By Jonathan Power
In the year 2000, George W. Bush became the victor of an imperfect presidential election. The less than straightforward way that Bush won and, in particular, how obvious it became that the US Supreme Court had become a political creature, raised the profound worry that this would rub off on many parts of the world.
One can’t prove it, but I suggest that that, together with later shenanigans surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, including his refusal to accept the election result and the riot of January 6, when his supporters stormed the Capitol, there is some correlation between these events and the decline of democracy in many parts of the world.
When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he made the pursuit of human rights and democracy a major goal of his Administration. It had an impact. Again, one can’t prove the correlation, but the fact is the number of democracies increased. Later, when the Cold War ended, the number jumped even faster, suggesting that how the superpowers behave affects the political chemistry of states the world over.
People have looked to the United States to set global standards. No longer. When the US preaches today about democracy and human rights many people close their ears, whether it be to the criticism of President Vladimir Putin, India’s President Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or many others around the globe.
Nevertheless, there is still room for some optimism. Despite the setbacks in recent years, the fact is that a lot of progress has been made. One must compare today’s world with the early years of the last century when no one lived in a country with fully competitive multiparty politics complete with universal suffrage. Or even fifty years ago when there were only 22 functioning democracies. Today there are 21.
The New York-based Freedom House does a good job in measuring the ebbs and flows of democracy, press freedom and judicial responsibility. In one of its reports, it noted that “there is a high and statistically significant correlation between the level of political freedom as measured by Freedom House and economic freedom as measured by the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation survey”.
This effectively answers the old conundrum of whether the large number of prosperous countries are free as a consequence of their prosperity and development or whether prosperity is a consequence of basic political and civic freedoms. Economic growth is certainly possible in an unfree political culture, but political freedom accelerates it. Repressive countries with high and sustained economic growth rates, such as China, are the exception rather than the rule.
In its latest annual report Freedom House says: “The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 per cent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 per cent now live in Free countries”.
However, Freedom House does overstate the decline. Half of this 38% live in China and another large portion in Africa and India. Take away those three parts of the world and the global picture looks rosier. (India used to be characterised as “free” but under the government of Narendra Modi with his persecution of Muslims it is regarded as “Partly Free”. Its democracy remains vibrant.)
Freedom House says the number of “free countries” is 83, “partly free” 56 and “not free” 56.
In its rankings where 100 is top, the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand are 100, the UK scores 93, Uruguay is 97, Taiwan is 94, Canada 98, Costa Rica 91, Ghana 80, Brazil 73 and Yemen 9. Russia is 19, Ukraine is 61 and the US is 91.
A good deal of the progress of the last two decades has been made in the face of the media’s obsession with ethnic warfare that has worked to convince a gullible public that the world was spinning out of control, and that western nations in particular were in danger of being drawn increasingly into a vortex of bloody civil wars.
In fact, as one investigation after another has shown, the impression of a growing number of inter-ethnic conflicts is considerably exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is true that democracy stands a greater chance of success in mono-ethnic countries. Freedom House research shows that 75% of “free” countries have a dominant ethnic majority. In “partly free” countries 58% are ethnically divided and among the “not free” states it is 47%. In short, a state with a dominant ethnic group is well over three times more likely to be free than a multi-ethnic state.
Since the end of the Second World War, we have seen tremendous progress, but now we see some measure of deceleration. The question remains, is the world’s most influential country, with the example it sets, undoing the good work?
The US is not in good shape. A just issued report by the United Nations Office of Sustainable Development states that the US which last year ranked 32nd out of 193 UN member states has dropped 11 places in a single year and trails even Ukraine and Cuba. (Scandinavian countries head the list.) The UN is not the only entity to flag the US as a nation in decline. The Economist magazine in its own tables on political freedom classifies the US as “a flawed democracy”.
To me, it’s clear that if we want to see a more democratic, open and just world, the US has to get its act together. At a time when a new survey shows that 40% of Americans expect a second civil war it is easy to lose hope. For the time being, until that happens, the government of the US should stop telling the rest of the world what’s wrong with it. Its credibility has shattered. It should take as its high point the presidency of Jimmy Carter and earnestly work to dig itself out of the dire hole it is in today.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com