Larry Diamond, Ill Winds:
Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (Penguin Press)
Stanford professor Larry Diamond is one of America’s foremost authorities on democracy – what it is, how it works in diverse countries throughout the world, how it can take hold in countries with little or no history of democratic governance – and how it can be lost. Diamond brings a decidedly pragmatic perspective to his subject. His extensive writings focus in particular on how to sustain fragile democratic governance. He rarely dwells on classical theory or delves into the origins of democracy. He is more likely to provide an assessment of the prospects for democracy in contemporary Nicaragua, Nigeria or Nepal, or most anywhere in between, than assess the contribution to modern democracy of, say, Thomas Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the two decades following the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, Diamond’s bottom line seemed to be that democracy had the upper hand in most corners of the world – the Middle East being at best a giant question mark – and was steadily extending to numerous countries that had hitherto been considered unlikely places for it to take hold.
That was then. Today, Diamond says that he is more concerned about the future of democracy than at any time in the forty plus years of his career. He begins Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, a distinctly more guarded assessment of democratic prospects across the globe than his earlier writings, by noting that the march toward democracy began to slow around 2006. The independent Freedom House, which tracks democratic progress worldwide, found that 2017 was the twelfth consecutive year that the number of countries declining in liberty significantly outstripped those gaining.
Rather than democracy, it is now authoritarian government — sometimes termed “illiberal democracy” and often associated with nativist, xenophobic “populism” — that seems to be on the rise across the globe. Throughout much of the world, Diamond notes, authoritarian governments and their autocratic leaders are “seizing the initiative, democrats are on the defensive, and the space for competitive politics and free expression is shrinking” (p.11). Today’s world has “plunged into a democratic recession” (p.54), with democracy finding itself “perched on a global precipice.” If authoritarian ascendancy and democratic erosion continue, Diamond warns, we may reach a “tipping point where democracy goes bankrupt suddenly – plunging the world into depths of oppression and aggression that we have not seen since the end of World War II” (p.293).
Diamond’s sub-title reveals that the “ill winds” of his title are blowing chiefly from a Russia rife with “rage,” and a China abounding in “ambition,” while the United States stands by “complacently” rather than blowing in the opposite direction, as it once did. If the United States does not reclaim its traditional place as the keystone of democracy, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and their admirers “may turn autocracy into the driving force of the new century” (p.11). Emboldened by the “new silence from Donald Trump’s America,” the “new swagger” emanating from Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia have allowed autocrats across the globe to “tyrannize their opponents openly and without apology”(p.58).
Diamond starts his urgent and alarming assessment with general, introductory chapters that provide a working definition of democracy and summarize the present world wide crisis, for example, “Why Democracies Succeed and Fail,” “The March and Retreat of Democracy,” and “The Authoritarian Temptation.” He then devotes a chapter to each of his three main actors, the United States, Russia and China. From there, he moves to a series of recommendations on how established democracies can counter the forces that seem to be leading many countries away from democracy and toward authoritarian styles of governance. His recommendations include combatting public corruption (the “soft underbelly of authoritarian rule;” p.192); and making the Internet safe for democracy (the “global fight for freedom is inseparable from the fight for internet freedom;” p.259).
In a book about the future of global democracy, Diamond’s recommendations are oddly U.S. centric. They are mostly about how the United States can promote democracy more effectively abroad and render its internal institutions and practices more democratic. There is little here about what other established democracies – for example, Great Britain, Germany or Australia — can do to be more effective abroad or more democratic at home. Diamond moreover breaks little new ground in this work.
Few readers are likely to be surprised to learn that Russia and China constitute the world’s major anti-democratic actors; that Hungary and Poland, both part of the European Union, the quintessential democracy project, are among the most prominent countries moving away from democracy and toward authoritarianism; or that countries otherwise as diverse as Turkey, India, the Philippines and Brazil are moving in the same direction. Nor does Diamond venture into unfamiliar territory when he argues that the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries.
