Without Israel, a reckless driver could drive from the northeastern tip of Russia, the one facing Alaska, to the southwestern tip of Angola, without passing through a single so-called “free” country or even “Partially free”.
This discouraging map alone justifies the explosive title of “Democracy Under Siege”, a report by the NGO Freedom House.
The authors of the report add to the dismal data. In no year since 2005 has the number of countries that have improved their democratic institutions exceeded the number of countries that have weakened them.
Recent criminals include the strongest country in the world (United States) and the second most populous country (India). China, potentially the dominant country of the century, received only nine points of general freedom (out of 100 possible).
There is no lack of methodological problems here. Should “punitive” tactics against immigration lower America’s score? And what is this “exacerbated income inequality” story included in a civic exam?
Even so, to the extent that values are quantifiable, the liberal style of government follows a well-documented downward trajectory. The United States and the West at large have only one solace: most of the crisis is not their fault. It follows that crisis aid is a task that is beyond their reach.
There is nothing strange, not even yet, about the lack of freedom. It is the democratic boom observed since the Cold War that constitutes the historical aberration. Countries with little or no experience with free institutions have finally repeated them. While the ensuing setback is tragic, it takes a special kind of ingenuity to feel very shocked.
If there is a “democratic recession,” it started from a singular peak and it was never lasting. Like most recessions, it has not reversed all of the advances of the previous expansion. The real novelty is the tenacity with which democracy has resisted in much of ex-communist Europe and in South America. There, despite the fears surrounding Brazil, only Venezuela is “not free”.
It is telling that the illiberalization of the world continues, regardless of what the United States does. If the process began in 2006, then what Freedom House describes as “the eclipse of American leadership” under Donald Trump cannot be held responsible.
US presidents throughout this period include a belligerent leader and democracy propagator (George W. Bush), an orthodox liberal (Barack Obama) and an amoral nationalist, in the person of Trump himself.
Whether America uses equitable force, defends world order, or mocks dictators, the vital signs of democracy have not wavered in response. At some point, Washington might be forced to face the possibility that other countries have free will. The State of the World is not the sum of American foreign policies, whether crude, well-meaning, or grossly well-meaning.
It is difficult to know which political party most needs this lesson. The Democrats’ misconception is that Trump, either directly or through his negligence and inaction, has a lot to do with the democratic malaise of the world (besides promoting it at home). Among the martial right, belief in a cause-and-effect foreign policy extends to the surprisingly persistent idea that America “lost” China to communism in 1949.
Although tasteless, the alternative point of view seems almost too subversive to consider. She says that democracy should not be the teleological destiny of all countries. The means used to promote it which come from outside are often unreasonable (wars) or have an irregular effectiveness (sanctions).
And if the West has failed to take the liberty of establishing itself as a global standard while in the ascendant, it is unlikely to do so at a time when the balance of the world power is tilting more and more towards the East.
It’s not as if leadership by example works. A phrase is circulating that President Joe Biden can help democracy internationally by protecting it at home. It’s a sweet idea, which allows for a measure of idealism without the brutal failures of Iraq and Libya. And, intuitively, it seems to be true.
The problem is to reconcile the theory with the facts. It is clear that American democracy was healthier in 1971 than in 2021. But the number of democracies in the rest of the world was much smaller in 1971.
Throughout the 1960s, as the United States extended the franchise to millions of black voters, the world watching it “should” have been inspired. Instead, autocracies have mushroomed. Even if we allow a delay and forget about it, it is difficult to identify a correlation, let alone a causal link, between the domestic life of the United States and the fate of freedom in the world.
The reason we need to strengthen democracy at home is that it is an innate asset. The idea that it makes any difference to the rest of the world has become one of those maxims that only survive through repetition.
The universal franchise has more or less a century. Before their last disappearances, republics as consolidated as India and America went through the emergency (a state of emergency in effect in India between 1975 and 1977) and the period of racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws.
I am 39 years old; I was born before several democracies in Europe. When the liberal system is not harassed, it is news. The desperation of its decline is only natural. It would be more fitting to be amazed at his survival.