal axis measures its openness. Each nation appears as a point on the graph. Taken together, these points produce a pattern very much like the letter J. Nations higher on the graph are more stable; those lower are less stable. Nations to the right of the dip in the J are more open. Those to the left are less open.

As a country that is stable because it is closed begins to open, it moves down the left side of the curve toward the dip in the J, the point of greatest instability. If Saudi Arabia, China or Uzbekistan (left-side states) had free and fair national elections next week, they would almost certainly produce nationwide chaos—less a Norman Rockwell painting than one by Hieronymus Bosch.

That’s why the governments of closed states want to keep them closed. Last December, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned Western music from state-run television and radio. This spring, his government announced plans to increase the number of jamming stations capable of disrupting satellite broadcasts from abroad from 50 to 300 within two years. Last month, the government acknowledged that it filters public access to some 10 million Web sites. State censorship of the press and harassment of journalists are common.

North Korea’s isolation is far more extreme, but no longer impenetrable. According to a March 2005 report in The New York Times, the construction of cellular relay stations along the Chinese side of the North Korean border has allowed some North Koreans to use Chinese-made cell phones to call family members (and journalists) in South Korea and Japan—and to ask for phones that take photographs. The state reportedly conducts border patrols with Japanese-made equipment capable of tracking cell-phone calls. Nothing frightens Kim Jong-Il more than that his people might discover what’s been done to them.

Yet the Bush administration seems determined to give the rulers of Iran and North Korea precisely what they want: deeper isolation. Just as sanctions helped Saddam Hussein control virtually all the cash entering Iraq, and the US embargo has helped Fidel Castro persuade Cubans that Americans are their enemies, so attempts to further isolate Iran and North Korea strengthen their authoritarian leaders’ grip on power.

Iran’s ruling clerics draw their ruling mandate from the glories of a revolution that 70 percent of Iranians are too young to remember. Much of Iran’s youth resents government efforts to enforce rigid standards of public behavior and to cut them off from contact with the West. The mullahs know they can’t compete with Western culture for the hearts and minds of all these young people. That’s why they’re buying jamming equipment.

The survival of Kim Jong-Il’s neo-Stalinist regime depends on its ability to hide North Korea from the outside world—and the outside world from North Koreans. Decades of failed economic policies, corruption and repression have crippled the country’s ability to feed its citizens without millions of tons of international food aid. Aid organizations estimate that as many North Koreans have died of starvation and related illnesses since 1995—2 million—as North and South Korean civilians died during the Korean War. Very few North Koreans know this, and Kim works hard to be sure they don’t hear about it. Threatening Kim Jong Il with isolation is like threatening a drowning man with a lifeboat.

On the other hand, the architects of US policy toward China seem to get it. Over the past two decades, China has opened economically and culturally to the outside world. Politically, however, China remains a police state.

The Chinese leadership continues to crush efforts at political pluralism. It has arrested journalists, closed thousands of Internet cafes and restricted the distribution of foreign newspapers. Any organization that the state fears might become a focal point of opposition is closely monitored.

This is a losing battle. Some 50,000 Chinese security officials do nothing but monitor domestic Internet traffic. But 100,000 Chinese jump online for the very first time every day. We know who’s going to win that race. US policymakers understand that China is too big to isolate, and they hope that by encouraging China to become what they call a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics the country will open to such an extent that the government can no longer keep it closed.

This is precisely the right policy: invite China to slowly open to the world until domestic demand for political change can no longer be contained. The US and other states on the right side of the J curve should take a similar approach toward Iran, North Korea, Cuba and other authoritarian states.