Debating The J Curve

The Eternal Conflict Between Openness and Stability
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 16 2006 1:02 PM

Debating The J Curve

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Bill,

You raise a grand question—one that deserves more than a quick response. But we're journalists, so this will have to do! We both agree that Bremmer's book is smart and his J curve persuasive. You ask if American foreign policy should try to push countries toward greater openness and stability. My short answer is yes, but it's enormously difficult to do because those two goals—openness and stability—are often in conflict, as the book points out. That means how you do this becomes as important as doing it. Or, as Louis Gerstner Jr. said of corporations, "strategy is execution." Having the commendable idea of pushing countries toward modernity means nothing if you don't know what you're doing. For examples of this, see Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Authority. But if you do it right, you get stable, progressive allies—see Germany and South Korea.

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Let me first explain my answer. America has always stood for the idea of a more open world, economically and politically. It also happens to be something that would serve America's long-term interests, creating a more dynamic world economy; more open, liberal societies; and foreign policy that is more amenable to negotiation rather than force. (I don't want to go into a long discussion of whether mature democracies ever go to war, but I think we would both agree that if Russia and China were governed as stable liberal, capitalist democracies with open societies, it would be easier to tackle the many conflicts of national interest between the West and them.)

Now, you raise two objections. First, you say that we were not really faithful to this idea during large chunks of the Cold War. Actually, I would argue that we were—in East Asia and Western Europe, where we supported and encouraged a movement toward open systems. There were places where we accepted, even installed, dictators. That was understandable as a short-term tactic, but it rarely helped our long-term strategy. The most powerful example of this mistake is the support for Arab tyrannies, which, over time, produced internal stagnation and dysfunction and, as a result, extreme religious opposition movements like al-Qaida. (I know, I know, but just because George Bush also says this doesn't mean it's not true.)

Your second objection is that Washington will necessarily have other interests that have to trump the push for openness. Yes, of course. The best example in the past was the opening to China. The best examples today are our alliances with such paragons of democracy as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, because they are rich in oil and gas and provide diversity from both the Middle East and Russia. But I would argue that over time, we should try, gently, to nudge them toward greater economic openness, then the rule of law, and finally toward political pluralism. Think of our policies in East Asia, where we began with unconditional support and, gradually, made it more conditional on economic and political reform. There will be outliers, but, as the saying goes, hard cases make bad law. I still think the general policy should be to gently and wisely push for reform.

As you kindly point out, my book, The Future of Freedom, makes an argument related to Bremmer's. I believe that this process of modernization can be achieved, but it is long, hard, and needs to be largely internally generated. We can help most by aligning ourselves with these forces. If there is a silver bullet for progress here, it is capitalism, not democracy, because capitalism revolutionizes societies from the ground up, destroying feudalism and tribalism. In particular, I think that the rapid move to elections before the institutions of liberty have been secured will often produce a bastard version of democracy—feudal, tribal, Balkanized—that creates the illusion of progress but not the reality. So, I applaud the Bush administration's gentler prodding of Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and even Kazakhstan (less prodding and less progress) and believe that history will show that it produced more progress than did the elections in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Now, may I ask you a question? The biggest real-world test of Bremmer's thesis is taking place right now in Asia. If he's right, India is a better long- and even medium-term bet than China. Is he correct? I look at China, which is doing so much economic and even social reform. Its strange free-market dictatorship is building world-class infrastructure—new schools, colleges, and universities; special economic zones; nuclear power plants—and is opening the economy and society to international trade. India, meanwhile, moves its reform process forward at a snail's pace, remaining in many ways well behind China, largely because it is a democracy and the government is busy subsidizing interest groups and voters. They're both doing fine, but China's economy is now three times the size of India's and grows about 2 percentage points faster. Will that change? I puzzle about this and am genuinely curious as to your response.

Fareed

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