A Farewell to 2016: Freedom in the World Continues to Recede

December 14, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, forces opposed to political and religious freedom, free trade and open markets, freedom of expression, freedom of press, judicial independence, and a rules-based international order continue to gain momentum, continuing a disturbing, uninterrupted trend for the past decade. Liberal democracy, so ascendant with the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago, increasingly seems on the defensive, as democratic governments struggle with, among other things, slow economic growth and stubbornly poor GDP to debt ratios, immigration, terrorism, and the return of nationalistic populism as a serious political force. Democracy has faced and overcome more serious challenges in the past and emerged the stronger for it, so no need to completely despair for the future. However, those challenges were not without serious costs in treasure and human life, so the current illiberal trend should not be dismissed lightly.

The non-profit Freedom House, which methodically analyzes the countries of the world to determine if they are ‘free’, ‘partly-free’ or ‘not free’, estimated that at the end of 2015 only 44% of the world’s countries are ‘free’, down from 46% in 2005. The percentage of ‘partly free’ countries remained at 30%, and the number of ‘non-free’ countries in the world stood at 26%, the highest since 1995. In 2015, 72 countries experienced a decline in freedom, compared with only 43 that made gains. From 2005-2015, 105 countries experienced a decline in freedom, and only 61 experienced gains. Furthermore, the percentage of the global population living in non-free countries in 2016 stands at 36%, greater than in 2000. The numbers are not expected to improve in 2016.

Russia and China are spearheading this trend. Both Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and the Chinese Communist Party view the Western liberal political tradition as a threat to their power, even as both governments have long since rejected state-planned socialist economies. Among other ambitions, what both nations want replaced, or at least significantly altered, is the 70-year Western-based financial system first envisioned at Bretton Woods in 1944, a system under which the United States has thrived, in part because the U.S. dollar has been the world’s reserve currency.

After communism found itself on the ‘ash heap of history’ at the end of the 1980s, liberal democracy ostensibly stood alone as the only political model with true legitimacy, successfully established in all parts of the world, across cultures and continents alike. Sure, other forms of government still existed, such as Iran’s unique brand of theocracy and various forms of monarchy, but none could claim many adherents outside their borders. Nowhere were citizens of democracies, regardless of their race or religion, advocating in large numbers to toss off their democratic models in favor of a theocracy or monarchy.

So, with no serious challenge to liberal democracy remaining, what accounts for freedom’s ten-year decline? Freedom House, after all, is measuring the things that make liberal democracy possible and legitimate in the first place.

When Francis Fukuyama published his famous ‘End of History’ essay in Foreign Policy magazine in 1989, he was widely criticized, somewhat unfairly in the opinion of many, for being a naïve optimist. Fukuyama followed up the article with a book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, a much more comprehensive examination, both philosophical and historical, of the reasons liberal democracy had triumphed as the only legitimate political model. Fukuyama, of course, did not dream this up on his own. He was advancing to a large degree the arguments of Russian-born philosopher Alexander Kojeve in the 1930s, and German philosophers George F. Hegel in the early 1800s and Immanuel Kant in the late 1700s. Liberal democracy’s triumph by 1989 seemed to affirm both Kant’s contention that history had meaning, and Hegel’s subsequent claim that that meaning, or the engine driving history forward, was in fact man’s quest for freedom. Fukuyama was careful to warn that democracy was still non-existent or a work in progress in many areas of the world, and that more conflict was inevitable. He even posited that more setbacks were quite possible. View democracy’s global spread a bit like markets. There are temporary setbacks or ‘crashes’, but in the long run the trajectory is positive.

Looking back from where we are at the end of 2016, do the events of the past 25 years undermine Fukuyama’s entire argument, or simply align with his warning about setbacks? Only time will truly tell. But even if democracy’s current ten-year slide backwards is only temporary, it is important to try to understand the phenomenon behind it and the potential consequences of it.

The good news first. It is still true that no alternative political ideology has emerged to seriously challenge democracy’s legitimacy. Fascism and communism had their run, and remain discredited. Islamic theocracy does not resonate with the political consciousness of the non-Islamic world, and is actually not very popular across most of the Islamic world. Where Sunni Islamists have taken power, in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s and in parts of Iraq and Syria more recently, they have failed spectacularly to govern effectively. Radical jihad is a virulence that will be with us for a long time, but it is not the primary reason freedom is on the decline around the world.

Now the bad news. What continues to emerge and spread is what can be called ‘sham’ democracy, or a form of authoritarianism that cynically pays lip service to some democratic norms without actually believing in them. Fascists had open contempt for democracy, viewing it as weak and decadent. Communists viewed democracy as a political model giving top-cover to corrupt and unjust capitalism, where the owners of production could forever exploit the working class. Many of today’s authoritarians, such as Vladimir Putin, do not attempt to appropriate a discredited ideology or invent a new one to starkly oppose democracy. Instead they hold highly flawed elections, allow free market enterprise as long as it doesn’t embolden political dissent, allow limited freedom of press, and so forth, all in the belief that most people will favor their authoritarian-heavy model over very messy and chaotic ‘real’ democracy. Sadly, their viewpoint has gained currency in recent years, even in the democratic West to some extent. How pervasive and durable it will be remains to be seen, but as mentioned at the outset, its challenge to the free world should be taken seriously.

What we do know from history is that a less free world with fewer countries committed to rules-based international systems for commerce, law, and security, is a more dangerous and unstable world. While the fight since 9/11 against actors such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State continues, the prospect of major state-state conflict has increased in the view of many, in relation to freedom’s ebb. The possibility of a major conflict below the nuclear threshold between Russia and NATO, or China and the U.S., is not as far-fetched as it seemed ten or fifteen years ago. There is growing cause for concern, and even the looming prospect of conflict on this scale will adversely impact global markets. Confidence in enduring global stability is being seriously shaken as we head into 2017.