This morning, Freedom House released its annual Freedom in the World index with the headline that freedom has “retreated for a third year.” As part of the event, panelists Thomas Carothers, Larry Diamond, Jackson Diehl and Joshua Muravchik debated the regional implications of this global trend and the possible applications of Freedom House’s findings to the foreign policy decisions of the new American administration.
What does Freedom House mean by saying freedom is “retreating”? This statement represents an overall picture of the 2009 data where more nations show declines than gains in their statuses on the Freedom House scale of “Free,” “Partially Free,” or “Not Free.” Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s director of research, also put this data on a larger time line, weighing the 2009 data against that of pre-Bush administration.
In comparison to Freedom in the World 2000, the current data shows that 81 countries have seen slight improvements in score, while 31 countries show modest declines. While this seems to point to improvements in freedom and democracy in almost all regions globally in the past decade, the gains are less than overwhelming. If the data is correct in suggesting that democracy, as a global trend, is at least stagnant, if not increasing, the panel was asked: why then do we feel so hopeless?
Thomas Carothers argued that the flat data shows continuity rather than change, which is only discouraging in comparison to the democratic gains of the 1980s and 90s. Carothers encouraged Americans to remember that civic struggle does not equate democratic decline and that democratic institutions can fall (as seen in Iceland’s government this week) without democracy loosing its stronghold.
Citing President Obama’s recent criticisms of Bush’s election-centric development and aid agenda given in an interview with the editorial board of the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl focused the discussion on the role of elections in evaluating democracy. All the participants agreed with the popular notion of the day (and a key finding of the Global Integrity Report: 2007): elections do not offer unnerving proof that democracy exists in a nation.
While no one argued that election integrity be taken off the development agenda entirely, the discussants did disagree on the weight that elections should carry in America’s aid decisions. Using Egypt and Iraq as examples, Larry Diamond and Joshua Muravchik emphasized the fact that establishing election integrity allows for a democratic future as it takes time for civil society and opposition parties to create constituencies large enough to take full advantage in the electoral process.
Underlying Freedom House’s entire presentation was the notion that America has the responsibility and capability to promote freedom in the world. The suggestion was even made that the Obama administration use the Freedom in the World index as a tool to measure the success of its humanitarian and governance investments globally. While that partnership is yet to be seen, the subtleties of today’s conversation brought out many of the ways that Freedom of the World is an actionable data-set and one of the most reputable reports in its field.
— Norah Mallaney