Freedom in the world by aggregate score, 2018. Graphic: Freedom House

By Michael J. Abramowitz
18 January 2018

(Freedom House) – Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.

Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies—particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under assault and in retreat globally.

A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century.

Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Turkey and Hungary, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule. The military in Myanmar, which began a limited democratic opening in 2010, executed a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2017 and rebuffed international criticism of its actions. Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful democracies are mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, terrorist attacks, and an influx of refugees that has strained alliances and increased fears of the “other.”

Twelve years of decline in world freedom: number of countries that declined and improved, 2006-2017. Graphic: Freedom House

The challenges within democratic states have fueled the rise of populist leaders who appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and give short shrift to fundamental civil and political liberties. Right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017. While they were kept out of government in all but Austria, their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the right and left. Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron handily won the French presidency, but in Germany and the Netherlands, mainstream parties struggled to create stable governing coalitions.

Perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished among many, contributing to a dangerous apathy.

The retreat of democracies is troubling enough. Yet at the same time, the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized the opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy. A confident Chinese president Xi Jinping recently proclaimed that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing countries to follow. It is a path that includes politicized courts, intolerance for dissent, and predetermined elections.

The spread of antidemocratic practices around the world is not merely a setback for fundamental freedoms. It poses economic and security risks. When more countries are free, all countries—including the United States—are safer and more prosperous. When more countries are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances crumble, nations and entire regions become unstable, and violent extremists have greater room to operate.

Democratic governments allow people to help set the rules to which all must adhere, and have a say in the direction of their lives and work. This fosters a broader respect for peace, fair play, and compromise. Autocrats impose arbitrary rules on their citizens while ignoring all constraints themselves, spurring a vicious circle of abuse and radicalization.

A decade of of declines in world freedom: countries in which freedom declined, 2006-2017. Graphic: Freedom House

Percentage of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries, 1987-2017. After years of major gains, the share of Free countries has declined over the past decade, while the share of Not Free countries has risen. Graphic: Freedom House

The United States accelerates its withdrawal from the democracy struggle

A long list of troubling developments around the world contributed to the global decline in 2017, but perhaps most striking was the accelerating withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to promoting and supporting democracy. The potent challenge from authoritarian regimes made the United States’ abdication of its traditional role all the more important.

Despite the U.S. government’s mistakes—and there have been many—the American people and their leaders have generally understood that standing up for the rights of others is both a moral imperative and beneficial to themselves. But two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a global recession soured the public on extensive international engagement, and the perceived link between democracy promotion on the one hand and military interventions and financial costs on the other has had a lasting impact.

The Obama administration continued to defend democratic ideals in its foreign policy statements, but its actions often fell short, reflecting a reduced estimation of the United States’ ability to influence world events and of the American public’s willingness to back such efforts.

In 2017, however, the Trump administration made explicit—in both words and actions—its intention to cast off principles that have guided U.S. policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades.

President Trump’s “America First” slogan, originally coined by isolationists seeking to block U.S. involvement in the war against fascism, targeted traditional notions of collective global security and mutually beneficial trade. The administration’s hostility and skepticism toward binding international agreements on the environment, arms control, and other topics confirmed that a reorientation was taking shape.

Even when he chose to acknowledge America’s treaty alliances with fellow democracies, the president spoke of cultural or civilizational ties rather than shared recognition of universal rights; his trips abroad rarely featured any mention of the word “democracy.” Indeed, the American leader expressed feelings of admiration and even personal friendship for some of the world’s most loathsome strongmen and dictators.

This marks a sharp break from other U.S. presidents in the postwar period, who cooperated with certain authoritarian regimes for strategic reasons but never wavered from a commitment to democracy as the best form of government and the animating force behind American foreign policy. It also reflects an inability—or unwillingness—by the United States to lead democracies in effectively confronting the growing threat from Russia and China, and from the other states that have come to emulate their authoritarian approach.

Democratic norms erode within the United States

The past year brought further, faster erosion of America’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging its international credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights.

The United States has experienced a series of setbacks in the conduct of elections and criminal justice over the past decade—under leadership from both major political parties—but in 2017 its core institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity. President Trump himself has mingled the concerns of his business empire with his role as president, appointed family members to his senior staff, filled other high positions with lobbyists and representatives of special interests, and refused to abide by disclosure and transparency practices observed by his predecessors.

Freedom score of the U.S., 2008-2017. The year 2017 brought further, faster erosion of America's own democratic standards, damaging its credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights. Graphic: Freedom House

The president has also lambasted and threatened the media—including sharp jabs at individual journalists—for challenging his routinely false statements, spoken disdainfully of judges who blocked his decisions, and attacked the professional staff of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. He signals contempt for Muslims and Latin American immigrants and singles out some African Americans for vitriolic criticism. He pardoned a sheriff convicted of ignoring federal court orders to halt racially discriminatory policies and issued an executive order restricting travel to the United States from a group of Muslim-majority countries after making a campaign promise to ban all foreign Muslims from the United States. And at a time when millions around the world have been forced to flee war, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing, President Trump moved to implement major reductions in the number of legal immigrants and refugees that the United States would accept.

The president’s behavior stems in part from a frustration with the country’s democratic checks and balances, including the independent courts, a coequal legislative branch, the free press, and an active civil society. These institutions remained fairly resilient in 2017, but the administration’s statements and actions could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious consequences for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s role in the world.

