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

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
, 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

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

The dictator plots his next move.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!)

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
I wrote about the notion that liberty is in retreat around
the globe. That time I was responding to a New
 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
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

from Hit & Run

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