Were it not for Israel, a rash motorist could drive from Russia’s north-eastern, Alaska-facing tip to the south-western point of Angola without passing through a “free” or even “partly free” country. That daunting map alone earns Democracy Under Siege, a report by the Freedom House watchdog, its lurid title.
The authors then lather on the sombre details. In no year since 2005 have more countries improved their democratic institutions than weakened them. Recent malefactors include the strongest nation (the US) and the second most populous (India). China, the potential master of the century, scores nine out of 100 for overall freedom.
Methodological snags abound here. Should “punitive” immigration tactics bring down the US score? And what’s all this about “exacerbated income inequality” in a civic review? Still, to the extent that values are quantifiable, the liberal style of government is in well-charted decline. The US and the wider west have just one consolation. Most of the crisis is not their fault. It follows that its alleviation is a task beyond them.
There is nothing strange, or even new, about unfreedom. It was the democratic boom after the cold war that constitutes the historic aberration. Countries with little or no experience of free institutions trialled them at last. While the subsequent backsliding is tragic, it takes a special kind of innocence to feel much shock. If there is a “democratic recession”, it began from a unique, never-sustainable high. Like most recessions, it has not undone all the gains of the prior expansion. If anything, the real news is how tenaciously democracy has stuck in much of ex-communist Europe and South America. There, despite qualms about Brazil, only Venezuela is “not free”.
Tellingly, the world’s de-liberalisation goes on regardless of what the US does. If the process began in 2006, then what Freedom House calls the “eclipse of US leadership” under Donald Trump cannot bear the explanatory weight. Presidents over the period include a warlike democracy-spreader (George W Bush), an orthodox liberal (Barack Obama) and, in Trump himself, an amoral nationalist. Whether America was using righteous force, upholding the global order or flattering strongmen, the life signs of democracy did not flicker in response. At some point, Washington may have to entertain the possibility that other countries possess free will. The state of the world is not the sum of US foreign policies, whether brutish, well-meaning or brutishly well-meaning.
It is hard to know which political party needs the lesson more. Among Democrats, the delusion is that Trump, either directly or through neglect, had much to do with the world’s democratic malaise (beyond advancing it at home). On the martial right, the belief in cause-and-effect foreign policy extends to the stunningly persistent notion that America “lost” China to communism in 1949.
For all its blandness, the alternative view feels almost subversive to put forward. That is, democracy need not be the teleological destiny of all countries. Means of stoking it from outside are often reckless (war) or patchily effective (sanctions). And if the west could not entrench freedom as the global standard when it was ascendant, it is hardly likely to as the balance of world power tilts increasingly eastward.
It is not even as if leadership through example achieves much. There is a line doing the rounds that President Joe Biden can help democracy abroad by securing it at home. It is a sweet thought, one that allows for a measure of idealism without the violent fiascos of Iraq and Libya. It also feels intuitively true.
The trouble is squaring the theory with the facts. American democracy was plainly healthier in 1971 than it is in 2021. But the number of democracies elsewhere was much lower. Through the 1960s, as the US enfranchised millions of black voters, a watching world “should” have been inspired. Instead, autocracies proliferated. Even if we allow for a lag, and squint really hard, it is hard to spot a correlation, much less a causal link, between the internal life of the US and the fate of freedom on earth. The reason to shore up democracy at home is that it is an innate good. That it makes the slightest difference abroad has become one of those tenets that survive only with repetition.
The universal franchise is just a century or so old. Republics as established as India and America knew the Emergency and Jim Crow before their more recent lapses. Aged 39, I predate several democracies in Europe. When the liberal system is not under siege, that is news. Despair at its decline is only natural. Amazement at its survival is more fitting.