Toward a Fresh Foreign Policy
How a simple 'J curve' can help policymakers open up closed regimes
Last December, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned western music from state-run television and radio. In mid-May, his government unveiled plans to increase the number of jamming stations capable of disrupting satellite broadcasts from abroad. Two weeks later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again threatened Iran with "isolation from the international community."
Who can isolate Iran faster: the U.S. State Department or the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps? This question goes to the heart of failed U.S. policies toward a number of repressive states. U.S. policy toward North Korea makes the point. The U.S. government insists that if the North Korean government would dismantle its nuclear program, Washington would support the integration of Kim Jong Il's regime into the international community. If it refuses, Washington will, in Rice's words, "further deepen North Korea's isolation."
But the survival of Kim's regime depends on its ability to isolate North Korea and to hide the extent of the country's decay from its people. Decades of catastrophic economic policies, institutionalized brutality, and revenue funneled directly to the country's military have crippled North Korea's ability to feed its citizens. As many North Koreans have died of starvation and related diseases since 1995 as North and South Koreans died during the Korean War. Of course, very few North Koreans know this.
If they fully understood the harm their government has done them, could see firsthand the living standards enjoyed in South Korea and Japan, and could communicate more freely, the regime might not survive the backlash. Kim knows this. Threatening him with isolation is like threatening a drowning man with a lifeboat.
According to the New York Times, when DVD players became widely available in China in 2003, Chinese merchants sold discarded VCRs to North Koreans along the border. South Korean soap operas became so popular that Kim's regime warned citizens not to adopt South Korean slang and hairstyles. Cellular relay stations along the border have allowed some North Koreans to use Chinese-made cellphones to call people in South Korea. Kim reportedly ordered the creation of a special prosecutor's office to deal with the problem. The architects of American foreign policy need a new framework with which to understand authoritarian regimes, one that reveals how U.S. policymakers can use globalization to open these states to the outside world. The "J curve" offers just such a framework.
Imagine a graph on which the vertical axis measures a country's stability and the horizontal axis measures its social and economic openness. Each nation appears as a data point on the graph.
These data points produce a pattern very much like the letter J. Nations to the left of the dip in the J are less open; nations to the right are more open. Nations higher on the graph are more stable; those that are lower are less stable.
"Openness" is a measure of the extent to which a state allows people, ideas, information, goods, and services to freely cross its borders. Openness also refers to the flow of information and ideas within a country's borders.