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The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall

Q&A With Ian Bremmer

Q: One of the central tenets of THE J CURVE is that we're not properly dealing with authoritarian regimes and their leaders because we don't truly understand how they define their interests. Can you elaborate?

A: Any leader of any government has as their first goal the stability and continuity of their own governance--their ability to continue to rule. If you're the leader of a stable democracy that means you're going to want to continue integrating your country into the global order and improving the educational level and economic well-being of your people. And you'd tend to respond to outside incentives to do keep that going. But in authoritarian countries--in the most threatening rogue states--leaders accomplish their goal of remaining in power not by educating their population or improving their country's integration into the broader global community but rather by furthering their country's isolation and keeping it there.

Every week we see headlines about President Bush, Condi Rice, and various European leaders expressing a policy toward rogue states that amounts to a variation of "If these guys don't behave we'll isolate them." Well, that makes sense if you're an adult talking to a child. But what they don't understand is that's precisely what the leaders of authoritarian countries need to stay in power. I'm not saying that the U.S. is wrong in what it's trying to do, or that the goals of the Bush administration (or the Clinton administration before it) are malevolent or wrong-headed. America has long stood for individual rights and freedoms, liberty, openness, and economic prosperity. Those are all great goals. But we're being increasingly challenged all around the globe and it's vitally important we get things right. Unfortunately the policies and incentives that we and the international community have been using to deal with these crises are not working; they're not resolving the conflicts because they're based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates the leaders of countries in the developing world with which we have the greatest problems. And these problems will only get bigger as the energy crisis deepens and as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons technology increases. We ignore this misunderstanding at our peril.

Q: Why exactly are sanctions so ineffective?

A: Effective sanctions serve no purpose (and by "effective" I mean sanctions that the U.S. can get the international community to buy into, as opposed to, say, the U.S. sanctions on Iran which the international community essentially ignores.) The end result of these sanctions is that targeted countries have less access to the world. They're closed off from a certain level of economic interaction. In that kind of environment, and particularly in an authoritarian state, what typically happens is that the limited measure of goods and services that do come into the country get controlled by the regime's leader, making that person even more important. At the same time the cross-pollenization of ideas and communication and international standards outside the country have no way of getting in.

Look at Iran today. The U.S. and Europe need to recognize that they have two goals with Iran. One is to prevent them from developing nukes and the other is to change the Iranian regime. The first goal may be impossible to attain. And to the extent that it is possible, limited international inspections as well as constraints--with Russian cooperation--on selling the Iranians nuclear relevant goods and technologies may potentially be effective. As to the second goal, the best way to do that is to globalize the country. Wire it. Invest more in it. Allow more travel to Tehran and more Iranians to travel to other places. Encourage more foreign direct investment into the country. Do everything you can to increase the capacity for the average Iranian to be aware of how the developed world functions. The reason North Korea continues to be run by a ruthless dictator is that he has hermetically sealed his country off. There's essentially no way into that country, no defectors, no information getting in or out. The average North Korean doesn't have a clue as to what things are like in the out side world. Similarly, there's a reason why the world's longest serving head of state (at least until the recent transfer of power) is in Cuba. And a large part of the reason is U.S. sanctions. I want to emphasize, once again, it's not because the U.S. is being malevolent or because our goals are somehow impure. The point is not that the U.S. wants to do the wrong thing with Cuba, but rather that the mechanism we're using to implement our goals is not actually punishing Castro but rather helping him maintain his grip on power.

Q: Why do you say a descent toward instability in Saudi Arabia is virtually inevitable?

A: Saudi Arabia is facing a demographic disaster. With a high birthrate and virtually no family planning its population is growing at a radical rate. And while the country's energy resources are enormous its economy has never really diversified beyond the energy industry. That's not changing anytime soon. The way they've been able to hold the country together so far has been by using that oil money for unprecedented amounts of state sponsored patronage. This ensures the loyalty and dependence of local leaders, creates temporary make-work projects to appease the angry unemployed, and buys off the regime's critics. But over time per capita income has declined and a significant percentage of the population lives below the poverty line.

The country is slowly moving in the direction of becoming a normal developed state. They're trying to join the World Trade Organization, improve education, improve the political process, and bring women into the workplace. But these moves will also sow the seeds of instability. Saudi Arabia has always functioned with an iron hand. Dissent was never tolerated. (You get the benefit but you also don't question it.) The more you provide education and open the country to the global economy--things that will allow the Saudis to survive long term--the more you also free the government's grip on dissent. That's a real problem in a country where per capita income is slipping, where the population of young people is growing, where there are no jobs for them, and where their only opportunities to find a place for themselves are in Wahhabi-controlled schools and mosques run by men well armed with money and influence who are at war with the modern world. It's a sure-fire recipe for instability.

Q: What is the lesson of the J curve as far as Iraq is concerned?

