Five Books to Help You Understand the State of Global Freedom

The second installment of our ongoing series features books that help explain the factors leading to the decline in democratic freedom worldwide, as well as examples of and roadmaps for reversing those declines.

books stacked in a book store


“Global freedom faces a dire threat.”

That was the opening line of the 2022 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s landmark annual report on the state of democracy, fundamental freedoms, and civil liberties across 210 countries and territories. Ahead of the 50th anniversary of Freedom in the World this March, it’s worth taking a step back to examine the current state of global freedom and how it came to be, identify the factors contributing to freedom’s 16-year decline, and hypothesize on what can be done to arrest and reverse that decline.

Below are a handful of books you may find useful in that effort. Each explains key components of the current geopolitical environment within which we live, is written by respected experts and researchers, and cites historical data from Freedom in the World.


Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction

2020, Penguin Books

The news cycle assumes a lot of you—that you know which country has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, or which countries make up the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), or what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) does. If (like most people) you do not have a degree in international relations or know the answer to one of more of those questions, then perhaps you should check out Richard Haass’s broad geopolitical primer, The World: A Brief Introduction. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly an advisor to US president George H.W. Bush, covers roughly 400 years of history in just 378 pages. Dividing the globe into six regions, Haass gives a brief history of each, including pertinent economic and demographic info and conflict triggers. Onto this framework, Haass overlays global challenges (like climate change, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism) and the complicated network of alliances, treaties, and other mutual military and economic agreements connecting countries and regions. The World is a Rosetta Stone of sorts for interpreting headlines and will help you get a sense of why and how things are as they are.

Oh, and to answer those questions above. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear stockpile. There are 5 permanent members on the UNSC (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and 10 rotating members (currently Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates). The IMF assesses and advises governments on economic and financial matters and can provide economic assistance to countries in distress.


Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency

2019, Penguin Books

Long ago in the halcyon days of 2019, Stanford’s Larry Diamond identified three primary threats to global democracy: Chinese influence, naked Russian aggression, and softening American leadership. Four years later, we’ve begun to grasp the astonishing scope of China’s worldwide media influence, Russia is engaged in an unjustified and illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the United States continues to sort through the fallout of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. In Ill Winds, Diamond prescribes a resurgent American democracy as a counterbalance to rising authoritarianism in the Far East, a resurgence driven by freer and fairer elections, an investment in media literacy, and other reforms. And while events of the past four years have underscored threats facing democracy, they have also opened a window of opportunity to address those threats. The Chinese government is wobbling in the face of pandemic-related economic pressures and a growing appetite for dissent. Russia’s military has crumpled against the stone wall of Ukrainian resilience and Vladimir Putin’s government finds itself more isolated than ever before. And in the United States, election deniers fared poorly in the 2022 midterms and Congress has passed reforms to the Electoral Count Act.


Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning

2018, HarperCollins

Few spoke more authoritatively about the long arm of fascism than the late Madeleine Albright. Three of her grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, and she and her family were forced to flee the Nazi occupation of her native Czechoslovakia. In her 2018 book, Fascism: A Warning, Albright draws parallels between divisive tactics leveraged by contemporary strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, and Kim Jong Un with those used by their 20th-century predecessors. Much in the same way that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini leveraged economic upheaval and well-worn religious and racial prejudices to drive their fascist agendas, modern strongmen are tapping into anger related to issues like migration and global economic uncertainty. Whatever the era, leaders in this vein are adept at exploiting instability, inspiring violence, and silencing opposition to advance extreme agendas. Stopping them requires active engagement and resistance from those who believe in fundamental rights and freedoms. It is easier to leverage divisions rather than bridge them, but history is littered with instances of freedom-loving people taking a stand on the right side of history. We wouldn’t be having this discourse otherwise.


Dan Slater and Joseph Wong, From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia

2022, Princeton University Press

Political scientists have long assumed that economic development and democratization are directly proportional in a sense. Why then are there so few Free countries in Asia, where economic growth has been extensive since the end of the Second World War? Yes, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have managed to establish and perpetuate strong economies and reliably democratic governments. But how do you explain Indonesia’s struggle to transition to a full-fledged democracy despite its membership in the Group of Twenty (G20)? How did China become both the world’s second largest economy and the archetype of authoritarian reach? Wong and Slater attempt to establish how and why democracy established itself in some Asian countries, what stands in the way of other countries embarking on a similar path, and when and how those other countries might be compelled to choose democratic reform.


Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure

2022, Penguin Books

It’s appropriate to ask, given that only about 20 percent of the world’s population lives in a Free country, why democracy is in short supply in spite of such high demand. The answer, according to author and professor Yascha Mounk, is simple enough—because democracy is hard. And the more diverse the democracy, the more difficult it becomes to navigate divisions and create something akin to e pluribus unum. In The Great Experiment, Mounk outlines those challenges before offering a playbook for how citizens can build on shared goals and values and use them to overcome cultural battles, prejudices, and homogeneous impulses. That playbook includes prioritizing economic mobility and equality, increasing transparency and encouraging citizen participation in government, and minimizing polarization and partisanship. Granted, that prescription is much easier to write than to fulfill. But Mounk cites hopeful anecdotes from around the world suggesting that societies are making headway against faulty “us versus them” narratives pushed by divisive leaders and groups and “supported” by dubious data.