Commentary Magazine


Freedom House v. Anatol Lieven

Anatol Lieven—a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Ethical Realism: A Vision of America’s Role in the World—has emerged in recent years as one of the more relentless critics of democratization as a core project of U.S. foreign policy. The latest effort in his anti-democratization campaign is a January 26 column published in the Financial Times in response to Freedom House’s recently released annual index of global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World. (contentions blogger Joshua Muravchik wrote about the Washington Post‘s own attempt to spin this report here.) Lieven levels a number of serious charges at Freedom House and democracy advocates in general. Let’s examine these charges, one by one:

1. Democracy advocates, presumably including Freedom House, have exaggerated the impact of the elections in Iraq.

In its reports and findings on Iraq, Freedom House has consistently stressed the high incidence there of violence, terrorism, and sectarian strife. Freedom House has never described Iraq as a democracy or as a free society, and the country’s rating has remained “not free” throughout the period of occupation.

2. Freedom House distorts its findings to suit the ideological leanings of the American government.

Only someone who has not read Freedom in the World carefully could come to this conclusion. The latest index suggests that, far from being on the march, freedom has entered a period of stagnation, with very little progress in recent years—a conclusion hardly in line with the ideological leanings of the Bush administration.

3. Freedom House gives the United States the highest possible freedom score while judging other countries by the degree of their alliance with America.

The United States does, indeed, receive the highest possible rating—as do practically all the countries of Western Europe. One feels almost ridiculous in pointing out that a number of these countries—for starters, France, Spain, and Germany—have had sharp differences with America over its foreign policy in recent years. At the same time, Freedom in the World gives low scores to such American allies or “partners” as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

4. Freedom House does not appreciate the levels of freedom in China and Russia.

China devotes billions of dollars to the political censorship of the Internet. The authorities regularly imprison journalists, human-rights lawyers, and ordinary citizens seeking redress in cases of official abuse of power. Russia is moving precipitously in the wrong direction in almost every sphere of freedom. (For a detailed look at Russia’s regression, see Leon Aron’s What Does Putin Want? in the December issue of COMMENTARY.) What, exactly, are we meant to appreciate?

5. Freedom House has a narrow and extremist definition of freedom that fails to consider political developments leading to “a real sense of individual rights and personal liberty.”

Again, had Lieven read the report more carefully, he would have learned that Freedom House stresses precisely those institutions that are the key guarantors of “individual rights and personal liberty.” The issues of concern singled out in the report include the global decline in freedom of expression and the press, the widespread failure to create the effective rule of law, and rampant corruption.

Anatol Lieven calls himself an “ethical realist.” The “realist” component of this description seems to consist in his support of “benevolent” autocrats the globe over. Where the “ethical” comes in, given his slipshod reporting of the contents of Freedom in the World, remains rather mysterious.