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Freedom House: Democracy is losing, freedom decline continues

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing in May. (Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press)
Freedom House is out with its exhaustive report on democracy and democratic trends around the world. There is very little good news: The 21st century has been marked by a resurgence of authoritarian rule that has proved resilient despite economic fragility and occasional popular resistance. Modern authoritarianism has succeeded, where previous totalitarian systems failed, due to refined and nuanced strategies of repression, the exploitation of open societies, and the spread of illiberal policies in democratic countries themselves. The leaders of today’s authoritarian systems devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.

The trend is disheartening, to say the least. Every indicator of freedom it tracks — free expression, pluralism, rule of law, individual rights, etc. — has declined worldwide. Freedom House suggests authoritarians have gotten more daring and liberal democracies less liberal (in the sense of 19th century liberalism), which in turn gives encouragement to the authoritarians.

One cannot understand the decline of democracy without examining the “out-sized” role Russian President Vladimir Putin plays:

This is particularly true in the areas of media control, propaganda, the smothering of civil society, and the weakening of political pluralism. Russia has also moved aggressively against neighboring states where democratic institutions have emerged or where democratic movements have succeeded in ousting corrupt authoritarian leaders. . . .

The success of the Russian and Chinese regimes in bringing to heel and even harnessing the forces produced by globalization—digital media, civil society, free markets—may be their most impressive and troubling achievement.

Modern authoritarianism is particularly insidious in its exploitation of open societies. Russia and China have both taken advantage of democracies’ commitment to freedom of expression and delivered infusions of propaganda and disinformation. Moscow has effectively prevented foreign broadcasting stations from reaching Russian audiences even as it steadily expands the reach of its own mouthpieces, the television channel RT and the news service Sputnik.

Western democracies have been barely skirting disaster. Russia, with varying degrees of success, now routinely interferes with elections in Western democracies, trying to tip elections to local pro-Russian parties. It bankrolls right-wing parties, infiltrates free media and, when needed, deploys force as it did in Ukraine. Russia’s modus operandi might sound awfully familiar:

For Russia, the payoff from this strategy is a network of parties that identify with the Kremlin’s hatred of liberal values, support Russia on critical foreign policy issues, and praise Putin as a strong leader. While some of these parties are still marginal forces in domestic politics, a growing number are regarded as legitimate contenders, especially since an uncontrolled influx of refugees and an increase in terrorist attacks dented public trust in mainstream parties. Even if Russia remains unpopular in most European countries, the fact that increasingly influential political figures laud Putin for his energy, decisiveness, and eagerness to challenge liberal orthodoxies is regarded as a gain for Moscow. As these parties acquire a share of governing power in EU states, the prospects for a recognition of the Crimea annexation and the abandonment of economic sanctions improve significantly.

You can see why Russia is so delighted with President Trump.

And finally Western operatives — including none other than Paul Manafort — have no qualms about helping authoritarians, for a price. “Authoritarian states also rent the services of former government officials and members of Congress, powerful lawyers, and experienced political image-makers to persuade skeptical audiences that they share the interests of democracies,” the report explains. “These lobbyists work to advance the economic goals of their clients’ energy companies and other businesses, but they also burnish the reputations of regimes that have been sullied by the jailing of dissidents or opposition leaders, the shuttering of media outlets, or violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators.” Examples, according to Freedom House, include Manafort, Michael Flynn and Richard Burt: “According to Politico, Burt received $365,000 in the first half of 2016 for lobbying on behalf of Nord Stream II, a Russian-backed pipeline plan that would deliver more natural gas directly to Western and Central Europe via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine and Belarus. At the same time, Burt was helping to write a major Trump foreign policy address. That speech, among other things, called for greater cooperation with Russia.” Remarkable, isn’t it, that so many of the operatives-for-sale wound up associated with Trump in some fashion?

The report raises not only the gloomy prospect of a worldwide decline in democracy, human rights and electoral politics but also an increased threat of international conflicts from rogue states seeking to satisfy nationalist sentiment at home and compensate for economic failure. Freedom House has interesting advice for Western politicians:

We urge responsible political figures to call out colleagues or rivals when they show contempt for basic democratic ideas. Until now, politicians in the democracies have been unimpressive in their responses to opponents who embrace authoritarian figures like Putin. This is despite the overwhelming evidence of egregious crimes under Putin’s rule: murdered journalists and political opposition leaders, the invasion of neighboring states, brutish counterinsurgency campaigns in the North Caucasus, the emasculation of a once-vibrant media sector, rigged elections, and much more. If they choose to shower him with praise, political leaders like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Donald Trump should be forced to account for the realities of Putin’s appalling record. The same is true for any politician who praises dictators in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa.

Maybe seen in this light, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attempt to split off values from our strategic interests is nonsensical. Democratic governments are in our strategic interest and to the extent we lend a hand even rhetorically to non-democratic leaders, we are slitting our own throats and undercutting the international liberal order that has prevented world war and spread prosperity for 70 years.