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Planet Burma

No, global freedom isn't in a free-fall.

Jesse Walker
June 3, 2011

"Around the globe, it is democratic meltdowns, not democratic revolutions, that are now the norm." Or so claims Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations writing in the June 9 New Republic. From Venezuela to Russia, he argues, regimes are sliding toward autocratic rule. Polls show public opinion turning against self-government. Freedom House, which issues annual reports on the worldwide state of democracy, says we've been heading in the wrong direction for half a decade. "The other countries were supposed to change Burma," one activist tells Kurlantzick. "Now it seems like they are becoming like Burma."

It's a dramatic story, but it isn't really accurate. We aren't on the road to Planet Burma. More likely, we're witnessing freedom's growing pains.

Kurlantzick does make some valid points. Some countries have suffered setbacks in the last few years. Surveys in several places do show a middle-class disillusionment with democracy, and such results do complicate the common assumption that popular wealth inevitably leads to louder demands for popular power. Above all, he's right that we shouldn't assume increases in freedom are irreversible and unstoppable. No social trend is inevitable. You gain liberty by winning it, not by waiting for it to fall into place.

But the evidence that we're actually seeing a great reversal is pretty thin. There are at least three flaws in Kurlantzick's argument.

First: The long-term trend is still toward greater freedom. Kurlantzick calls the Arab Spring "something of a smokescreen for what is taking place in the world as a whole," claiming that Freedom House's latest survey "found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years." If you must take that 40-year view, though, the picture looks rather rosy. Four decades ago, Latin America and Eastern Europe were dominated by totalitarian regimes. Both regions are now immensely freer.

I should note that Freedom House's current report includes the period before the Arab Spring. Freedom in Egypt is thus described as declining, thanks to repression and rigged elections that took place while Mubarak was still president. I'm as disappointed as anyone else in the illiberal measures adopted by Cairo's new government, but the country's trajectory surely looks better today than it did in the period reflected by the report. The same goes for Tunisia, which the survey describes as "not free." To an extent, then, those Freedom House ratings are a smokescreen obscuring the Arab Spring rather than the other way around.

But the bigger problem here lies in Kurlantzick's claim that freedom has "plummeted" for five years running. I'll accept Freedom House's ratings as a rough measurement of civil liberties and self-rule: You might quibble with their judgments on some specific countries, but the group gets the broad trends right. And those trends just don't show a plummet. The political scientist Jay Ulfelder, former director of the Political Instability Task Force, notes that what the Freedom House figures actually describe is "a period of major gains in the early 1990s; a period of slower gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and something like a plateau to minor slippage since the mid-2000s." He illustrates that with a chart showing the group's average scores over the last three decades. (In Freedom House's actual rating scale, 1 is the best possible score and 7 is the worst. Ulfelder's chart reverses that, so that higher numbers represent higher levels of liberty and democracy.)

Ulfelder's second chart shows the percentage of the world's countries, from 1989 to now, that qualify as electoral democracies. It's a big rise followed by a relatively level period, then a decline of 5 percentage points:

Neither chart depicts a plummet. What they do depict fits the historical pattern outlined in Ulfelder's 2010 book Dilemmas of Democratic Consolidation. "Other things being equal," he explains, "attempts at democracy are much more likely to fail in poorer countries than in richer ones, and they usually fail in their second, third, or even fourth election cycles—that is, between four and 20 years after they start." The rollback we've seen in the last few years has happened pretty much "where and when we would have expected it to happen," which isn't good news but isn't a catastrophe either. "If those reversals were to continue until they had reversed most or all of the post-Cold War gains, then we should be both surprised and alarmed," he concludes. "In the meantime, while we can and should care about each reversal for its own sake, we should also be careful to keep short-term shifts in proper perspective."

So the recent trend looks more like a stagnation than a substantial shrinkage. And with anti-authoritarian activists still marching in the Middle East and elsewhere, there's a reasonable chance—not a certainty, but a chance—that we're about to see another big bump in the right direction.

That leads us to the second problem with Kurlantzick's argument: The know-how for building freedom is still spreading. There are countless ways that the ongoing Arab rebellions can go awry, but they have already allowed several significant shifts to take place even in countries where the old dictatorships are clinging to power. Those states' subjects have seen just how fragile seemingly solid regimes can be. They have learned lessons in organizing, in adapting to repressive tactics, and—in places where the mechanisms of government have temporarily withdrawn—in the bottom-up administration of social functions. The protesters may or may not win, but they've made it more likely that their enemies will eventually lose.

In other words, the protesters learned a lot about the skills that get lumped together under the slogan "people power." It's worth noting that the stagnation highlighted in those Freedom House reports began around the same time a wave of people-power rebellions swept through central Asia; the governments under fire mostly fell, but the regimes that replaced them didn't turn out to be much better than before. In the short term, that's not so good. In the bigger picture, though, it's far preferable that the new bosses came into office through nonviolent mass protests rather than centralized and violent coups. The most recent Freedom House report recounts the bad news from Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and especially Ukraine (which just slipped from "free" to "partly free"), but it also notes that all three countries "have thus far escaped the authoritarian fate of practically all other non-Baltic former Soviet republics," where "transparently rigged elections, widespread censorship, leader-for-life arrangements, and thuggish security forces...define the political landscape."

Problem number three: Freedom needn't rely on foreign charity. In theory, the New Republic article is about the prospects for liberty and democracy abroad. In practice, roughly half of it is devoted to fretting about the freer countries' willingness to go on global crusades. India isn’t doing as much as it used to do for Burma's dissidents, Kurlantzick complains. And the American public is "increasingly isolationist." And while the Obama administration has "maintained significant budget levels for democracy promotion," it also "eliminated high-level positions on the National Security Council that, under Bush, had been devoted to democracy." And countries that had to deal with American and Soviet subversion during the Cold War are "uncomfortable joining any international coalition that could undermine other nations' sovereignty."

As you read all this, some questions may occur to you. Did India's support for the Burmese dissidents actually accomplish anything? (I can't help noticing that the junta is still in power.) What was the real-world record of Bush's drive for democracy abroad, and might that record have something to do with that revival of American isolationism? And when countries that served as Cold War battlefields are wary of inflicting a similar fate on other nations, isn't it possible that they have a point?

Generally speaking, movements against dictatorships are more likely to succeed when they're rooted in civic action from below instead of intervention from outside. The U.S. certainly hasn't acquitted itself very well in the Arab Spring: It's been reluctant to cut off aid to countries like Bahrain even as they crack down harshly on peaceful protesters, and when it did intervene forcefully—in Libya—it's hard to argue convincingly that the big picture improved. One of the most distressing changes in that latest Freedom House survey was the demotion of Mexico from "free" to "partly free," the result of a wave of violence in which "government institutions have failed to protect ordinary citizens, journalists, and elected officials from organized crime." That violence is a direct result of the War on Drugs, and one of the chief reasons Mexico is fighting that war is pressure from its neighbor to the north. If Washington really wants to help the spread of freedom around the world, perhaps it should spend less time budgeting for "democracy promotion" and more time thinking about where it's standing in the way.

In the meantime, the situation isn't as dire as Kurlantzick suggests. The world has just witnessed a long boom in political freedom, and the recent setbacks have barely put a dent in those gains. We may not live on Planet Liberty, but Planet Burma is still far away.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Jesse Walker is Senior Editor


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