But Diamond is an accomplished salesman for democratic governance, the product he has relentlessly pedaled for over four decades, and his salesmanship skills are on full display here. Amidst all the reasons he provides for pessimism about democracy’s worldwide prospects, readers will be reassured to find more than a little of the optimism that characterized his earlier works. Although authoritarians may seem to be on the rise everywhere, people across the globe are not losing their faith in democracy, he argues. Democracy for Diamond remains nothing less than a “universal value” (p.159). The world’s democracies quite simply “have the better ideas” (p.225), he writes. But is modern democracy up to the task of halting and reversing the world’s authoritarian turn? Is it capable of countering effectively Russian rage and Chinese ambition? These are the questions Diamond wrestles with throughout this timely and passionately argued work.
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For Diamond, democracy at its core is a system of government where people choose and can change their leaders in regular, free and fair elections. Such a system should also include strong protections for basic liberties, such as freedom of speech, press and religion; protection for racial and cultural minorities; a robust rule of law and an independent judiciary; trustworthy law enforcement institutions; and a lively civil society. Diamond says little here about the economic systems of countries seeking to establish and sustain democratic institutions. But at least since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most democracy experts agree that market economies allowing for free enterprise — along with ample room for state regulation in the public interest — are most compatible with modern democracy.
But sustaining democracy over the longer term depends more on culture than institutions, Diamond argues. A country’s citizens need to believe in democracy and be “willing to defend it as a way of life” (p.25), in which case the level of economic development and the precise design of institutions matter less. When democracy lacks broad support, it will “always be a fragile reed” (p.25). And the paramount component of democratic culture is legitimacy, the “resilient and broadly shared belief that democracy is better than any other imaginable form of government. People must commit to democracy come hell or high water, and stick with it even when the economy tanks, incomes plunge, or politicians misbehave” (p.25).
Democracy is hardly restricted to those economically advanced countries we call “Western” (“Western” and “the West” include not just the countries of Western Europe and North America but also prosperous democratic countries that are not geographically part of the West, such as Japan and New Zealand). A country does not have to be economically well off to institutionalize democracy, Diamond insists. Many African countries have made earnest starts. But successful transitions to democracy nonetheless remain strongly linked to economic prosperity, he argues, citing the examples of Greece, Spain, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa.
But Russia and China are undermining democracy in all corners of the globe, each blowing its own “ill winds” across the planet. In Russia’s case, they are the winds of “anger, insecurity, and resentments of a former superpower;” with China, those of “ambitions, swagger, and overreach of a new one” (p.130-31). Both are investing heavily in efforts to “promote disinformation and covertly subvert democratic norms and institutions” (p.12). Among today’s foes of democracy, only two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, have “enough power and ambition to undermine the entire global liberal order” (p.161).
Russia experienced some shallow and tentative moves toward democracy in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But since Putin assumed power in 2000, the movement has been almost exclusively in the opposite direction. Deeply insecure about the legitimacy of his rule, Putin believes that the West is “seeking to encircle Russia and keep it weak” (p.111). The 2013-14 “Eurormaidan Revolution” in Ukraine, which brought down Viktor Yanukovych, a key autocratic partner, infuriated Putin. The United States had “toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself,” as an American journalist put it. “All that money American had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off” (p.112).
Russia has mastered the use of social media to “stimulate division, increase social and racial unrest, and undermine the self-assurance of the major Western democracies – and work to divide them from one another” (p.112). Its most dramatic targets were Hilary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Clinton “would almost certainly have won the Electoral College if there had been no Russian intervention” (p.118), Diamond asserts, although he offers no evidentiary support for this assertion. In hacking the 2016 US election, Putin succeeded in both of his apparent aims: to “sow division and discord in American democracy . . . [and] to punish Clinton and elect Trump” (p.118).
