Opinion writer

Freedom House has rolled out its annual report on human rights. The findings are grim:

Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America’s democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace, according to Freedom in the World 2018, the latest edition of the annual report on political rights and civil liberties, released today by Freedom House.

The report finds that 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, with only 35 registering gains. Once-promising states such as Turkey, Venezuela, Poland, and Tunisia were among those experiencing declines in democratic standards. The recent democratic opening in Myanmar was permanently damaged by a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority.

Freedom House also pulled no punches in identifying a new and troubling development:

A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy. While Freedom House has tracked a slow decline in political rights and civil liberties in the United States for the past seven years, the decline accelerated in 2017, owing to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.

Although U.S. institutions like the press and the judiciary have remained resilient in the face of unprecedented attacks from President Trump, the attacks could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious implications for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s place in the world. Meanwhile, the abdication of the traditional U.S. role as the leading champion of democracy is of deep concern and potential consequence in the ongoing struggle against modern authoritarians and their pernicious ideas.

That is a sober, depressing finding — and one hard to dispute.

Freedom House notes that President Barack Obama’s administration “often fell short,” although its rhetoric was strong. Under Trump, however, the United States in 2017 “made explicit — in both words and actions — its intention to cast off principles that have guided U.S. policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades.” The results are harmful for ourselves and free peoples.

This marks a sharp break from other post-World War II U.S. presidents, who cooperated with certain authoritarian regimes for strategic reasons but never wavered from a commitment to democracy as both the best form of government and the animating force behind American foreign policy. It also reflects an inability — or unwillingness — by the United States to lead democracies in effectively confronting the growing threat from Russia and China, and from other states that have begun to emulate their authoritarian approach.

Freedom House specifically takes the Trump administration to task for eroding democratic norms, noting its failure to uphold anti-corruption practices we’ve long demanded of others. Moreover:

The president has also lambasted and threatened the media — including sharp jabs at individual journalists — for challenging his routinely false statements, has spoken disdainfully of judges who blocked his decisions, and has attacked the professional staff of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. He has signaled contempt for Muslims and Latin American immigrants, and has singled out some African Americans for his vitriolic criticism. He pardoned a sheriff convicted of ignoring federal court orders to halt racially discriminatory policies, and, after making a campaign promise to ban all foreign Muslims from entering the United States, issued an executive order restricting travel from a group of Muslim-majority countries.

Meanwhile, with the U.S. commitment to human rights dormant, China and Russia have continued their quest to destabilize and weaken democracies around the globe. From the Freedom House report:

Already, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has carried out disinformation campaigns before elections in countries including the United States, France, and Germany, cultivated ties to xenophobic political parties across Europe, threatened or invaded its closest neighbors, and served as an alternative source of military aid for Middle Eastern dictatorships. . . . [China] has built up a propaganda and censorship apparatus with global reach, used economic and other ties to influence democracies like Australia and New Zealand, compelled various countries to repatriate Chinese citizens seeking refuge abroad, and provided diplomatic and material support to repressive governments from Southeast Asia to Africa.

Regimes such as Turkey have regressed, moving to the category of “not free.” Across the Middle East, countries such as Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among others) have repressed their own people.

In Central and South America, the “Democracy in Crisis” report added, “the humanitarian crisis produced in Venezuela by President Nicolás Maduro’s determination to stay in power continued to drive residents to seek refuge in neighboring countries. But other Latin American states also proved problematic: Brazil’s sprawling corruption investigations implicated leaders across the region. Mexico’s embattled administration resisted reforms that would help address rampant graft, organized crime, and a crumbling justice system.”

What has been missing in this administration is any appreciation that democracies elsewhere are essential to our own freedoms. “The autocratic regimes in Russia and China clearly recognize that to maintain power at home, they must squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions beyond their borders. The citizens and leaders of democracies must now recognize that the reverse is also true: To maintain their own freedoms, they must defend the rights of their counterparts in all countries. The reality of globalization is that our fates are interlinked,” the report went on to say.

If we want international stability, respect for national borders, vibrant trading partners and cooperative allies, the United States will need to stop the retreat from democracy. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that will come until we have a new president.

UPDATE: Freedom House also has put out an informative and powerful video:

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