America Still Seen as Free in an Increasingly Unfree World

Residents of other liberal democracies see the U.S. as respecting liberty even as authoritarianism advances globally.


Running strongly among a pack of hobbled racers is a dubious accomplishment, but it's worth noting that, in this troubled world, the United States is still regarded as protective of freedom by the citizens of other liberal-ish democracies. True, after years of eroding liberties, accelerated by a pandemic that gave the upper hand to authoritarians everywhere, that's not as reassuring as we could wish. But it tells us that people everywhere still value the leeway to run their own lives and believe that there remains some truth in America's moniker as the "land of the free."

"Most people think own government, U.S. government respect freedoms, but not China's government," reports Pew Research of polling in 17 advanced economies. Oddly, Pew frames the results as demonstrating lower opinions of the status of freedom in the U.S. than of that in people's own countries, even though in 7 of the 16 countries not named "United States" respondents gave the U.S. government marks equal to or higher than their own for respecting freedoms. Those countries were France, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan. Respondents in nine countries gave the United States government lower scores than their own: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. 

China definitely doesn't get the same kind of international love as the U.S., with a median 8 percent approval. In Singapore, though, 35 percent of the residents say the Chinese government is respectful of freedoms. Singapore, it should be noted, is something of an oddball, though maybe an unfortunate harbinger of the future, as an illiberal democracy where elections coexist with authoritarianism. The attitude toward freedom there just may not be the same as elsewhere.

Attitude may also explain some lower ratings the U.S. received, especially the 49 percent of New Zealanders and 50 percent of Australians who say the U.S. government respects freedoms. Australian officials, in particular, faced criticism by Americans for pandemic strategies so severe The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf questioned whether the country is still a liberal democracy. New Zealand came under fire for similarly draconian policies and already had a history of anti-Americanism for reasons that may have more to do with grasping for a national identity than with sharp conflicts. In both cases, low ratings may reflect resentful "fuck yous" to Americans from residents of countries that undeniably wandered down authoritarian paths. In truth, those paths predate COVID-19.

"The most alarming deterioration in civic space is occurring in Australia, which has been downgraded from 'open' to 'narrowed,'" CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, reported at the end of 2019. "Freedom of the press is particularly under threat in Australia: raids on the media occurred in 2019, as did the intimidation of journalists reporting on plans to expand government surveillance."

Unfortunately, the same report found that "basic freedoms are backsliding across the globe. In the past year, twice as many people are living in countries where civic freedoms and democratic rights are violated."

COVID-19 did nothing to improve the situation, fueling worldwide paanic and handing would-be autocrats an excuse to clamp down on their populations to deal with the "crisis."

"As recorded in the Democracy Index in recent years, democracy has not been in robust health for some time," The Economist's Democracy Index 2020 observed earlier this year. "In 2020 its strength was further tested by the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic… Across the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even in wartime)."

"As COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and nonstate actors," added Freedom House in its own report.

America's status as a free country during all of this has been hampered not just by the erosion liberties suffered here as they did in the rest of the world, but also by the low regard in which President Donald Trump was held around the world. While far more of a blowhard than a dictator, Trump's international image dragged down America's reputation. It's risen since, though Joe Biden seems no more respectful of freedom than his predecessor, and often less so depending on which liberties you emphasize.

Which liberties you emphasize is also important in assessing the Pew poll about respecting personal freedom, since it doesn't specify what that means. Do pandemic-panicked Aussies and Kiwis mean the same thing in giving the U.S. relatively low ratings as lockdown-averse Swedes who rank America 22 points below their own country's respect for freedom? It seems unlikely that they're looking at the same understanding of freedom at all.

Instead of a real assessment of the status of civil liberties in the U.S., then, the international view of the American government's respect for freedom works best as a rough guide to international opinions of the United States. In that sense, in the eyes of the residents of other (mostly) liberal democracies, the United States continues to be regarded as a free country in an era when liberty is losing ground around the world. 

Interestingly, Americans themselves give the U.S. government only a middling rating, with 63 percent saying the powers-that-be here respect freedom. That's below the median regard in which those surveyed around the world hold their own governments, and lower than the residents of Italy, South Korea, and Taiwan score the U.S. It also squares with findings from elsewhere that Americans see the U.S. government as unreliable in respecting their freedom.

"Americans have become less inclined to support trading civil liberties for security and most do not think the country is doing a good job protecting many rights and liberties" in the years since the September 11 terror attacks, a September AP/NORC poll found.

So, the United States maintains a decent international reputation as a haven for personal freedom. But that's cold comfort in a world growing less free, in which Americans themselves are alarmed about the status of their liberty.