The biggest — and worst — news is that India, which has long cherished its status as the world’s largest democracy, has dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free.” That’s because of the assault Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist allies have mounted on Indian democracy — particularly targeting the country’s Muslim minority, as well as independent journalists and academics. Other countries that experienced major declines in freedom last year included Peru, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Mali and Zimbabwe. Myanmar had a vast drop-off this year because of a military coup.
Meanwhile, the world’s two leading authoritarian states — Russia and China — have been getting more brutal and brazen. The report notes: “Beijing ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days. Its efforts also featured increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China, and the demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy.”
The United States remains free, but our score in the Freedom House survey has dropped 11 points in the past decade — and fell three points in 2020 alone. That was, of course, the year that President Donald Trump tried to overturn his election defeat. The United States is no longer ranked at the same level as leading democracies such as France and Germany, but rather is now in the company of countries with weaker institutions, such as Romania and Panama.
With President Biden and the Democrats in control in Washington, we can expect U.S. democracy to stop eroding and start strengthening. It is imperative for Congress to pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act — which would expand voting rights, require greater disclosure of political spending and reduce partisan gerrymandering — despite hysterical Republican opposition.
Biden is also elevating democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy. On Tuesday, the administration slapped Russia with sanctions for the attempted murder and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This is a welcome change from Trump, who would not even admit that Navalny had been poisoned. In general, Trump acted as a cheerleader for his favorite dictators, including Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Now we have a president who will call out, rather than cover up, human rights abuses.
But even Biden has to make unsavory compromises, because the United States has interests as well as values. As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Yascha Mounk notes in Foreign Affairs: “If Washington wants to contain Russia, it needs to preserve a close relationship with Poland, and if it wants to contain China, it needs to keep India onboard.” One could add that if Washington wants to contain Iran, end the war in Yemen, revitalize the peace process with Israel and fight terrorism, it needs to maintain a relationship with Saudi Arabia.
That is harder to do now that the Biden administration has (rightly) released an intelligence report holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the heinous murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a Post contributing columnist. Biden has been widely criticized for levying sanctions against 76 Saudi officials — but not against the crown prince personally.
That is galling. MBS, as the prince is known, deserves to stand trial for murder. But there is a reason the United States does not usually sanction the rulers of allied states — or even the rulers of powerful hostile regimes that are guilty of human rights abuses at least as egregious as those in Saudi Arabia. China, for example, is committing genocide against the Uighurs. Yet we still have to deal with Xi Jinping on issues such as climate change, trade and the coronavirus.
Foreign policy is not conducive to moral purity. But the United States should not simply abandon its values or embrace authoritarianism, as Trump did. Biden is likely to do a much better job of balancing idealism and realism. Although he will seldom go far enough to please human rights activists, his administration could begin to reverse the erosion of democracy both at home and abroad.