Let’s be clear: the United States cannot single-handedly ensure the advance of freedom and democracy around the world. But, notwithstanding all too much conventional wisdom of late, America retains enormous diplomatic, economic, and other capacities to influence the course of events.
So, it’s no coincidence that, as Freedom House reported late last week, freedom declined around the world last year for the eighth straight year – a period during which Washington reduced its efforts and lowered its voice. These days, the United States downplays human rights, cozies up to autocrats, and leaves democratic activists in the world’s most strategically important regions to fight their own battles.
With all due respect to President Obama, who is focused on growing inequality in America, the course of freedom and democracy is the real “issue of our time.” Nothing will provide more opportunity and prosperity for the world’s people – and, in turn, ensure more prosperity and security for the United States – than freedom’s advance.
Notwithstanding the monumental stakes, the course of freedom may be the most underreported “issue of our time” as well, as witnessed by the sparse news coverage of Freedom House’s latest annual Freedom in the World report. Nevertheless, the information in it was timely while the analysis was insightful.
The raw figures are sobering enough. On political rights and civil liberties, 54 nations showed declines while only 40 showed improvements. The declines occurred in strategically important states across different continents, including Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Venezuela. Moreover, the number of states besieged by civil war or terrorism grew, and they included Central African Republic, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.
But raw numbers and aggregate trends merely scratch the surface of an important underlying story.
Freedom House pinpoints three big reasons for freedom’s decline: (1) the efforts of entrenched dictators and Islamic extremists to reverse the Arab Spring; (2) democracy’s decline in Eurasia as driven by Russia’s Vladimir Putin; and (3) the rise of modern authoritarianism in China, Russia, and elsewhere.
As the organization notes, threats to freedom do not arise in a vacuum; they come in the context of U.S. passivity.
As Freedom House’s David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington reminded us in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, freedom’s decline over the last eight years began soon after President George W. Bush’s triumphant declaration of 2005 that “freedom is on the march.”
Ironic? Actually, no. Soon after Bush’s declaration, he and his top team reduced their freedom-promoting efforts in the face of unexpectedly problematic results in some key places. The problem wasn’t that the United States promoted freedom and democracy but, instead, that it bungled the details.
Thus, the U.S.-led overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein led not to democracy but to bloodshed because Washington had no viable plan for a peaceful transition to a post-Saddam future. Meanwhile, an all-too-speedy push for elections in the Palestinian territories empowered the terrorist group Hamas.
Then came Obama, who proclaimed an early affinity for the realpolitik of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and, not surprisingly, has never forcefully promoted freedom and democracy, even during the heady days of the Arab Spring.
So, why is freedom in decline? Partly because, in recent years, the United States has largely turned a blind eye while longstanding dictators and newfangled autocrats restricted freedom to cement their rule.
In the Middle East, Obama has largely side-stepped the horrific slaughter of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s, ignored the increasingly authoritarian crackdown by Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and avoided the troubling topic of human rights in Iran while seeking warmer ties with its mullah-cracy.
In Eurasia, Obama wasted time on an ill-considered effort to “re-set” relations with Russia, and he’s doing little as the thuggish Putin seeks to reestablish a Soviet-style sphere of influence over his neighbors; Ukraine has become a test case for just how far Putin can go before the West responds with forceful sanctions against Putin and his allies in Kiev.
In China and Russia, Obama promotes big-power co-operation while the autocrats present an alternative model of governance to U.S.-led freedom and democracy and promote it far beyond their borders.
No, the United States cannot turn the tide of history by itself. But, America’s shrinking efforts to promote freedom around the world surely make it easier for freedom’s opponents to steer events their way.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”