Here’s how the world works

Telegraph | News | Here’s how the world works
A new catchphrase is buzzing its way around the political salons of Washington and New York. Move over, “tipping point”.

The “J curve” is an explanation for the way the world works that is so simple that you can draw it on the back of a paper napkin.

Meanwhile, the J curve fascinates the dinner-party bluffers who, five years ago, bored everyone senseless by explaining Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (a groundbreaking study of social epidemics which was able to explain why, for example, American teenagers suddenly rushed to the shops to buy Hush Puppies).

J curve graph

How does the curve work? The J is suspended between a vertical axis, “stability”, and a horizontal axis, “openness” (to both political and economic reforms).

At the top left of the graph are totalitarian dictatorships. North Korea is the classic example. At the top right are Western democracies, such as the United States and Britain. “Think about the presidential election here in 2000,” says Bremmer. “The other guy got more votes, the result was decided by a controversial Supreme Court vote, and what happened? Nothing. That’s stability.”

The world would be a much safer place if countries could leap across the top of the graph, staying stable while introducing democracy and free markets. But that is not what happens. Although dictatorships can be amazingly stable – Castro has been in power since Eisenhower’s presidency – the moment the prison door swings open, things fall apart.

Authoritarian states or command economies typically move down the J curve once their citizens taste freedom. And the downwards slope is usually pretty steep. The climb to the sunny uplands of free-market democracy, by contrast, is a painfully slow business. The slope may be gentle, but the journey can take decades, if it is completed at all.

The state that really worries Bremmer is Iran. A few years ago, Teheran seemed to be moving from the bottom of its curve towards democracy: liberals won seats in parliamentary elections, while young people were visibly embracing Western values. “It’s hard to believe that, not long ago, Iran was the third most liberal regime in the Middle East,” says Bremmer.

Nothing covers up a surreptitious slide back up the J curve more effectively than an outbreak of popular nationalism. But Iran remains a semi-democracy – which means that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs must work hard to sustain the mood.

China thought it could beat the J curve, jumping from closed stability to open stability. Now it is finding out that this is not possible, and the smell of panic is spreading. “The state employs 50,000 security officials whose sole charge is to monitor chat rooms and to police the internet,” says Bremmer. “But they’ll be busy. There are 100,000 new internet users in China every day.”

And that brings us to the tricky subject of Russia. “After the end of the Soviet Union, Russia seemed headed towards the right side of the curve,” says Bremmer. “Then, thanks to a combination of mismanagement in Moscow and lack of commitment from America, we lost the plot. Putin has led Russia back to the left-hand side.” Towards stability? That depends. The scariest passage in The J Curve is where Bremmer discusses Russia and terrorism.

“Russia is the only country in the world with the combination of unaccounted-for radiological material, specialised scientists who are significantly underpaid, and well-organised terrorist groups,” he writes.

In other words, pundits who expect the world’s first “dirty bomb” to explode in an American city centre could be looking in the wrong place. No wonder the Russians are rediscovering their taste for authoritarian government.

“What we need to realise is that, if the world moves faster, then the speed with which things go wrong picks up,” explains Bremmer. “Terrorists need less and less space in which to operate – and the people who commit atrocities are by no means highly trained operatives enmeshed in a global conspiracy.”


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