III Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency
by Larry Diamond
Penguin Press, 368 pp.
In May and July of 2018, the citizens of Malaysia and Cambodia went to the polls. Both states were longtime autocracies. Malaysia had been run by essentially the same coalition since it gained independence. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had dominated the country for more than three decades.
Both are also strategically and economically critical to China, and while leading democracies blasted Hun Sen and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak for the not-free run-up to their 2018 races, Beijing backed them. In Cambodia, China allegedly used everything from state media to hacking campaigns to support the prime minister. In Malaysia, it sent diplomats to the governing coalition's campaign events and reportedly pressured other states to stop investigating a major fraud scheme involving the government.
China's approach to Cambodia and Malaysia offers important lessons for the relationship between China and the power of autocracy. Larry Diamond, an esteemed political scientist at Stanford University, recognizes one of them--that China is actively trying to interfere in other states' domestic politics. Diamond argues in his sweeping new book, III Winds, that while there are multiple major threats to democracy today, the greatest is the rising influence of China and Russia. "The most threatening feature of the current global order is the surge in power and initiative of these giant autocracies," he writes.
But there is a second lesson from the experiences of Malaysia and Cambodia: Autocratic foreign meddling can backfire. Hun Sen cruised to reelection in Cambodia. But in Malaysia, the public grew angry about the Chinese ambassador's efforts to intervene in domestic politics. They protested the seemingly unequal terms of economic deals between Malaysia and China, like a proposed rail line that would have heaped debt on their state. The opposition took advantage of China's unpopularity and strongly criticized Najib for his warm relationship with Beijing. It worked. Come election day, the prime minister lost dramatically.
That's not to say Diamond is wrong that Beijing and Moscow present dangers, or that the United States should not confront them. But in deeming China and Russia the greatest risks to democracy, he fails to recognize that these countries' efforts sometimes have the opposite impact. As the U.S. has long...