Seven Habits of Successful Nations

Some unlikely places around the world are tackling some of the world’s toughest challenges and winning.

Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, is hardly sanguine about the state of the world. He points to “the slow-motion disintegration of Westphalian nation-states in multiple parts of the world” and “a growing weakness at the heart of the liberal, rules-based global order.” But he hasn’t given up hope. The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline sees Tepperman take a tour around successful interventions to deal with ten of the “toughest and most persistent challenges states have faced in the modern era,” put in place by “a tiny band of freethinking, often underrated leaders,” many of whom he interviewed for the book. The Fix suggests that such successes could be replicated, if other world leaders were willing to be as brave and freethinking as their colleagues.

The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline by Jonathan Tepperman Tim Duggan Books, 320 pp.The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline
by Jonathan Tepperman
Tim Duggan Books, 320 pp.

Tepperman’s enjoyable and informative book demonstrates the power of politicians to make the world a better place. It should be a welcome tonic for those who no longer believe that governments can do anything right anymore. But, if anything, the book is not positive enough. The Fix presents its case studies as exceptions to the norm of a world in decline. Instead, they should be considered fine illustrations of why we are seeing such widespread and unprecedented global progress.

The Fix begins with a grim recounting of recent miseries, from Iraq’s disintegration and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea to the global financial crisis and the near collapse of the Eurozone project. It quotes General Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggesting it is “the most dangerous time” in his life—impressive for a man born during the Korean War who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the attacks on the Twin Towers. Tepperman suggests that our present travails stem from the failure of leaders to address ten big problems: inequality, immigration, Islamic extremism, civil war, corruption, the resource curse, energy extraction, the middle-income trap, and gridlock (twice). And he argues that “while the details of all of the troubles currently wracking the world vary, they share an underlying cause: the failure of politicians to lead.”

The Fix provides scant justification for why these problems are the big ten planetary concerns, and some of them don’t belong on the list (climate and threats to global health are obvious additions, and below are suggestions for some that might be cut). Nor does the text really make the case that their solution would bring stability to the Eurozone or an end to Russian adventurism in the Ukraine. But the opening discussion is a convenient appetizer for the (succulent) meat of the book: chapters recounting successful attempts to foster peace, security, economic growth, and equality alongside multiculturalism and openness.

The first case study Tepperman presents involves Bolsa Familia (Family Grant), a Brazilian antipoverty program that gives cash payments to the poorest families in the country on the condition that their children be vaccinated and in school, and that both mothers and children get regular health checkups. The transfers provide poor people what they most need in order to be a little less poor—money—and the conditions both help make the program politically palatable and improve health and enrollments. Bolsa Familia has been a big factor in a decline in the country’s extreme poverty rate, from 9 percent at the program’s start in 2003 to less than 3 percent today. It has also played a role in dramatically reducing inequality. Over a similar period, school enrollments have climbed, Brazil’s infant mortality has declined by 40 percent, and deaths from malnutrition have fallen by more than half. All of this has come at a cost of around one-half of 1 percent of GDP. Bolsa Familia is a widely admired program, and former President Lula da Silva—despite  the allegations of corruption recently made against him—receives (and deserves) Tepperman’s plaudits.

Tepperman’s enjoyable and informative book demonstrates the power of politicians to make the world a better place. It should be a welcome tonic for those who no longer believe that governments can do anything right anymore.

Next on the list of solvable intractables is immigration policy. Canada has one of the highest per capita immigration rates in the world, with 20 percent of the country’s population foreign born. Yet it was still a photo opportunity rather than political suicide when the country’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, welcomed the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country saying, “You’re safe at home now.” Immigration has helped turn “a small, closed, ethnically homogeneous state into a vibrant global powerhouse and one of the most open and successful multicultural nations in the world,” suggests Tepperman, thanks to a long-lived and very deliberate strategy of promoting pluralism. Among other interventions, a billion-dollar budget to support pro-immigration documentaries, teaching aids, and community integration efforts helps to account for a country where 85 percent of the population thinks multiculturalism is important to the national identity and two-thirds feel that immigration is one of Canada’s key positive features.

