The Valley of Transition

The idea of a “J-curve”, that is, that societies, polities, economies, in transitioning to other, more modern, more democratic social states, will find that things get worse, before they get better. Ever since Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, this trajectory is seen by many political scientists to hold most strongly in democratizing societies. So, democracies may be more peaceful than authoritarian states, but democratizing societies are severly volatile. Others have seen the transition problem is socialism to capitalism, and capitalism to socialism, as well. In the transition, new institutions have yet to emerge and become effective, even as demands escalate. Thus, a heavy hand is needed in the transition. Bill Emmott and Fareed Zakaria discuss the issue in the wake of Ian Bremmer’s new book, The J-Curve. In Slate:

Bremmer’s target—quite like yours, Fareed, in The Future of Freedom—is the all-too-common notion that there is a smooth and even inevitable path that countries follow from dictatorship to democracy, along which others can readily nudge them. The Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” is only the latest example of this delusion. The troops invading Iraq, remember, were to be greeted by cheering crowds throwing flowers.

We all know far too well that even if some did cheer, many threw bombs. Bremmer’s chart explains why. It maps two things: stability, on the y axis, and openness, both internal and to the world, on the horizontal x axis.* Bremmer’s argument is that history shows that the most stable countries are often also the most closed: North Korea, Cuba, China under Mao, Soviet Russia. But as countries become more open, they generally become more unstable in the first instance, as existing institutions are challenged and undermined, and the old power holders lose their grip. Only as and if new institutions are built and gain legitimacy, credibility, and power will stability rise again. Hence the J. There is nothing inevitable about escape from the unstable bottom of the curve: The country could move in either direction.

I found this a useful representation of what happens as institutions and regimes change and, certainly, a salutary warning against the view that democracy will grow as naturally as flowers in the spring. The book’s main interest for me, however, lay not so much in the chart that gives it its title but in the fine and revealing case studies that Bremmer lays out to establish how complicated the political form of states really is. He outlines the situations in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and China adeptly and looks also at countries, such as South Africa, that have made a successful transition to democracy; at others, such as India, where democracy has survived seemingly against the odds; and at Russia, where democracy has lately been foundering. The conclusion? That there is no clear rule that can guide us in judging which countries will move up the J curve and which will not. It all depends. Societies are fragile and complex organisms.