Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency

By Larry Diamond. Penguin Press, New York (2019). 354 pages.

By John Bacher (reviewer)

Larry Diamond’s Ill Winds is a timely wake up call, intended to alert citizens of democracies to the alarming dangers to freedom around the globe. It is a clarion call to counter the intrigues of the corrupt and sinister rich and famous, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.

Diamond is possibly the most prominent scholar today studying global democracy, and his proposed remedies for it rely on principled nonviolent methods. He is a professor at Stanford University, a co-editor of the excellent Journal of Democracy, and a frequent lecturer in troubled countries. For example, he spent one year teaching in Nigeria and another year in Iraq, trying to assist democracy there as the war ended.

This superb book summarizes the research about the factors favoring or handicapping democratic efforts. It urges the citizens of democracies to support people in other countries, for everywhere the majority of citizens say they want democracy, even when their devotion to it seems inconsistent. But the same could be said of the United States too, which Diamond considers to be in peril, along with all the other countries undergoing the current surge of right wing, authoritarian populism.

Fortunately, Diam­ond recognizes not only the dangers but also provides reasonable solutions to each one. His chapter on corruption (“kleptocracy”) is astute, and so is the chapter on the harmful effects of social media. He offers abundant solutions for the American political system, comparing the pluses and minuses of the electoral college, gerrymandering, campaign financing, ranked voting, proportional representation, the presidential versus parliamentary system, potential watchdog institutions, and even such changes as having congress meet three weeks in a row and then take a week off instead of going home every weekend. His sensible proposals are clear, brief, and punchy.

I was especially interested in his chapter on “kleptocracy,” which updated his previous writings on Nigeria. I had been influenced by that work when writing my book Petrotyranny, which describes the toxic connections between oil, war and dictatorship.

The Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, Diamond notes, stole “more than $4 billion” from his country’s oil revenues, “most of it sent abroad, during his five years of rule in the 1990s.” Some of this is beginning to be recovered by the now democratic government of Nigeria.

Diamond exposes the widespread misery caused by the looting of oil revenues by the powerful in both Nigeria and Angola. Despite their great oil wealth, both countries “lag behind the African average infant mortality and child mortality.” As a result, Diamond calculates, 7 per cent of Angola’s and Nigeria’s infants die before their first birthday, and 10 to 12 percent of children die before they turn five.” In Nigeria this has resulted in the avoidable deaths of about a million children, which could have been prevented by simple affordable public health measures.

Angola’s petrotyranny compounds its mischief by subverting international efforts to promote democracy. Such a sinister role is played by the daughter of Angola’s long-time dictator, Isabel dos Santos. She has used oil wealth looted by her family to build a business empire in Portugal. This helped to subvert the Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies, which is supposed to exclude dictatorships. In 2015 Angola was admitted to this gathering because of pressure put on the Conference by Portugal from the machinations of Isabel dos Santos.

Diamond points out numerous forensic accounting, regulatory, and investigative methods of challenging autocracies’ efforts to subvert democracies. One approach is the “modernization of the anti-money laundering system.” One model law is Great Britain’s 2017 legislation, “which holds that if a foreign person with links to crime or public wealth in his home country makes an extravagant purchase (for example, property or jewels) that seem to be beyond his immediate means, law enforcement agencies can investigate the source of the money. If the source is found to be corrupt or the individual cannot account for his or her wealth, the assets can be seized.”

Another approach that Diamond praises is to “increase international support for investigative journalism, NGOS, and official institutions working to monitor and control corruption around the world.” One basic step is “more rewards for a few daring whistle-blowers.” Diamond pleads that,

“A prime example of the kind of global effort that merits support from democracy-promotion foundations and private philanthropies is the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which broke the Panama Papers story and now draws together more than 229 investigative journalists and more than 100 media organizations from some 80 countries to collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.”

Diamond sees that modernized Sherlock Holmes investigative work into the manipulations of tyrannies needs to be complemented by support to brave people willing to confront them through nonviolent actions.

In a telling passage, Diamond explains that, “People must secure their own freedom, but democracy assistance can make a big difference.” Such supported organizations “invest in smart, spirited citizens seeking freedom, openness, and accountability in their countries, but these independent citizens and groups chart their own course.”

Ill Winds should be widely read and its lessons taken to heart. It provides strategies to strengthen democracy, which in turn will allow the world to tackle global poverty, hunger, infant mortality, war, terrorism, and environmental degradation.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a Saint Catharines-based writer and researcher.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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