Authoritarianism Persists Around the World, But Not Because of an American 'Crisis of Confidence'

Making sense of the latest Freedom House report.


Freedom House's annual report came out this week, and it's pretty glum. Here's how the organization's announcement of its findings begins:

A new report! Here! Take one!

The state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013, according to Freedom in the World 2014, Freedom House's annual country-by-country report on global political rights and civil liberties.

Particularly notable were developments in Egypt, which endured across-the-board reversals in its democratic institutions following a military coup. There were also serious setbacks to democratic rights in other large, politically influential countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Indonesia.

The report itself notes that "the overall level of regression was not severe," with 40 countries getting freer and 54 getting more authoritarian. Freedom House's list of which countries are "free," "partly free," or "not free" hasn't changed much: The number of countries in the "free" category declined by two, and the numbers in the other categories went up by one apiece. The number of electoral democracies actually increased by four. So while there's plenty of bad news here, the situation isn't as dire as that lede suggests.

The political scientist Jay Ulfelder, former director of the Political Instability Task Force, makes an important point:

The dictator plots his next move.
Walt Disney Productions

Freedom House looks at the data from a different angle than I do, calling out the fact that the number of declines in scores on its Political Rights or Civil Liberties indices outstripped the number of gains for the eighth year in a row. This is factually true, but I think it's also important to note that many of those declines are occurring in countries in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East that we already regard as authoritarian. In other words, this eight-year trend is not primarily the result of more and more democracies slipping into authoritarianism; instead, it's more that many existing autocracies keep tightening the screws.

I don't think it's accidental that this eight-year trend has coincided with two waves of popular uprisings in the very regions where those erosions are most pronounced—the so-called Color Revolutions and Arab Awakening. A lot of that slippage has come from autocrats made anxious by democratic ferment in their own and neighboring societies. If we notice that correlation and allow ourselves to think longer term, I think there's actually cause to be optimistic that these erosions will not hold indefinitely, at least not across the board.

One more comment. While the report's country-by-country data are useful as usual, I think its introductory essay offers a misleading idea of what's needed for freedom to grow. Its author complains not just about the decline of civil liberties and political rights in various parts of the globe, but about a "crisis of confidence" in the U.S.:

America. (If only!)
Clifford Harper

The democratic world was experiencing a period of self-absorption much like today's when Freedom House launched Freedom in the World during the 1970s. Once it had overcome its crisis of confidence, America helped propel a historic surge of democratization in parts of the world where self-government was almost unknown. A similar era of change could be in the offing, and some democracies—including a number in Europe—have done their best to play a constructive role. But if there is no reassertion of American leadership, we could well find ourselves at some future time deploring lost opportunities rather than celebrating a major breakthrough for freedom.

Let's be clear: The great force that "helped propel" a global shift from authoritarianism was the end of the Cold War, a change that certainly had a lot to do with American actions but is rather different from the sort of "leadership" that Freedom House seems to be asking for here. The idea that the oppressed of the world need outsiders to "lead" them to freedom is condescending nonsense, a point I made the last time I wrote about the notion that liberty is in retreat around the globe. That time I was responding to a New Republic essay by Joshua Kurlantzick:

In theory, the New Republic article is about the prospects for liberty and democracy abroad. In practice, roughly half of it is devoted to fretting about the freer countries' willingness to go on global crusades. India isn't doing as much as it used to do for Burma's dissidents, Kurlantzick complains. And the American public is "increasingly isolationist." And while the Obama administration has "maintained significant budget levels for democracy promotion," it also "eliminated high-level positions on the National Security Council that, under Bush, had been devoted to democracy." And countries that had to deal with American and Soviet subversion during the Cold War are "uncomfortable joining any international coalition that could undermine other nations' sovereignty."

As you read all this, some questions may occur to you. Did India's support for the Burmese dissidents actually accomplish anything? (I can't help noticing that the junta is still in power.) What was the real-world record of Bush's drive for democracy abroad, and might that record have something to do with that revival of American isolationism? And when countries that served as Cold War battlefields are wary of inflicting a similar fate on other nations, isn't it possible that they have a point?

Generally speaking, movements against dictatorships are more likely to succeed when they're rooted in civic action from below instead of intervention from outside. The U.S. certainly hasn't acquitted itself very well in the Arab Spring: It's been reluctant to cut off aid to countries like Bahrain even as they crack down harshly on peaceful protesters, and when it did intervene forcefully—in Libya—it's hard to argue convincingly that the big picture improved. One of the most distressing changes in [the 2010] Freedom House survey was the demotion of Mexico from "free" to "partly free," the result of a wave of violence in which "government institutions have failed to protect ordinary citizens, journalists, and elected officials from organized crime." That violence is a direct result of the War on Drugs, and one of the chief reasons Mexico is fighting that war is pressure from its neighbor to the north. If Washington really wants to help the spread of freedom around the world, perhaps it should spend less time budgeting for "democracy promotion" and more time thinking about where it's standing in the way.