Argument

Putting Freedom Back on the Agenda

Now is no time for America to go wobbly on democracy.

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.

It's not just a U.S. problem. Across the Atlantic, European governments are gutting their foreign services as they face down a crippling financial crisis. Emerging-power democracies like Brazil and India have shown little interest in shouldering a global -- or even regional -- leadership role.

The retreat of the leading democracies is taking place, ironically, at a time of unprecedented popular resistance to oppression around the world, operating through movements that command the support of sizable constituencies. Some are focused on single issues such as decriminalizing homosexuality in Uganda; others, such as Bahrain, seek broad democratic reform. Most are pragmatic and skilled in maneuvering in repressive settings.

Yet civil society is under duress in the countries where it could do the most good. Though disturbing, this is in fact a tribute to the potency of civic movements. Many autocrats over the last few decades have offered a tacit social contract whereby they preserve political monopolies but abandon totalitarian control of society and promise economic development. As a result, these leaders often have little to fear from their battered formal opposition parties, but are hard pressed to staunch the energy and independence of citizen activists.

If the United States and other democracies are seeking strategies to foster reform in the world's autocracies, one place to start would be a commitment to bolster and protect those who are the likely agents for change in their societies. Among other things, this project would require the development of methods to provide assistance in settings where the leadership has sought to snuff out foreign aid, as Putin has done in Russia. Furthermore, leaders of democratic countries should confer directly with leading regime critics and activists and speak out on behalf of the targets of persecution.

But by far the most important point is for world leaders, Obama in particular, to declare their determination to support people who aspire to democracy -- anywhere. Here the U.S. administration has an uneven record. There have been some positive initiatives, but there have also been occasions when America stood by while those who put their lives on the line for political change were crushed, as with Iran in 2009. More recently, the administration utterly failed to offer a credible response when the USAID mission in Russia was abruptly shuttered in September.

A program of support for civic movements would be one aspect of a comprehensive effort by the major democracies to reassert global leadership. But even by itself, support for civil society would have the practical benefit of directing attention to those who are committed to making freedom a reality in the world's dark corners. And it would send a critical message to the agents of repression that, no matter what our various domestic woes, the spread of freedom is still very much on the agenda.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

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