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Why Nations Rise and Fall - Part II

Q&A With Ian Bremmer

Last week RealClearPolitics ran Part I one of our Q&A with Dr. Ian Bremmer, author of the just released The J Curve. Below is Part II.

Q: Why is it important that we understand what the J curve is?

A: At its heart the J curve explains how national decision makers define their interests and make their choices, and how those choices effect the rest of the world, so it's hardly surprising that you literally can't turn on the news today, or open a newspaper, without seeing something that the J curve can explain. If you really want to understand why our gas prices are so high in the summer when we all try to go on vacation, why there have been layoffs in your home town caused by U.S outsourcing, the real story behind the current conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, or how we could impact what happens next in Cuba with succession looming, you need to understand the J curve, how it works, and what it reveals. The J curve is not just for foreign policy types or business execs. It applies to what is happening on the front pages of our newspapers every day and it affects us all.

Q: Why do you feel America's Cold-War strategies hold the key to winning the war on terror?

A: During the Cold War, Western governments used every means at their disposal--military, diplomatic, cultural, economic, and social--to help open Communist-bloc states and to undermine both the Soviet supply of Communism and the demand for it from within Soviet satellites, the USSR itself, and the developing world. The former Warsaw Pact countries aren't democracies today because America imposed democracy from the outside. In fact, the U.S. never directly attacked the suppliers of Communism by invading a country under Moscow's direct control. The former Warsaw Pact states embraced democracy because they wanted democracy. The West contained the advance of Communism successfully enough and long enough for reformist forces inside the Soviet Union and Communist-bloc countries to unravel the fortress mentality of their closed societies. If such an achievement were possible in the effort to open other authoritarian states from within, the results would bring more global stability than a dozen successful military regime changes, each of which might be prohibitively expensive in terms of money and lives, and each of which might produce terrible unforeseen consequences.

Q: 9/11, and subsequent attacks in Europe, has helped create a bit of a siege mentality. That in turn has provoked calls for limits on immigration--essentially for the establishment of the U.S. and EU as "gated communities," protected by a security perimeter that keeps outsiders out. Why do you consider this an unwise strategy?

A: There's no doubt that Homeland Security needs to continue focusing on keeping terrorists out of America. The same goes for security forces in the European Union. Anyone who could have blocked the entry into the U.S. of the 9/11 hijackers would have done so without hesitation, even if it meant excluding a thousand innocent Saudis or Egyptians or Pakistanis as well. But we also need to recognize that at the end of day one of the few things that creates a stronger level of relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and the like is that a large number of their sons have been educated in this country. They've lived with average Americans. They have a sense of what life is really like here. And some of them are going to translate those experiences into working at home for political and economic reform. It's going to be a huge problem if those countries end up with a generation of leaders whose only experience of the U.S. is what they see in the media. There are also economic implications to the notion of closing our borders to outsiders. The U.S. has always attracted the best and brightest from around the world--top engineers, software designers, scientists and the like. There's a price to pay--that others such as China will gladly take advantage of--if we allow that to stop in the interest of keeping outsiders out. And finally, if the vast majority of would-be immigrants from Muslim countries are denied access to the U.S., if the European Union demonstrates to the Muslim world that Europe is a Christians-only club, demand in the Muslim world for terrorism and Islamist authoritarianism will surely grow. Left to their own devices, the citizens of states excluded from globalization's benefits will turn to the only widely practiced method of leveling the global playing field available to them: insurgency and terror.

Q: According to the book, if the key to averting disaster in today's world is stability, shouldn't we stop pushing for political reform in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt and other countries on the left side of the J curve that are at least somewhat friendly to U.S. interests?

A: There are a number of authoritarian regimes around the world that are quite stable and yet you wouldn't want them to stay in place in the long-term because they still represent a global threat. There are other authoritarian regimes that are likely to become deeply destabilized because of the process of globalization. This is true of much of the Arab world where regimes at present have been quite stable and friendly to international interests but are not likely to persevere in their present form for another generation. Take Pakistan for example. What happens if Musharraf dies? Consolidated authoritarian regimes typically have stability invested in one leader or a small coterie of leaders. When they destabilize they destabilize very quickly. So in both those cases it behooves the international community to try to prepare for better outcomes. Not taking a decision and ignoring the problem has widespread implications for our national interests, particularly in an age of weapons of mass destruction and transnational terrorism where the damage such states can do on the way down is unprecedented in human history.

Q: What does the J curve have to say about the current situation in Lebanon?

A: As a country moves from left to right on the curve you're going to find entrenched interests that see themselves as losing. What happened in Lebanon is that the radical wing of Hezbollah saw the more moderate integrationist wing becoming part and parcel of governance in Beirut. They knew that if that were to continue Lebanese society would be better off economically but their political careers--their ability to hold sway and influence events--would be finished. After seeing Israel's response to the kidnapping of a single solder in Gaza it was clear to them that the taking of two Israeli soldiers (and the killing of at least eight others) would lead to an overwhelming Israeli military reaction and that's exactly why they did it. They were already on the back foot in Lebanon: the U.N. Security Council had passed resolutions calling for their disarmament and one of their key supporters, Syria, had been kicked out of the country. They're not on the back foot anymore.

Q: How does the J curve explain the success of sanctions in South Africa?

A: I think part of the answer is the South African government did not want to be completely isolated; they didn't want to be an authoritarian state. They were keeping a significant portion of their population out of governance but they recognized they needed international investment to survive. And they recognized if they continued what they were doing they were going to fall apart no matter what. South Africa never made it to totalitarian and was never going to get there. They knew for their survival they needed a certain level of engagement or investment, so cutting off the international community wasn't an option like it was for Cuba, Turkmenistan, Albania or North Korea.

Another interesting point to make here involves China, which has been buffeted by increasing openness. They recognize it causes them instability--and so they're trying to slow it down--but they also want to grow economically. The very same factors that make China more interesting to investors and which are helping their economy to grow are also destabilizing that regime. And they're caught. It's not yet clear whether economic growth or political tensions will eventually win out. But both are growing. China may be a lot like South Africa in that regard. It may be that they'll make it through with fundamental changes to the nature of their regime. But they may also fall apart. Or they could try to go back to being a much more authoritarian state and lose some of their economic growth. The J curve tells you what your options are. If you're on the far left of the curve you have to have isolation to keep it all together. South Africa wasn't on the far left of the curve.

Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?

A: I think they'll be surprised at how global it is, and how consistently its arguments apply over space and time. These are processes that have affected nations and empires throughout history. And although I do a detailed analysis of just twelve countries, I actually write about more than 90 countries in the book.

Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?

A: I want them to be able to see the world in a new way. When they're reading their newspapers, watching TV, listening to the radio I hope they'll see applications of the J curve around them in the world. I hope they'll say, "I get it! I hadn't thought about it in that way before but it makes sense." That's what a good book does. It shouldn't just confirm what you know it should make you think about the world in new ways. If The J Curve succeeds in doing that then I've done my job.

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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