The Free World’s Leader Isn’t Free Anymore

As the quality of U.S. democracy erodes, the reasons are dwindling for anyone to look to it for guidance.

U.S. President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks beneath a U.S. flag during a campaign rally at Columbia Regional Airport in Columbia, Missouri, on Nov. 1, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Virtually everything good, and everything bad, that American leaders have done in the world over the last century—both the establishment of the liberal order after World War II and the prosecution of ruinous wars in Vietnam and Iraq—has been carried out in the name of a mission to promote America’s liberal and democratic values. “American exceptionalism,” as that faith was once known, in turn presupposed that the nation was uniquely endowed with those values.

Critics on the left always regarded that claim as evidence of national hubris. Yet 20 years ago it was still possible to say, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did, that “we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” After the events of the last four months, however, that premise has tipped over into the laughable. America plainly does not see further. The national response to the coronavirus pandemic has been short-sighted and incoherent; in the face of crisis the nation has become more polarized rather than less. And now the killing of George Floyd and the violent response to the subsequent demonstrations have shown that American policing is shot through with racism and brutality. President Donald Trump is determined to pour salt into every fresh wound. America now seems exceptional almost entirely in a pejorative sense.

Of course the polarization and paralysis, institutional racism, and contempt for democratic norms predate the election of Donald Trump. One can argue about when the downward trajectory began; in How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt trace the rot back to the Republican revolution sparked by Newt Gingrich in the 1980s. (I make a similar claim in What Was Liberalism?) One useful way to reduce the question to numbers is to study the relative and absolute decline of the United States in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Index.

While the index has existed since 1972, only starting in 2003 did Freedom House develop a 1-100 scale that made it possible to rank countries. The United States initially clocked in at 94, where it remained through 2009, when it placed 22nd on the list. Then it began slipping, though owing far less to Barack Obama’s tenure as president than to policy initiatives and Supreme Court rulings backed by conservatives that amped up the power of money in politics, gerrymandered electoral districts, and imposed restrictions on registration and voting. By 2016, the United States had fallen to 28th place, with a score of 89.

Over the three years of Trump’s tenure, the United States has now plummeted to 33rd place and lost three more points, which Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice president for research and analysis, told me is “very unusual for a stable democracy.” She also notes that the United States’ score of two points, out of a maximum of four, on the question of equitable treatment for different groups is almost unheard-of among democracies. Freedom House’s analysis on this subject highlights long-standing issues of structural inequality but also Trump’s sustained campaign against immigrants and refugees.

Repucci is not prepared to make any predictions for the 2021 report, but she does note that the steady erosion of norms that the United States has experienced in recent years often presages a decline in scores, as has been the case, for example, with Hungary. “Many people think that there could be problems here and there but that the fundamentals of our democracy are not at risk,” Repucci said, “and I think we need to see that they are.” Already the United States rates as less free not only than almost all of Western Europe but also than most of the tiny island nations of the Caribbean. It’s a good bet that by next year the United States will fall below Belize, with which it is now tied.

Freedom House can hardly be accused of anti-American bias. Founded with the backing of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, the organization, and then its rating system, evolved into a Cold War tool designed to mark the categorical difference between the American and Soviet spheres of influence. The current chairman is Michael Chertoff, who served as head of the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and is credited, if that’s the word, with being a co-author the USA Patriot Act.

What’s more, Freedom House’s judgment tracks with that of other groups. The United States ranks 25th, just ahead of Malta, on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, where it is counted as a “flawed democracy.” On the Civicus Monitor, which rates the conditions for “civic space,” the United States counts as “narrowed” rather than “open.” On the press freedom index maintained by Reporters Without Borders, the United States ranks 45, barely ahead of Senegal.

Americans can take some credit for the growth of democratic nations in the generation after World War II, and again after the end of the Cold War. Thus the fact that the United States no longer tops the league tables could count as success, not failure. But the poor scores on the national report card are a mark of shame and a summons to humility. The United States has no business issuing preachments to anyone when it finds itself at this level.

I do not write this as a realist seeking vindication for a morally neutral policy. It was the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s that made me turn from domestic to foreign policy. I did not think Albright was wrong in 1998 when she called the United States “the indispensable nation.” I have written a book (The Freedom Agenda) endorsing the doctrine of democracy promotion, though not the Bush administration’s bellicose version of it. I would be unhappy if a President Joe Biden dispensed with the language of human rights in the name of so-called national interests.

Yet I no longer imagine that it will do much good. Tyrants will be safe in shrugging off American criticism, because it will carry so little weight with others. Human rights activists abroad might still look to private American organizations like the Open Society Foundations or the National Democratic Institute, but not to official organs of the United States. If elected president, Biden could rejoin the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, but he cannot expect to exercise the kind of leadership there that the United States had even four years ago.

Should Trump somehow be reelected, the United States will descend into a savage brawl that other nations will look upon aghast. A Biden victory would—ideally—usher in an era of painful self-reflection, like someone waking up from a wild drinking spree to find himself bankrupt but sober. It will take years just to sweep up the shattered crockery. In the meanwhile, American political leaders will need to conduct themselves with a very un-American circumspection. The United States remains indispensable because it is the world’s greatest military power—but not because other nations look to it for guidance.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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