But the 2016 election was just one instance of Russia’s use of social media disinformation campaigns to undermine liberal democracy. These campaigns, assaults “on truth itself” and on the “very notion that there can be ‘an objective, verifiable set of facts” (p.119), often aim to strengthen extremist political forces within established democracies. They “do not need to – and do not really aim to – persuade democratic publics that Russia’s positions are right, only that a democracy’s government and political leaders cannot be believed or trusted” (p.119). Russia under Putin has sought to wreak havoc within the European Union, aiming in particular to end the economic sanctions that Europe and the United States imposed on Russia in retaliation for its aggression in Ukraine. Russia almost certainly provided significant illicit funding to the Brexit campaign, Diamond contends, helping to tip Britain into leaving the European Union, a “major achievement for a Kremlin that has the destruction of European unity as one of its major aims” (p.121).
But Diamond emphasizes that Russia is a declining power whose “malign intentions and nationalist bravado cannot disguise its outstripped economy and shrinking importance to the twenty-first century world” (p.124). In the long run, the “ambitions of a rising China, not the resentments of a falling Russia” represent the greatest external challenge to global democracy. Today’s China, still recovering from what many Chinese consider a century of humiliation at the hands of Japan and the West, is the world’s “most dynamic power” (p.144), with global reach and power that will “increasingly and inevitably dwarf Russia’s” (p.124).
China seeks hegemony over all of Asia and the Pacific, Diamond argues. It also increasingly aspires to challenge the United States for global leadership, “economically, politically, and, some believe, eventually militarily” (p.131). Its military spending is now second only to that of the United States and it may catch America militarily “sooner than we care to imagine” (p.142-43). China has already established a claim to global dominance in such transformative technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and electric cars.
Manipulating social media massively and aggressively, China is also building a “sweeping surveillance state that aims to assess every digital footprint of every Chinese citizen and then compile each person’s ‘social credit score.’” (p.236). It readily shares its “Orwellian tools” with other a autocratic regimes, “threatening an ‘Arab Spring in reverse’ in which digital technology enable ‘state domination and repression at a staggering scale’” (p.237).
China’s foreign aid goes disproportionately to the world’s autocrats, many of whom think that China has developed a secret formula. While some authoritarian regimes dislike China’s heavy-handed attempts to win influence and gain control — sometimes considered a new form of colonialism — others are lured to China’s side by “money, power, ambition, and simple admiration for its sheer success” (p.144). In addition to assisting the world’s autocracies and countries that could bend in that direction, China also focuses on influencing the world’s democracies.
Diamond sees China playing a longer and more patient game than Russia in its dealing with the West. Through media deals, investments, partnership agreements, charitable and political donations, and positions on boards of directors, it is seeking wider and deeper infiltration into what Diamond calls the “vital tissues of democracies” (p.133): publishing houses, entertainment industries, technology companies, universities, think tanks, non-governmental organizations. Favorable views of China, he notes, exceed that of the United States in much of the world.
Prior to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential candidacy, Diamond considered the United States uniquely qualified to lead the global resistance to Russian rage and Chinese ambition. Since Trump became president, however, the United States appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries – or, at best, on the sidelines while Russia and China seek to extend their influence and undermine democracy. If there is any upside to the Trump presidency, Diamond notes, it is that it provides a glimpse into the alarming consequences of world without American leadership and steadfastness, a “far more frightening and dangerous place, with muscular, corrupt dictatorships dominating large swaths of the globe through blatant coercion and covert subversion” (p.287).
Trump’s unremitting insistence that the United States is being cheated by its friends and allies has propelled the country “down the self-defeating path of ‘America alone’” (p.301). His decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 2016 twelve-nation Pacific Rim free-trade agreement, “so visionary and so necessary,” constitutes in Diamond’s view the “most grievous self-inflicted wound to America’s global leadership since the creation of the liberal world order after World War II” (p.144). US withdrawal from the TPP amounted to a “massive gift to authoritarian China and a body blow to democratic aspirations in Southeast Asia” (p.144-45), serving as a “stunning symbol – and accelerator – of both China’s rise and America’s descent. As the great democracy that dominated world politics in the twentieth century retreated, the great dictatorship that aims to dominate world politics in the twenty-first could hardly believe its luck” (p.145).