The Fix also provides compelling case studies on security and stability. Indonesia has seen a significant decline in terrorist attacks while preserving democracy and fostering development, thanks to political leadership that has kept radicals “weak and off-guard.” Tepperman notes that the country has treated terrorism “more like a law-enforcement problem than a military one,” coopting more extreme parties rather than attempting to crush them, generally detaining suspects only when there is good evidence, holding public trials for those it seeks to imprison, and attempting to rehabilitate as well as incarcerate.

Tepperman also reports on Rwanda, which has rebounded from a genocide and civil war that killed or displaced more than 40 percent of the population, obliterated the civil service, and left the country with a per capita yearly income of just $217. President Paul Kagame went about rebuilding the country and attempting reconciliation by stripping all mention of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa ethnic groups from official texts. He introduced a transitional justice system based on a precolonial model that used elected local tribunals to combine confession, reconciliation, and punishment in dealing with the perpetrators of mass violence. The system heard nearly two million cases before it was dismantled in 2012. Thanks to peace, stability, and economic reform, per capita income in the country has tripled over a decade, and child mortality has fallen by more than two-thirds—a world record pace. Ninety-three percent of Rwandans report that they are confident about the direction of the country, according to Gallup. While far from a heaven on earth, the country is no longer a problem from hell, and those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, or Afghanistan would surely be delighted if you suggested that similar progress could be theirs over the next decade.

The Fix discusses other economic successes. Botswana has seen the fastest growth rate in the world over the thirty-five years of its independence, never suffering hyperinflation, recession, or famine, by successfully harnessing its immense diamond resource to the cause of development under effective democratic rule. South Korea has seen almost as rapid growth. Tepperman argues that this is thanks in part to leaders who have successfully implemented an industrialization strategy followed by reforms that have allowed efficiency and competition to drive creative destruction. And in 2012, Mexico undertook a rapid and far-reaching set of reforms under a bipartisan coalition that an expert quoted by Tepperman suggests was “the most ambitious process of economic reform seen in any country since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

To add to the list of problems that may appear insoluble but aren’t, The Fix includes chapters on Singapore’s successful anti-corruption efforts, the American shale revolution, which extracted previously inaccessible fossil fuels, and New York’s anti-terror policing, which may have helped keep the city safe after 9/11.

For all that these are cases of success, Tepperman is usually straightforward about the limitations of the stories he highlights. In the case of Rwanda, Kagame’s leadership is the subject of considerable debate, for example, and the transitional justice system is burdened with significant concerns over due process and plentiful examples of misuse of power to settle personal scores.

Nonetheless, The Fix is often a little too certain about what has worked. Was it the FBI, New York’s Finest, or something else entirely that should take the credit for the lack of a mass terror event in New York City since 2001, for example? And vital elements sometimes vary: The Fix suggests that high government salaries were an important part of the anti-corruption fight in Singapore, but that keeping government salaries low was an important part of avoiding wasteful spending in Botswana.

Tepperman does worry about this latter problem—what social scientists would term “external validity.” For example, he notes that Canada’s positive policies and attitude toward immigration are based in part on long-standing fears that the country was underpopulated and on the fact that undocumented immigration has rarely been a significant problem there. Many other countries don’t share those features. And if there is a lesson from Rwanda, it is that “local problems require local answers,” he writes. For all of that, some of the solutions are generalizable; the model used by Bolsa Familia, for example, has been used in many other countries to similar effect.

Tepperman’s preferred generalizable lessons of success regard leadership—specifically, the central role of Brazil’s Lula, Botswana’s Seretse Khama, and Singapore’s Lee. A final chapter suggests that the most important leadership components are pragmatism, not letting a good crisis go to waste, acting magnanimously from strength, and so on. Tepperman suggests that the reason many global leaders have not been able to achieve the success of the book’s case studies is that the leaders in question “haven’t yet found the wisdom and intestinal fortitude to do what’s necessary.”

