A new report concludes 'democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades,' as declines in freedom continue to accelerate, including among key U.S. allies.
“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.
The following are excerpts from Episode 30, “Freedom in Retreat,” with guests Sarah Repucci (Freedom House), Thomas Carothers (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and Rosarie Tucci (U.S. Institute of Peace).
The status of freedom worldwide
Sarah Repucci: “Based on our analysis, which is looking at 195 countries around the world, we really see democracy facing its most serious crisis in decades. It’s really under assault and in retreat all over the world. We saw 2017 as the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom in democracy.
And that decline actually has been accelerating, and it’s affecting more and more important and influential countries – countries like Turkey and Poland, Kenya – and even here in the United States.
It’s not just in every region in the world, but it’s also in both established democracies and in more authoritarian settings. This decline is affecting all sorts of countries around the world.”
The free press often goes first
Sarah Repucci: “Freedom of the press is usually one [freedom] that goes pretty early on.
It’s pretty easy to control by a government that wants to exert its power; You can suppress independent voices, you can shut down media outlets or have them bought up by your friends, you can arrest journalists.
And once you’ve shut down free speech in that way, you’ve closed off the channel for a lot of people to understand what is happening in their country and that, indirectly, suppresses dissent – it makes people more compliant because they don’t know what’s going on, and they can’t hold their government to account. And so by controlling the media you’re able to control other parts of the political system.”
The status of freedom in the United States
Sarah Repucci: “We’ve always looked at the United States, as long as we’ve looked at freedom in all countries, and we hold the U.S. to the same standards. And the United States really remains a free democracy on a global scale, but we have been seeing a gradual decline in freedom over the past seven or so years in the United States.
And that drop did get steeper this year. And we’re watching very closely especially issues of conflict of interest, issues of government transparency, and the impact of the Russian interference on our electoral system and the response of the government to prevent that from happening in the future. Those are all big concerns for us this year. And we’re also watching freedom of the media and independence of the judiciary as sort of ongoing concerns.”
Why the U.S. should care about declining global freedom
Thomas Carothers: “It matters a lot. It matters first that, in a simple sense, the United States does better as a country if we live in a world that’s friendly to our values.
It’s not hard to think of lots of analogies. If you’re out in a group of people who share your basic values, you’re going to have an easier time getting along with them, you’re going to feel more at home, you’re going to be more productive and so forth.
The same is true with our country. When we go out to work together with other countries – whether on economic matters or to solve security problems or political cooperation – it’s a lot more straightforward if those countries share our basic values of freedom and democracy.
When we don’t, that’s usually when we get into the biggest problems, and most of our most serious problems in our foreign policy over the last 10 or 20 years have been with countries that fundamentally don’t share our political values.”
Freedom, stability and American interests are all connected
Rosarie Tucci: “When freedom declines, stability declines, and that has a host of other reprocussions. So businesses become skittish in investing in insecure countries, the U.S. has less reliable partners to build coalitions with and address global challenges like migration or climate change.
And when I talk about stability declining, it’s because people don’t have that ability to express their grievances, and then they resort to violence.
And so, while here at the U.S. Institute of Peace we work with grassroots activists to demonstrate how non-violent action is more successful than violent action, when people’s avenues to protest or assemble for vigils or submit petitions is cut off, they feel that they have few options left to voice their concerns. So that’s the manifestation of freedom declining.”
The wrong lessons from the Arab Spring
Thomas Carothers: “In the Arab world in around 2010 and 2011, suddenly there was this surprising movement towards democracy, or at least toward open discontent toward dictatorial governments in Tunisia, in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
Now it didn’t turn out very well in most place. It either turned into civil war in some places or a return to dictatorship. And so you’ll hear some people say, ‘well, we tried democracy in the Arab world, and look, all we got as instability.’
That’s really the wrong way to look at what happened. The reason there’s instability in a place like Libya for example, which has really just fallen apart in a tremendous way, is they had decades and decades of dictatorial rule that built no stable and accountable institutions. And so when citizens got fed up with that system and tried to take it apart, there was nothing there to take its place.
And so it’s the legacy of decades and decades of dictatorship in Libya, in Syria, and in Yemen and other places that has led to the instability. And so we have to be really careful not to blame democracy for the ills and the track record of dictatorship. But I’ve seen that happen, both here in Washington and out around the country when I speak to people about this topic.”
The U.S. model doesn’t look so great right now
Thomas Carothers: “The U.S. has been, imperfect though we are as a democracy – troubled in many ways throughout our whole history from slavery onward – nevertheless the U.S. has been an example of success, and if someone is in another country and says, ‘what are the countries that really do well and what kind of political system do they have,’ people joined to the United States and said, ‘wow, that’s quite an example.
And these days we’re not broadcasting a model of success. People are saying, ‘eh, division, your country just seems to be caught in hatred and polarization and paralysis, and is that really such a good system?’ And that speaks loudly in the world, that fact. Us broadcasting an example of a system that is failing a little bit is having some significant negative effects on the overall state of democracy in the world.”
What the U.S. is doing wrong
Withdrawing from multilateral institutions
Thomas Carothers: “One of the most important things when the United States or any other democracy tries to support democracy outside its borders is persuading others that what you’re doing isn’t just about your own narrow self-interest, but is a broader endeavor based on values. And the more you do it in partnership with other countries and with other kinds of institutions, the more persuasive that is.”
Failing to condemn bad behavior by allies
Thomas Carothers: “The United States does have a strong impact, particularly on its allies and partners, of constraining them from going down a dictatorial path, because they know that the United States traditionally has preferred to be friend with democracies.
So, unfortunately, when the United States sends out signals – which unfortunately the Trump Administration has been doing over the last year – that it really doesn’t care about the political status of some of its friends – the Philippine president who has done of lot of terrible things in his country with respect to human rights and is suddenly a buddy of the U.S. president, he feels less constrained about doing those bad things. It’s not that complicated. And so the sense of a number of pretty bad strongmen out there in the world feeling unconstrained now – that wow, the U.S. doesn’t care, I can do what I want – is strong.”
Pitting freedom against stability
Rosarie Tucci: “So what I saw was government officials prioritizing stability over freedom or, worse yet, pitting them against each other as if it’s an either-or issue, but I continue to argue that freedom and security are integrally linked.
I think that’s why we were a little bit late to the game – because it was always about stability, stability, stability and not recognizing that freedom brings stability.”
Explore the issue:
- The 2018 Freedom in the World Report
- Thomas Carothers, “Democracy Promotion Under Trump: What Has Been Lost? What Remains?”