Freedom and democracy seemed to be on an unstoppable march worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s, but the march has stalled or been pushed back over the last decade. That is the takeaway from Freedom in the World 2015, Freedom House’s annual survey of political and legal rights around the world. For the ninth straight year, Freedom House finds a worldwide decline in freedom with more countries registering declines than gains (61 vs. 33) and the number of countries with gains the lowest since 2005.
All is not doom and gloom, however, for democracy advocates. In the 1990s, the fall of the Iron Curtain turned most of Eastern Europe green (“free”) on the Freedom House map, and South Africa went from purple (“not free”) to green with the fall of apartheid An interactive series of every-five-year maps on the Freedom House web site shows further significant gains for freedom since 1995. In the Americas, Brazil and Peru changed from yellow (“partly free”) to green; in Africa, Ghana; and in Asia, India.
The most recent reports and maps, however, show dashed hopes for democratization in much of the world. Russia went from partly free in 2000 to not free by 2005 and ever since. The former Soviet republics in the Caucasus also regressed from yellow to purple, and democratization never caught hold in the “stans” of Central Asia. Mexico has regressed from free to partly free. Most of Central America is yellow, along with the South American holdouts of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
Perhaps most discouragingly, the new report shows in vivid purple the disappointment among those who hoped the Arab Spring of 2011 would bring political reform to the region that stretches from Morocco eastward across North Africa to Iraq in the Middle East. Today, there is one green spot: Tunisia, rated free on the basis of a liberal constitution and a largely nonviolent transition to competitive, multiparty elections for parliament and president in 2014.Tunisia is the first Arab country to be rated free since Lebanon in the 1970s before the outbreak of its protracted civil war.
The rest of the Arab world is not free except for partly free Kuwait, Lebanon, and Morocco. Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has regressed from the heady days post-Tahrir Square to a rights-repressing autocracy headed, yet again, by a former general. “Egypt looks like a country just like it was before the Arab Spring,” says Jeremy Pressman, a Middle East expert at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
A decade after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Iraq is rated not free despite the blood, treasure, and expertise that the United States has spent toward establishing a stable, working democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Competitive elections, yes, but freedom not so much even before the terroristic advent of the Islamic State.
Within the past year, two countries that had been making advances, Libya and Yemen, have descended into civil wars fought along ethnic and sectarian lines. The Syrian civil war, about to enter its fifth year, continues with no resolution in sight. And Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally, remains all but impervious to political reform. Freedom House rates it among the “worst of the worst” countries worldwide.
Freedom House says the “upsurge” in terrorist attacks Nigeria is one other disheartening example has contributed to the global decline in freedom along with what the report calls “more repressive tactics by authoritarian regimes.” Arch Puddington, the group’s research director, notes that authoritarian governments are adopting more “nuanced” tactics of repression: China’s censorship of the Internet is an example. And many of the authoritarian leaders are now expressing open contempt for democratic values instead of promising to move toward democracy but at their own pace.
Puddington stresses, however, that freedom’s bad numbers for the past few years are no reason for despair. “The white knuckles of the dictators should not be seen as a sign of their confidence, but of their fears,” he says. As for the scourge of terrorism, Puddington says in effect that it must be met not so much by force as by democratic reforms aimed at solving the underlying social and economic problems that draw the disenchanted and the marginalized to violence.
The United States has learned in Afghanistan and Iraq of the difficulties of nation-building. Yet the National Security Strategy, which the White House released and submitted to Congress on Friday [Feb. 6], again commits the United States to promoting and defending democracy, human rights, and equality worldwide specifically citing the transitions away from authoritarianism in Tunisia and Burma. It also speaks of “empowering future leaders,” combating corruption, and responding to human rights abuses, including gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.
In other sections, the administration calls for “strategic patience” and a transition to a “sustainable global defense posture” around the world. Republicans mocked President Obama’s strategy as toothless in the face of mounting security challenges from, among others, Russia and ISIS. On democracy promotion, the report is similarly subject to criticism as more aspirational than programmatic. Yet patience is both needed and inevitable as freedom advances in places and retreats at times in others. The past few years have been discouraging for advocates of democracy, but overall the arc of history seems to be bending toward freedom.