Leadership vision and drive have an important role in tackling The Fix’s terrible ten. Changing the immigration system in the United States to be more generous would have a huge payoff, because immigrants add immense value to the economy (they do not, contrary to current right-wing conventional wisdom, steal jobs or raise crime rates). But rather than lead the fight on reform, we get “Trump and his quasi-fascist race-baiting” and European leaders who, instead of fighting bigotry, pander to it.

Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that if leadership is vital to progress, it must be far more common than The Fix implies. Bolsa Familia, for instance, is not a unique example of a large-scale conditional cash transfer program, nor even the first. Mexico’s Progresa program, later rebranded Oportunidades, began in 1997. Like Bolsa Familia, it provided cash to poor families on the condition that they send their kids to school and keep their shots up to date, and it has reduced poverty and improved health and learning. Today there are conditional cash transfers running in countries from Bangladesh to Jamaica and Indonesia and beyond. The growth of such programs may help to explain why average inequality in countries of the developing world has been fairly flat since 2000, and Brazil is not the only country in which it has rapidly declined. Mali and Peru both saw almost as fast reductions in inequality alongside more robust growth than Brazil managed—suggesting that they did even better at raising the incomes of their poorest citizens.

To the extent that political regimes are primarily (excessively) judged on their ability to produce jobs through economic growth and low inflation, it has been a fantastic fifteen years around much of the world. The average inflation worldwide during the first ten years of the new millennium was less than 8 percent, compared to 66 percent in the previous decade. Economic growth has been so widespread that the number of low-income countries (those with an annual GDP per capita of less than $1,005) fell from sixty-three to thirty-five between 2000 and 2010.

It isn’t just income and inequality: while Rwanda is indeed a world leader in reducing child mortality, five high-mortality countries managed to reduce child deaths by three-quarters over the past couple of decades, and the world as a whole has more than halved the rate of mortality since 1990. For all of the horrors of Syria, the world is getting less violent. Terrorism remains a tragic but extremely rare phenomenon outside of Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Syria, and, even including those countries, global terror deaths are still far below annual automobile traffic deaths in the U.S. alone. In the United States, terror deaths run far behind those from fatal lawnmower accidents and deaths caused by falling out of bed. Meanwhile, there isn’t much evidence that global migration flows are higher or lower than in the recent past, for all of the toxic rhetoric around the subject in the West. And even in the United States, that rhetoric spews from an aging, declining minority: in recent polls, 59 percent suggested that immigrants strengthen the country through hard work and their talents, and only 33 percent describe them as a burden through taking jobs, housing, and health care. In 1994, opinions were worse: 63 percent said immigrants were a burden, and 31 percent said they strengthened the country.

Even better, some of the “terrible ten” problems highlighted by The Fix may not even be problems at all. It isn’t really clear that there’s such a thing as a middle-income trap; there’s no evidence that countries “bunch” below a particular GDP per capita because it takes some fundamental and transformative institutional change to leap over it. In addition, countries with more natural resources tend to be richer than countries without resources. And the looming problem with energy isn’t so much that regulations are keeping shale oil in the ground in many countries, it is that if we extract and burn all we can we’ll fry the planet.

Tepperman’s case studies, alongside evidence of widespread global progress, suggest that the idea that significant development challenges can only be overcome with a rare miracle of leadership under unique circumstances is wrong; success is not as hard as that. Some combination of the comparative ease of replicating good ideas, a reasonable global stock of competent leadership, and multiple paths to progress means that improvement has been ubiquitous rather than elusive worldwide over the past ten years. Tepperman does a wonderful job of illustrating that government leaders can achieve great things if they put their minds to it. Widespread global progress suggests that many do—and we should expect nothing less.

Charles Kenny

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Great for the West.