China and Russia expand their antidemocratic influence

While the United States and other democratic powers grappled with domestic problems and argued about foreign policy priorities, the world’s leading autocracies—Russia and China—continued to make headway. Moscow and Beijing are single-minded in their identification of democracy as a threat to their oppressive regimes, and they work relentlessly, with increasing sophistication, to undermine its institutions and cripple its principal advocates.

The eventual outcome of these trends, if unchecked, is obvious. The replacement of global democratic norms with authoritarian practices will mean more elections in which the incumbent’s victory is a foregone conclusion. It will mean a media landscape dominated by propaganda mouthpieces that marginalize the opposition while presenting the leader as omniscient, strong, and devoted to national aggrandizement. It will mean state control over the internet and social media through both censorship and active manipulation that promotes the regime’s message while confusing users with lies and fakery. And it will mean more corruption, injustice, and impunity for state abuses.

Already, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has carried out disinformation campaigns before elections in countries including the United States, France, and Germany, cultivated ties to xenophobic political parties across Europe, threatened or invaded its closest neighbors, and served as an alternative source of military aid for Middle Eastern dictatorships. Its chief goal is to disrupt democratic states and fracture the institutions—such as the European Union—that bind them together.

Beijing has even greater ambitions—and the resources to achieve them. It has built up a propaganda and censorship apparatus with global reach, used economic and other ties to influence democracies like Australia and New Zealand, compelled various countries to repatriate Chinese citizens seeking refuge abroad, and provided diplomatic and material support to repressive governments from Southeast Asia to Africa. Moscow often plays the role of spoiler, bolstering its position by undercutting its adversaries, but the scope and depth of Beijing’s activities show that the Chinese regime aspires to truly global leadership.

Corrupt and repressive states threaten global stability

The past year provided ample evidence that undemocratic rule itself can be catastrophic for regional and global stability, with or without active interference from major powers like Russia and China.

In Myanmar, the politically dominant military conducted a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya minority, enabled by diplomatic cover from China and an impotent response from the rest of the international community. Some 600,000 people have been pushed out, while thousands of others are thought to have been killed. The refugees have strained the resources of an already fragile Bangladesh, and Islamist militants have sought to adopt the Rohingya cause as a new rallying point for violent struggle.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadened and intensified the crackdown on his perceived opponents that began after a failed 2016 coup attempt. In addition to its dire consequences for detained Turkish citizens, shuttered media outlets, and seized businesses, the chaotic purge has become intertwined with an offensive against the Kurdish minority, which in turn has fueled Turkey’s diplomatic and military interventions in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt asserted their interests in reckless ways that perpetuated long-running conflicts in Libya and Yemen and initiated a sudden attempt to blockade Qatar, a hub of international trade and transportation. Their similarly repressive archrival, Iran, played its own part in the region’s conflicts, overseeing militia networks that stretched from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Promises of reform from a powerful new crown prince in Saudi Arabia added an unexpected variable in a region that has long resisted greater openness, though his nascent social and economic changes were accompanied by hundreds of arbitrary arrests and aggressive moves against potential rivals, and he showed no inclination to open the political system. [more]

Freedom in the World 2018: Democracy in Crisis

3 comments :

  1. Anonymous said...

    You don't need a graph or a detailed report to identify the fact that the United States has precipitously declined over the past decade. Ranking the USA "against" other countries is irrelevant. None of us live there. Those of us that live here can easily detect how this country has continued to change for the worse, every single year.

    I barely recognize this place now. I have almost nothing in common with my fellow Americans. I am not the least bit interested in what they find interesting. The lowest common denominator seems to be the glue that sticks us all together in the rising cesspool of stupidity, violence, indifference and apathy.

    Of late, I've been reading forums of the older, aged generation who are leaving the United States for greener pastures. They declare that they do not recognize this country anymore either, listing reasons such as retirement costs, healthcare and the political climate as their primary motivations for abandoning this country.

    Our political leaders seem utterly clueless and inept, incapable of identifying with their own countrymen and meeting even our most basic needs FOR a government. The gap is so huge now that I find myself wishing someone would overthrow this country with a true democracy. Which we obviously do not have, not even close.

    Trumpites seem to think that their civil liberties include running over protesters with deadly vehicles, attacking free speech but declaring these rights for themselves, and broad brushing all news that reveals the ugly truth behind Trump as "fake news". The rising level of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and arrogance has become truly intolerable to any thinking person. These Americans are now the fascists and backwards Constitutionalists that want to reverse all of the progress made by this country.

    I find this group vile, disgusting, base, ignorant and beyond stupid. They refuse to see what is happening right in front of them. So leaving once again becomes more then just and entertaining idea, but perhaps the safest course of action as this country embraces fascism, which has murdered hundreds of millions of people before.

    We are not and never have been the "freest country on Earth", but we now rank among the most stupid, arrogant, indifferent, racist, and xenophobic.  

  2. Anonymous said...

    "So leaving once again becomes more then just and entertaining idea, but perhaps the safest course of action as this country embraces fascism, which has murdered hundreds of millions of people before."

    I agree, the fascist Khmer Rouge regime was one of the deadliest.  

  3. rpauli said...

    Worst possible combination with which to face global warming.

    Great articles. An ex-pat acquaintance in Uruguay loves her new life.

    Healthy to see all this, but some things seem inevitable.  

 

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