"A global political recession" is how Tom Melia describes the current state of affairs. Melia is deputy director of Freedom House, a nonprofit that annually measures the state of liberty in every nation -- and that has found "more countries seeing declines in overall freedom than gains" in recent years, Melia said last week.
The world has transitioned from a "position of going from one breakthrough to another" into a "sustained period in which we are looking at regressions and setback," he said.
Melia was speaking at an event co-sponsored by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Washington that brought the decline into particularly poignant view: an analysis of the state of freedom in the part of the world that inspired the greatest hopes 20 years ago, the former Soviet empire.
There, Freedom House's Christopher Walker reported, the news is "very grim." Freedom eroded over the past year in 14 of 29 countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. Eleven of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics are worse off than a decade ago. "No country in the region has undergone a sharper decline than Russia," he said -- and in the 12th, Ukraine, a newly elected government has been relentlessly pushing in the wrong direction the past few months. It is "remarkable," Walker observed, that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall such "structural authoritarianism" has embedded itself so deeply. And it matters to the United States and other democracies, he suggested, because it is hard to imagine fruitful, sustained cooperation with nations that "operate on coercion and caprice."
Buoyed by the democratization of many Asian nations in the 1980s and then the fall of Communism across Europe and central Asia, there was a tendency in the 1990s to assume that the world's remaining dictatorships would topple in their time. They were dinosaurs just waiting their turn. The Internet had rendered authoritarian control hopeless in the long run, and globalization could only hasten the spread of freedom.
But the dinosaurs haven't sat around waiting for their inevitable extinction. They recognized the threat and mobilized, with old-fashioned methods and new. From China to Egypt to Cuba, political challengers were neutralized, as they always had been, by confiscation of property, imprisonment and torture, with the examples of a few chastening the many. The foolish mistakes of one regime -- allowing elections before seizing total control of the election machinery, as in Burma in 1990 -- were duly noted and not repeated.
Dictators have learned from each other to stamp out any buds of independent civil society by means of tax laws and supposedly neutral regulation. With China in the lead, they learned not only to neutralize the World Wide Web but to turn it into an effective weapon for propaganda, tracking and repression of their own citizens, and attacks against democratic rivals. Taking advantage of their control of television, they mobilized ideologies of nationalism and anti-terrorism to undermine the rhetoric of freedom.
So at decade's end, the correlation of forces, as the Communists used to say, looks bleak. Three assertive powers -- China, Russia and Iran -- not only resist democratization but actively seek to disseminate their model of authoritarian rule in their spheres of influence. Europe, the engine of democratization of the 1990s, looks inward, more interested in appeasing Russia than reforming it. Newer or less wealthy democracies such as South Africa, Turkey, Brazil and India seem stuck in anti-colonial mind-sets that discourage cooperation to promote democracy. And the Obama administration remains skittish about adopting a "freedom agenda" that its predecessor had tarnished in the minds of many Democrats.
Fortunately, there is one factor stronger than all of these: people's desire to be free. Despite new methods of oppression, despite the fecklessness and disunity of democratic governments, despite everything, the impulse for dignity and self-rule emerges again and again. In Lebanon in 2005, in Burma in 2007, in Tibet in 2008, in Iran last year, ordinary people assumed unimaginable risks and confronted mortal danger because they do not want to live as captives.
Each of those movements has failed, for now, but in each of those countries the yearning for freedom has been banked, not extinguished. Over the weekend, democracy activists and democratic officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gathered in Poland at a conference aimed at helping democracies fashion a reply to the ferocious authoritarian response of recent years. The Iron Curtain has fallen, Clinton noted. "But we must be wary of the steel vise in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit." Recognizing the challenge is a good start.