Diamond provides an extensive set of recommendations on how the United States and other advanced democratic countries can deliver more sustainable assistance to aspiring and fragile democracies to counter Russia and China. Priorities need to be combatting kleptocracy, public corruption, and international money laundering; making the internet safe for democracy; and improving public diplomacy through smarter uses of “soft power” to counter Russia and China’s “sharp power.”
Kleptocracy, a recent term now frequently used for high level state corruption, involves the theft of state resources that could have advanced the public good but instead were diverted for private gain – hospitals and schools that were not built, for example – and by definition constitutes a crime against a country’s citizens. Kleptocracy depends upon using the international financial system to “move, mask, and secure ill-gotten fortunes across borders,” posing the “single most urgent internal threat to democracy,” a threat which renders fragile democracies “all the more vulnerable to external subversion” (p.184). Many of the world’s democracies, not least the United States, are complicit in providing refuge for the ill-gotten gains of the world’s kleptocrats. Global transfers of untraceable funds have enabled a “stunning array of venal dictators and their family members, political allies, and business cronies to acquire property and influence in the West as well as to corrupt democracy and the rule of law within free nations” (p.184).
Diamond’s recommendations for combatting public corruption and international money laundering are for the most part US-oriented (e.g. modernize and strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act; empower the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to conduct its own investigations). But he also offers some general recommendations that all the world’s advanced democracies could and should follow (e.g. end anonymous shell companies and real estate purchases).
Today, moreover, the Internet and related technologies – email, text messaging, photo sharing – have the potential to uncover public corruption, as well as highlight human rights abuses, expose voter fraud, and organize demonstrations. These technologies played a major role in the protests in 2011 that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; and those that challenged Iran’s blatantly fraudulent 2009 elections. But many modern authoritarian regimes – not just Russia and China — have developed sophisticated means to to “manipulate, manage, vilify, and amplify public opinion online” (p.234). Freedom House considers growing state level manipulation of social media one of the leading causes of the steady eight-year decline in global Internet freedom. Making the Internet a safe place for democracy requires a “concerted partnership among democratic governments, technology companies, civil-society groups, and individual ‘netizens’” (p.229).
Diamond also provides a set of recommendations for how the United States can fine tune its own internal democratic mechanisms through, for example, adoption of ranked choice voting, reducing the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the influence of money in politics — worthy objectives, but markedly out of line with the priorities of the Trump administration and today’s Republican Party. Looking beyond the Trump administration, however, Diamond argues that the tide of authoritarianism can be reversed.
Few people celebrate authoritarianism as a superior system, “morally or practically” (p.225 ). There are no large-scale surveys of public opinion showing a popular groundswell for authoritarianism. Rather, in surveys from every region of the world, “large to overwhelming majorities of the public, on average, said that democracy is the best form of government and that an unaccountable strongman is a bad idea” (p.159-60). Within even the world’s most tenacious autocracies, “many people want to understand what democracy is and how it can be achieved. Even many dictators and generalissimos know and fear democracy’s allure” (p.225). In this networked age, “both idealism and the harder imperatives of global power and security argue for more democracy, not less” (p.200).
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The best way to counter Russian rage and Chinese ambition, Diamond counsels, is to show that Moscow and Beijing are “on the wrong side of history; that people everywhere yearn to be free, and that they can make freedom work to achieve a more just, sustainable and prosperous society” (p.200). Yet Diamond makes clear that checking the worldwide authoritarian tide depends to an unsettling degree upon the United States reversing its present course and prioritizing anew the global quest for democracy.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
June 26, 2020