The Freedom Stagnation

Each year since 1972, Freedom House has published a report on the state of global freedom. Freedom in the World assesses the state of political rights and civil liberties in each of the world's countries, and ranks the countries within three designations: Free, Partly free, or Not Free.

Our new report indicates that global freedom suffered its third straight year of decline in 2008. Most regions experienced stagnation, with few gains or declines, and Africa and the former Soviet Union experiencing the most acute deterioration.

However, it is important to keep in mind that we are not in the midst of a major retreat from freedom. Rather, new democracies are failing to curb corruption, autocratic regimes are growing somewhat more authoritarian, and the "worst of the worst" -- the most autocratic governments -- are taking steps to render poor environments even worse.

What does all this tell us about the record of President Bush's Freedom Agenda? While Bush stressed the importance of freedom as an American value, his administration was criticized for its counterterrorism policies. Others criticized Bush for employing a rhetoric that was not supported by consistent policies, especially with regard to key American allies. On the other hand, policy changes that linked U.S. aid to democratic governance and made the expansion of democracy in the Middle East a priority were important steps forward.

Clearly, the Bush record will stand as a source of controversy. It is worth emphasizing that domestic reformers are invariably the main force for change, and no outsider can take credit for a country's democratic transformation. That being said, there may be some utility in assessing the fortunes of global democracy during the Bush presidency, as measured in Freedom in the World.

For the period between 2000 and 2008, the record shows modest progress in terms of overall status, with three more countries ranked as Free and six fewer countries designated as Not Free.

At the same time, an assessment based more subtle indicators than the Free, Partly Free, and Not Free designations suggests a more positive record during the Bush years. A total of 81 countries, over 40 percent of the world total, registered numerical improvements, with 36 moving backward. Significantly, the only area to show outright decline during the Bush years was the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, potent evidence of a steadily growing "freedom divide" between those former communist countries that have joined, or sought to join, the European Union, and those which remain under the strong influence of Russia. In the Middle East, nine countries, or half of the regional total, showed gains, while two countries registered declines.

While data from Freedom in the World indicate that freedom moved in a positive direction during the Bush years, those gains were concentrated in his first term, and the same data show a turnaround in democracy's fortunes beginning in 2005 and continuing through 2008. Early 2005 marked the culmination of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the most significant, and thus far the most enduring, of the three recent color revolutions -- largely nonviolent protest movements that succeeded in supplanting corrupt and autocratic governments in the former Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the events in Ukraine, a number of governments took measures to repress domestic opposition, weaken independent media, and hinder democracy assistance efforts by nongovernmental organizations based in the United States and elsewhere. A reflection of this antidemocratic resurgence is the global decline in freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the rule of law over the past three years.

The full impact of this pushback against freedom remains unclear. But it is indisputable that the effort has had an effect in a number of regions. The countries whose governments have been the most outspoken in denouncing internal democratic forces and alleged subversion by outsiders, and the most aggressive in repressing opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, and independent media -- namely China, Egypt, Iran, Cuba, Russia, and Zimbabwe -- also rank among the more repressive states in Freedom in the World. While leading authoritarian regimes have succeeded in implementing more sophisticated and less
obviously brutal methods to silence alternative voices and prevent the development of a credible democratic opposition, they have also demonstrated a willingness to use whatever means are necessary to maintain total political control.

The United States will face serious challenges in developing strategies to counter the gathering authoritarian resurgence. For the Obama administration, these challenges will be complicated by the worldwide economic crisis. The new administration will also face pressure from those who contend that the promotion of freedom should be abandoned as a foreign policy goal in order to improve relations with authoritarian adversaries.

President Obama should reject the premise that engaging with authoritarian adversaries means ignoring acts of repression. Democracies have numerous and nuanced instruments--including the tools of traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy, and assistance programs -- that can be deployed to register disapproval, censure acts of persecution, or shine the light of publicity on a regime's dark corners. In a period when democracy's antagonists are increasingly assertive and its adherents are filled with doubt, the American leadership in particular should develop creative strategies to carry forward the struggle for freedom.

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House.

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