The Call

Call: As go the Maldives, so goes the world

By Ian Bremmer Three years ago, I wrote a book called The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. The J curve is a visual representation of the relationship between a country’s "stability" and its "openness." Stability is a measure of a government’s ability to weather a crisis. Openness is ...

By Ian Bremmer

Three years ago, I wrote a book called The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. The J curve is a visual representation of the relationship between a country’s "stability" and its "openness." Stability is a measure of a government’s ability to weather a crisis. Openness is a measure of the extent to which ideas, information, people, money, goods and services flow freely across a state’s borders and within the country itself.

Some states (North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and others) are stable only because they’re relatively closed. In these countries, a governing elite works hard to isolate citizens from the outside world — and, where possible, from one another. Other countries (Canada, Italy, India, Germany, the United States, Japan, Norway and dozens of others) are stable precisely because they’re open.

When a country that is stable only because it is closed finally begins to open up, it slides down the left side of the curve toward the dip in the J, a point of maximum instability. You can’t move from left (closed) to right (open) along the J without passing through that dip. In the real world, that means that if relatively closed countries like Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, or Burma decided to open up a bit by holding genuinely free and fair national elections with full coverage in local media, they would almost certainly reap the whirlwind. That’s why the governments of closed states work so hard to keep them closed.

Which brings us, of course, to the Maldive Islands.

The Republic of Maldives is best known as an absurdly beautiful string of pearls adorning the Indian Ocean about 400 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. It’s a nation composed of more than a thousand small islands in danger of slipping beneath the waves as global warming raises sea levels.

Last weekend, the country’s foreign minister, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, discussed The J Curve during an interview to illustrate why his former political party, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), will plunge the country into chaos while his new party, the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), will help the country avoid this risk. Here’s an excerpt of what he said:

"The J-Curve … speaks of countries which are autocratic and undemocratic and when they democratize, they go through a J-Curve and you go through a little dip. That dip is when things are unstable and things are a bit chaotic but then you eventually improve to become more stable.

So we are in an unstable period. The danger is in some countries, they move back towards the left and go straight back to autocracy. So if DRP comes back in we’ll go back towards the left of the curve. And we can forget about democracy for the next 30 years because they will tell us that democracy produced a government that didn’t work.

I cite this comment for two reasons. First, it’s kind of gratifying to have a country’s foreign minister like your work — and help make an argument that you believe in. Second, and more to the point, though I don’t entirely share Dr. Shaheed’s view that an authoritarian country can’t become more open to the rest of the world (so far so good for China), he’s making a point that applies awfully well to the risks that the global financial crisis now poses for dozens of countries around the world.

Worsening economic conditions have exacerbated pre-existing political problems in Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina and many other countries. All these states have begun to slide toward the dip in the J curve and the turmoil it represents. And all those who hold political power in these countries must decide how their governments should respond. They can hunker down, build new walls, and favor near-term stability at the expense of investment in longer-term prosperity. Or they can double down on the power of free markets and international trade to expand their economic horizons and continue to engage with other governments in finding solutions to seemingly intractable common problems. 

There is nothing inevitable about globalization’s progress. There are plenty of political officials around the world, insecure in their positions, with obvious motives to advance populist/nationalist/protectionist arguments at the expense of trade, foreign investment, and immigration. But if a state’s leaders and lawmakers turn their backs on the increasingly free exchange of ideas, information, people, money, goods and services, its citizens — and the global economy — will only be the poorer for it.  

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