Global freedom declined overall for the seventh consecutive year in 2012 according to Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. But the news wasn't all bad: The report also found that a rise of popular movements for reform, many of which were inspired by the Arab Spring, have continued unabated in the face of increasingly sophisticated and strategic modern authoritarians. This apparent sea change in citizens' attitudes, if continued and adequately supported, could have a dramatic impact on democratic development in some of the world's most repressive environments.
Perhaps the past year's most surprising development was Libya's impressive progress toward democracy. For decades, Libya had ranked among the world's most repressive regimes. One of the worst of the worst. Now, after months of civil war and more than a year of tenuous nation building, Libya has an elected government, comparatively wide-ranging freedoms, and a leadership that seems committed to accountable rule. Other post-revolutionary governments have begun well and ended poorly, and the Libyan experience with freedom could still go awry. But for the time being, the country qualifies as a success story.
Overwhelming credit for Libya's achievements must go to those who risked and in many cases lost their lives by rebelling against the brutal rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi. The critical role played by the United States and other democratic countries in Libya's liberation should also be recognized. Notwithstanding Libya's ongoing problems and events like the tragic assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September, the overall outcome in the country ranks among the most notable achievements of Barack Obama's first term. Yet strangely, the United States seems uncomfortable with acknowledging its contribution to this important step forward for democratic values and the transformation of the Middle East. During the campaign, Obama was muted in claiming success on the Libya mission. Likewise, Republicans have only grudgingly acknowledged Libya as an American accomplishment -- particularly since Benghazi.
Such apparent ambivalence about supporting democratic change bodes ill for the region, which, remains in transition and turmoil. The old order of ossified dictatorships is giving way to something else -- hopefully to elected governments based on humane principles and free institutions. But there are many other less optimistic, and in some cases chilling, options available such as the possible emergence of a new strongman in Egypt -- an extreme Islamist version of Mubarak -- or a protracted and even bloodier civil war in a post-Assad Syria.
The Middle East is not the only region where freedom is in the balance. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has launched a new crackdown on the country's growing opposition following his return to the presidency. In China, the new leadership announced in October includes figures who have been instrumental in building the world's most sophisticated system of political control, men who are not likely to disavow a lifetime of commitment to one-party rule. Both countries have consistently worked together to block international action that could help free the Syrian people.
It was also a volatile year in Africa as a disturbing escalation of armed conflicts plagued the region. Rebel groups threatened to overrun government forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Mali was battered by a reinvigorated Tuareg rebellion, a military coup, and the seizure of its northern provinces by Islamist militants. And in northern Nigeria, the Boko Haram sect has prosecuted a reign of terror that targets Christians, government officials, and security forces.
There is therefore a critical need for leadership from the United States and other democracies. In the United States, the reluctance to provide that leadership represents a rare case of bipartisan agreement. Obama has made clear his desire to focus on domestic concerns; the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has fixated on reductions in spending; libertarians are hostile to the idea of American leadership; and even the Republican Party's leaders now seem ambivalent about America's world role.