A: U.S. policymakers should never have had to choose between the best of three bad options: counterproductive sanctions, capitulation, or a costly war that left U.S. troops to play a principal role in rebuilding Iraq's stability. The lesson of the J curve is that a process of creating opportunities for ordinary Iraqis to profit from access to the resources of the outside world would have destabilized Saddam at less cost to both the Iraqi people and to the United States. To be fair, it's not realistic to believe George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton could have made an effective political case for punishing Saddam by extending Iraq an invitation to join the WTO. Nonetheless, policies that provided resources and created opportunities for Iraqis to interact as fully as possible with the outside world and with one another might have forced Saddam to contend with pressures for change from within Iraq. U.S. policies designed to isolate North Korea and Cuba have led to the same false choice: capitulation or costly confrontation.

Q: Let's stipulate that national security arguments merited the removal of Saddam Hussein immediately and didn't afford the U.S. the time to engage Iraq in a longer-term approach to destabilize Hussein's regime. What insight does the J Curve give us that would have helped the U.S. manage the post-Saddam Iraq? What should the Bush administration have done differently after Hussein's government fell?

A: Iraq basically fell off the curve once Hussein was removed. There was suddenly a power vacuum, a complete absence of governance. The question for the Bush administration would be how to create the conditions where political institutions, representative of the Iraqi people, could take root. Starting effectively from scratch, in a territory without a single collective sense of nation, that's a Herculean task - but one that clearly was going to take a very long time - a matter of a decade or more. So the Bush administration would have needed to think along that time scale from the beginning, in terms of international funding for reconstruction; responsibility for local and central governance; and security measures. The J curve tells you that the move up the right of the curve, even in propitious conditions, is a long process. The U.S. is learning the lesson of that in Iraq today.

Q: What is the connection you draw in the book between the war on terror and the war on drugs?

A: America's war on drugs has never yielded the hoped-for results because the clear majority of resources devoted to winning it have been focused on combating the supply of drugs--at the expense of efforts to lower demand (through treatment or rehabilitation.) Seventy-five percent of the $40 billion spent on the drug war over the past two decades has gone to destroying crops, capturing or killing cartel members, and locking up dealers. But the suppliers of drugs can always find new vendors to peddle their wares. Why? Because there is demand. And where there's demand there'll always be supply. It is precisely on this supply-side principle that the U.S. risks losing the war on terror. There is demand for terrorism in parts of the Muslim world. Unfortunately there are also plenty of undereducated, underemployed, angry young Muslims willing to supply that demand--willing to surrender their lives in exchange for an outlet for their anger and a sense of pride and purpose. These men have little stake in the success of their nations. They have little hope of lawfully altering their fates. If this or that Al Qaeda captain is captured or killed, a young Muslim looking for a war will find another officer to enlist him. Just as a drug-dealer can always find a new street corner on which to pedal his product, bin Laden moved from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan. And when he's finally captured or killed, those who demand a champion to lead the terrorist jihad will create a new leader. Clearly the real war that has to be fought is the battle to decrease the demand.

Unfortunately the current strategy for both the war on drugs and the war on terror assumes that the devotion of overwhelming resources to a steady stream of high-profile victories over the suppliers of drugs or terrorism is the only way to show tangible, consistent progress: high-profile arrests, infrastructure destroyed, "bad guys" slain. The patient methodical work of reducing demand for drugs and terrorism doesn't make the men who wage the war any more popular with their electorates. Demand-side strategy has therefore been neglected. But it is precisely that effort, combined with the continuation of an aggressive strategy to bring to justice the purveyors of drugs and terrorism that will bring change from within the troubled societies that produce them.

Q: Isn't that change of "troubled societies" exactly what the Bush administration's policy in the Mideast hopes to achieve? And isn't the increase in instability across the region a natural by-product of moving from the left to the right side of the J Curve?

A: The increase of instability in the Middle East is precisely the natural by-product of moving from the left to the right side of the J curve. But that doesn't mean the states will get there.

If the present regimes tumble as a consequence of existing demands and frustrations, unleashed by a combination of political reforms and globalization, but don't have the education or the economic wherewithal to build representative institutions, the regimes that replace them will push their countries right back to the right. This is what came from elections in Algeria. It is what would likely come from free elections, were they held, in Saudi Arabia today.

Q: Does that mean that the "change" we seek always has to come from "within" a society to be successful, and if so, does that rule out aggressive intervention in trying to spur the desired change the U.S. seeks, that in turn will work to reduce the "demand" for terrorism?

A: Shocks to a system can come from anywhere. In today's world, with information and people streaming across borders, it's increasingly difficult to separate out purely domestic from international influences. Radio Free Liberty, among many other organizations, accomplished that in the cold war, for example. The bolder and more obvious the shock comes from outside the system, the more the danger of domestic backlash, and thinking about military intervention should keep that in mind.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His new book, "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall," is out this week from Simon & Schuster. He can be reached via e-mail at

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