The Ripon Forum

Volume 53, No. 6

November 2019

The State of Freedom Three Decades After the Fall

By on November 22, 2019

by MICHAEL J. ABRAMOWITZ & ARCH PUDDINGTON

The year 1989 was a turning point in the 25-year surge of progress that transformed the world from one dominated by communist dictatorships, military juntas, and strongman rule to one where democracy is the norm.

Within just six months, protest-driven popular movements swept away Soviet-style regimes in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. A few short years later, East Germany had rejoined the West, and the other former Soviet bloc countries had embraced democratic systems with honest elections, press freedom, and an array of civil liberties.

For the next two decades, the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall was celebrated as a symbol of freedom’s victory. With the exception of the Middle East, each part of the globe had its unique stories of tyranny’s demise.

How different things seem today, 30 years after that happy event. In the very region where the Iron Curtain came down, freedom has been knocked back on its heels. Governments in Hungary and Poland have distanced themselves from liberal democracy—Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán describes his system as “illiberal democracy”—and have effectively eliminated judicial independence, weakened media independence, and asserted state control over culture.

This democratic decline has spread well beyond Central Europe. Practically every region in the world has experienced reversals. Russia, after flirting with democracy in the 1990s, has returned to a repressive authoritarianism. Venezuela, once a wealthy democracy, has deteriorated into a criminal dictatorship and a major generator of refugees. Turkey is a leading jailer of journalists and civil society activists, and its strongman ruler appears likely to be entrenched in power for years to come. China is building an Orwellian state that utilizes advanced technology to monopolize the information space and control citizens’ behavior, and it is working to export its tools of repression to other countries.

Every year for the last 13 years, more countries have experienced declines in freedom than advances—the longest period of democratic regression since the report was launched in 1973.

Even the strongest democracies, including the United States, have experienced erosion, according to Freedom in the World, our organization’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties. Every year for the last 13 years, more countries have experienced declines in freedom than advances—the longest period of democratic regression since the report was launched in 1973.

A variety of reasons have been advanced to explain this decline, ranging from the flawed economic policies of liberal democracies to the global migration crisis or the rise of social media, which have made it easier for populists, extremists, and foreign powers  to undermine elections. But one especially important and perhaps less noticed trend is the emergence of a new form of authoritarian rule.

Modern authoritarian systems are not simply adversaries of free societies. They represent an alternative model that simultaneously mimics, exploits, and distorts the basic components of democracy. Modern authoritarians generally avoid mass violence and conduct elections on schedule; they maintain constitutions, civilian courts, political parties, and other institutions normally found in real democracies. But leaders like Hungary’s Orbán, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are fundamentally hostile to pluralism. They use pliant legal systems and economic pressure to hamstring viable opposition forces, squeeze out independent media, neuter civil society organizations, and silence any criticism from universities and cultural institutions.

To counter freedom’s retreat, we must first recognize that modern authoritarianism is not a passing phenomenon. It is a permanent and increasingly powerful rival to liberal democracy as the dominant governing system of the 21st century. Today autocracies are led by figures who are strategic, patient, confident, and determined to retain power indefinitely. Variations on the systems that have proved effective in suppressing political dissent and pluralism in Russia and China are less likely to collapse than traditional authoritarian states, given their flexibility and pragmatism.

To counter freedom’s retreat, we must first recognize that modern authoritarianism is not a passing phenomenon. It is a permanent and increasingly powerful rival to liberal democracy.

Authoritarian powers can be expected to intensify their efforts to influence the political choices and government policies of democracies. The pressure will fluctuate from country to country, but it will become increasingly difficult to control due to global economic integration, new technologies for the delivery of propaganda, and the activity of sympathetic leaders and political movements within the democracies themselves.

The United States and its allies won the Cold War because we took the competition with the Soviet Union seriously. We understood that the strength of democracy at home was critical to America’s credibility as leader of the democratic world. We took pride in our reputation as the world’s beacon of freedom. When challenged to defend democratic capitalism, we firmly rejected the argument that developing nations would be better served by systems that place the state over the individual, justify repression, and dismiss private economic initiative as culturally or historically inappropriate for the states in question.

Our current adversaries are in some ways much more formidable, even as we have become less self-assured. They are nimble enough to take advantage of market economics and international trade, but only when it suits them. They work full-time at undermining democracy, and they are eager to innovate. Regimes like Russia’s have proved expert at deploying the most sophisticated techniques of information warfare. When they cannot argue in favor of their own repressive systems, they instead magnify every error of democratic governance, every weakness, every sign of popular discontent, aiming to convince their audiences that the ideal of democracy is a mirage.

Today’s autocrats—in countries including China, Russia, Iran, and Cuba—have even joined together in a loose confederation of oppressors. They collaborate to defend one another against international pressure and come to the assistance of those at risk of collapse, as in Venezuela or Syria.

Although they have made gains, we must remember that authoritarians are merely playing a weak hand well. Few people actually want to live under the system that Putin has created, with its propagandistic media, political assassinations, rigged elections, and pervasive corruption. The residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong, presented with the alternative of Xi Jinping’s system in China, have made clear that they prefer democratic freedoms over censorship, the repression of religious belief, and dystopian ideological surveillance.

Those who are demanding free elections, civilian government, the rule of law, and protection from hostile neighbors continue to address their pleas for help to the United States.

Indeed, there is evidence of a widening resistance to strongman rule and domineering states. Corrupt and repressive governments have recently been replaced in Armenia and Malaysia. In Ukraine, the forces that wrested the country from a venal pro-Russian leader in 2014 have maintained a reformist course, despite Moscow’s military pressure. Persistent protest movements have emerged in Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, and elsewhere, seeking to replace demagogues and kleptocrats. And in China, Xi himself has repeatedly warned that the whole edifice created by the Communist Party will come crashing down unless ever more control is exercised over the people.

Those who are demanding free elections, civilian government, the rule of law, and protection from hostile neighbors continue to address their pleas for help to the United States. According to the New York Times, demonstrators in Hong Kong “wave American flags or Uncle Sam recruitment posters, and even dress as Captain America, complete with shield.”

The argument, frequently invoked by some political leaders, that the United States can no longer be the world’s policeman is dishonest and misleading, creating a false choice between military overreach and shameful indifference to the freedom of others. America has successfully promoted democracy through shrewd diplomacy, nonmilitary forms of aid and pressure, and its own example as a just and welcoming society. All of this rests on the strength of our system of government. Ensuring that our elections are fair and free of foreign influence, that all citizens have easy access to the polls, that government decisions are based on facts and not empty slogans, and that the reduction of inequality is a serious policy priority would not only enhance American democracy, but would also restore the world’s faith in the United States as a champion of global freedom.

Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. Arch Puddington is Freedom House’s distinguished fellow for democracy studies.

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