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[Leonid Bershidsky] The US no longer owns the future of freedom

By Bloomberg

Published : Jan. 21, 2018 - 18:10

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The many critics of Freedom House can finally gloat: The think tank has turned its well-calibrated guns on the US in its 2018 report on “Freedom in the World”:

“The past year brought further, faster erosion of America’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging its international credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights.”

America’s “core institutions,” the think tank continues, “were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity.” They, according to Freedom House, “remained fairly resilient in 2017” but could end up weakened if the onslaught continues.

Freedom House’s indices, based on a detailed checklist of parameters that describe a country’s institutions, are widely used in academic literature when a reliable quantitative indicator of freedom and democracy is required. But many academics have long challenged the idea that the think tank acts independently of the US government, which funds most of its work.

In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote it had “long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and the international right wing.” “Among the reasons for its growing authority, we find that the concept of freedom has been redefined by the rise of neoliberalism,” University of Salerno’s Diego Giannone wrote in 2010. To Andrei Tsygankov, now of San Francisco State University, and David Parker of King’s College in London, Freedom House “reflects foreign policy priorities of certain groups within the American establishment. Among these groups, security elites with neoconservative convictions stand out.” And in 2012, Nils Steiner of the University of Mainz showed Freedom House tends to rate US allies as more free than other nations.

But dropping the US down several pegs has created another set of problems for the list. The US now has an aggregate score (indicating the degree of freedom and democracy) of 86 -- just one point higher than Poland, ruled by the illiberal Law and Justice Party which runs state-owned media as its own propaganda outlet and which is overhauling the court system to put it under government control. Trump hasn’t gone that far. The US is now less free and democratic than Latvia, one of Europe’s most corrupt nations, where, according to Freedom House itself, teachers can be fired for “disloyalty” to the state and a large Russian-speaking minority doesn’t enjoy citizenship rights. If the current trend continues, Mongolia will overtake the US in the ranking as soon as next year.

In 2016, $24.8 million of Freedom House’s $29.7 million budget came from US federal grants. That it feels comfortable harshly criticizing a president who famously can’t stand criticism is a testament to how free the US really is (certainly freer than Poland). But it’s also a symptom of an American identity crisis.

Freedom House bemoans what it sees as the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the global struggle for democracy. But could the US credibly lead this struggle while sliding down the freedom scale, as it has done, in Freedom House’s estimation, since 2010 -- that is, since Barack Obama’s first term?

Under Trump, of course, global approval of the US leadership has fallen to the lowest level since Gallup began measuring it in 2007. US leadership approval is well below Germany’s and almost level with that of China and Russia. No wonder variations of the Chinese and Russian models of government are gaining popularity from Egypt to the Philippines: They are far easier to establish and maintain than the German one.

But even when Trump is gone, it won’t be any clearer why the US, with a score in the mid-80s on the Freedom House scale, should play the role of global democracy promoter when Finland has a score of 100.

The US, of course, has more hard power and more opportunities to project soft power than any of the countries that stand higher in the freedom rankings. But if the Freedom House measurements are anything to go by, the European Union, with 23 out of 28 member states ranking higher or equal to the US, should take over the role of democracy promoter.

It, too, has plenty of soft power, as the German leadership’s global approval rating shows. Europe can be as good as the US at exporting culture. It’s home to two nuclear powers, though it probably won’t use its military might for “democracy promotion” as the US has done. That, perhaps, is a good thing. Why should the US set itself up as an authority on freedom and democracy, even post-Trump, if even a think tank it funds, with a bias toward the US foreign policy line, admits Europe’s leadership?

The US once captured the imagination of much of the world. Europe’s example may not be as compelling. But if you believe democracy is superior to authoritarianism, the ascendancy of Russian- and Chinese-style models cannot be allowed to spread.

By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.