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As Democratic Freedoms Decline Globally, the U.S. Must Do More
by Daniel Calingaert
Executive Vice President
These are hard times for democracy, reminiscent of 40 years ago, when communist governments, autocrats, military juntas, and white-minority rulers were firmly in control of most countries, and the United States largely accepted them as a permanent fixture of the international landscape. But that time 40 years ago marked the beginning of a historic wave of democratization. The United States came to champion the cause of democratic change and to exert significant influence in bringing that change about.
The Obama administration is hesitant to push for democracy abroad and exercise US leadership in defense of democratic principles. In this, it is in sync with a significant segment of the Republican Party and the American public. Its apprehension is partly a response to recent setbacks for democracy and US failures to advance democratic change, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Freedom House’s annual country-by-country survey, on political rights and civil liberties have suffered eight straight years of global decline.
Democracy is more widespread than it was four decades ago—45 percent of countries were rated “free” in 2013 by Freedom House as compared to 25 percent in 1975. There is no central ideological challenge to democracy, as communism presented back then, and with rare exceptions, authoritarian rulers claim a popular mandate through elections, whether fair or flawed.
These rulers typically have integrated their countries into the global economy and presented themselves as respectable members of the international community, who launch diplomatic initiatives to advance peace, for instance to rid Syria of chemical weapons, chair intergovernmental bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and host Olympic games, soccer World Cups, and international expos.
Modern authoritarians usually are subtler than the thuggish dictators of old, but are equally pernicious. They maintain the outward appearance of pluralism, with elections, civil society, and independent media, as they undermine its content. They incrementally gain control over key state institutions, such as parliament and the judiciary, that are meant to check their power, and they silence their most vocal critics in underhanded ways even as they permit some autonomous groups to operate and allow some measure of media diversity.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.