Ill Winds | Book Review
Wait! Don’t be fooled by the spring, the clearness of the sky,
or the light of the dawn;
for on the horizon lies the horrors of darkness, rumble of thunder,
and blowing of winds.
Beware, for below the ash there is fire.
– Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, To the Tyrants of the World
In the concluding chapter of his book Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, Dr. Larry Diamond quotes the lines above, used, as he notes, by protestors in the Arab Spring. Though brief, the quote is moving, and largely representative of Diamond’s purpose for writing the book: to move people to action. As he suggests in his introduction, “None of this is a cry of despair; all of it is a call to arms.”1
Diamond describes the world that we live in rather bluntly; he states that democracy around the world is under ever more severe attack, and that the United States is not currently in a position to defend it. He depicts the failures of several democracies in recent history, and the possibility of more in the near future. Democracy, the author suggests, is “In its most minimal form, […] a system of government in which the people can choose and replace their leaders in regular, free, and fair elections.”2 Even at this minimal level, however, democracy is faltering.
This is the most obvious theme of Diamond’s book. But, as he suggests, the work is not merely a warning of what is to come. Rather, it is a depiction of what might be if we do not change the trajectory at which we are currently moving. The author identifies nine norms which “are crucial to democracy: legitimacy, tolerance, and trust; moderation, flexibility, and compromise; civility, mutual respect, and restraint.”³3 It is in the failure to maintain these norms that we have come to find democracy in such a precarious position.
Diamond speaks most specifically to the US’ failure in this respect. He identifies lack of respect for others, polarization “disproportionately […] to the right,” and inability to compromise as symptoms of the nation’s current condition.4 In this condition, the US is certainly not able to provide an appropriate example to current and hopeful democracies around the world, as many have perceived its role to be for a long time. That time is over, Diamond suggests, and “the case for democracy’s global health gets harder and harder to make.”5
To fill the role of influencer come the former superpower Russia and the aspiring superpower China; “Inspired by the new swagger of Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and emboldened by the new silence from Donald Trump’s America, today’s autocrats tyrannize their opponents openly and without apology.”6 In a time when democracy is in such a poor state, the growing strength of its attackers is worrisome. The author describes this change in nondemocratic governments as following the “the autocrats’ twelve-step program.”7 The program includes moves to attack opposition, repeal the independence of institutions, and bring increasing wealth to those in power.
Of course, this strength is magnified by the threat posed to democracy in the US: Donald Trump. Diamond is sure to establish that Trump is not a new threat; populism and the money which backs it have been eroding our democracy for decades. But the current president poses a threat “to America’s democratic institutions and norms [which] is unprecedented.”8 Additionally, the danger posed by the campaigns by Russia which helped to bring Trump to power cannot be understated.
Still, Diamond identifies the greater threat to democracy around the world to be China, which “is playing a longer and more patient game than Russia.”9 He notes that “the gap in favorable attitudes between China and the United States was [found to be] narrowing,” and that “in four Muslim-majority, Middle Eastern countries and in several Latin American countires (including Mexico, Chile, and Peru), China is now better liked than the United States.”10 The author attributes this disdain for the US to dissatisfaction with President Trump, without consideration of other reasons why these nations may be unhappy with the US. He describes China as “the world’s most dynamic power,” and suggests that the only way to counter the growing role of China is to restore “a vital leadership role for the United States.”11
But of course, this is not “a cry of despair.”12 Again, it is simply a picture of what is and what could be. In his “call to arms,” Diamond argues that the US must recognize the limits of its power and need for democratic alliances, but also do what it can to confront Russia and China as they seek to infringe on democracy.13 Furthermore, democracies must increasingly confront their own shortcomings, as “Unless the democracies of the world improve their own performance, they will provide increasingly fertile ground for Russian and Chinese efforts to penetrate and subvert them.”
If the most obvious theme of Diamond’s book is the precarious future of democracy, this must be the second: that democracies everywhere must address the problems which have plagued their systems internally and adjust their external actions accordingly. According to Diamond, we cannot continue to allow people like President Trump to subvert democracy by disrespecting entire populations, by pulling us ever farther to the right, and by refusing to compromise on even the most inconsequent actions. If the US is to play its role as influencer to the benefit of the world, then it must not allow its own officials to behave in the same way as the autocrats of others.
More deeply, however, the US suffers from a lack of electoral participation and protection for people to exercise their right to it. As Diamond writes, “America needs to fully restore the Voting Rights Act, one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.”14 The act would serve to restore voting rights to those who have been disenfranchised by discriminatory voter requirement laws. The author also suggests the implementation of ranked-choice voting and getting rid of the Electoral College as further steps to improve the quality of the US’ democracy.
All in all, Ill Winds is a compelling account of the world as it is today, albeit with some issues of perspective. It is my own opinion that Diamond does much to criticize other governments without acknowledging the very same problems as are perpetrated by the US. For instance, in chapter eleven, the author writes that “It is not the democracies of the world that are supporting international terrorism, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, or threatening the territory of their neighbors.”15
This is not true. According to the US Department of Homeland Security’s 2017 DHS Lexicon Terms and Definitions, terrorism is defined as “premeditated threat or act of violence, against persons, property, environmental, or economic targets, to induce fear or to intimidate, coerce or affect a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political, social, ideological, or religious objectives.”16 As Dr. Noam Chomsky points out in his work Hegemony or Survival, the US itself has a “record of state-supported international terrorism.17
Furthermore, it is no secret that the US has weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Again referring to the 2017 DHS Lexicon Terms and Definitions, a WMD is a “weapon capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people or an amount of property.”18 Diamond does suggest that it is important to depict the US “in a balanced light, honestly reflecting on its democratic shortcomings,”19 and thus I find it important to point out the inconsistencies noted here.
These issues do not lessen the importance of Diamond’s book. Ill Winds is truly a vital log of the dangers which democracies face around the world, and should be a convincing move to action on the part of readers. Most importantly, Diamond wholly acknowledges that the changes which he recommends making in his work will be implemented only when we the people come together and demand them to be. In his words, “No one else will demand change for us.”20
Maeve Edwards is a first year student in Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance program, and Assistant Editor of Democracy and Society. She is previously a student of Political Science and Economics at Mary Baldwin University. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, New York: Penguin Press, 2019, 13.
- Ibid., 17.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 55.
- Ibid., 58.
- Ibid., 64.
- Ibid., 85
- Ibid., 141.
- Ibid., 144.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 270.
- Ibid., 202.
- Management Directorate, DHS Lexicon Terms and Definitions, Department of Homeland Security, October 16, 2017, 656.
- Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003, 194. See for more information on US American terrorism.
- Management Directorate, DHS Lexicon Terms and Definitions, 710.
- Diamond, Ill Winds, 203.
- Ibid., 306.
Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, New York:
Henry Holt and Company, 2003.
Diamond, Larry. Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and
American Complacency, New York: Penguin Press, 2019.
Management Directorate. DHS Lexicon Terms and Definitions. Department of Homeland
Security. October 16, 2017.