Democracy is on the decline. The latest annual assessment by Freedom House, America’s watchdog, of the state of global political and civil liberties is striking. The world, he says, has become less democratic every year for the past 15 years – and, fueled by the pandemic, 2020 has been the worst yet in terms of the net number of countries recording declines. Three quarters of the world’s population lived last year in countries where freedom was diminishing; less than 20 percent lived in a free country. Hopes that the end of the Cold War would be a turning point after which democracy would develop has collapsed.
Some of the worst damage has been seen in the richest and most populous democracies in the world – the United States and India. The attack on American democracy led by its own president has accelerated a decline that began before the Trump era and places the United States among the 25 countries where rights and freedoms have diminished the most in a decade. India went from “free” to “partially free” in the Freedom House assessment, continuing an erosion of rights under Narendra Modi. Elsewhere, from Hungary to countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, leaders have used Covid-19 as a front to justify the erosion of freedoms, according to the watchdog.
The shift in the global balance reflects not only a decline in democracies, but a retaliation by autocracies. China has combined an increasingly repressive one-party regime with powerful economic growth that – as President Xi Jinping said this week – has lifted 100 yards out of poverty since 2012, allowing it to claim that its system offers a superior alternative. Authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin have learned not to face a total dictatorship but to maintain a facade of political choice. They have co-opted the internet and social media – once seen as forces of liberation – as tools of their own power.
How can democracies turn the tide? The Biden administration struck the right note this week by signaling an end to “costly military interventions” that had “given democracy promotion a bad name.” Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, admitted that attempts to overthrow authoritarian regimes, however well-intentioned, “have not worked”.
The promotion of democracy begins with us. The United States and its allies must fix their own political systems so that they can again lead by example. This means strengthening institutions, making electoral systems fair and protecting them from interference. As Freedom House notes, this also means addressing the root causes of discontent.
Euro-Atlantic countries must also find more effective means to fight against the slide between allied countries from democracies to non-democracies. The EU was not legally and institutionally prepared for the recession of some of its own members. Yet countries like Poland that have eroded the rule of law still rely on NATO to protect themselves against their old enemy – Russia; India is looking for Western allies in its rivalry with China. This gives Washington and Western capitals moral leverage.
Western democracies will not themselves “convert” the countries of the authoritarian camp, and certainly not by force. But they should step up their support and solidarity with rights groups and democracy activists, by imposing sanctions or cutting trade ties or helping governments engaged in repression. The US-European response to Russia’s imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears hopelessly weak – like Washington’s inability to take action against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As in the former Soviet empire, change can take decades. But where the democratic flame still burns, however weakly, it must be protected and nurtured.