This Wednesday, March 4, Freedom House released its annual “Freedom in the World” report for 2020. TAI’s Jeffrey Gedmin and Sean Keeley recently spoke with Arch Puddington—a senior scholar at Freedom House and veteran observer of the global democracy movement—to preview its findings and discuss his lifelong career advancing democracy and human rights. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.*
TAI: You’ve had a career dedicated to the support of democracy and human rights. Could you tell us how this all began? What influences—personal, intellectual, or political—put you on this path?
Arch Puddington: I spent my first few adult years working as a newspaper reporter. I subsequently became involved with a political movement called Social Democrats, USA. Its history extends back to Trotskyism and the American Socialist Party, the party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. The Social Democrats attracted a group of young political activists, for example Penn Kemble and Joshua Muravchik. We shared a commitment to domestic reforms along traditional social democratic lines and an international perspective focused on the spread of democracy. We were strongly anti-communist, and we rejected the proposition that economic development in the Third World required statism and autocracy.
My involvement with the Social Democrats led to my working for Bayard Rustin, who was a leading black civil rights leader. He was the head of an organization called the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which sought to strengthen black worker involvement in the American labor movement. Bayard had been a key aide to Dr. King. But at the time I was with him he was increasingly involved in international human rights causes. He campaigned to alert the United States to the genocide in Cambodia, was a strong supporter of the Soviet refusenik movement, and was involved in various human rights struggles in Africa, which at the time was totally dominated by dictatorships of various stripes.
TAI: Your studies began with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, is that right?
AP: Yes, an undergraduate degree in literature from the University of Missouri. Today, I would be disqualified from employment at Freedom House without an advanced degree in international relations or history. Back when I joined Freedom House, advanced degrees were less important than your involvement in political struggles.
TAI: Before working at Freedom House, you also did a stint with Radio Free Europe, and you wrote a book about the organization. Could you share some thoughts about that part of your career?
AP: I joined RFE-RL in 1985. I was there for nine years, during the end of the Cold War, including the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the most dramatic event was the Chernobyl disaster. Here was a free press in action, alerting the Soviet people and those bordering the USSR to an unfolding catastrophe, and doing so without resorting to tabloid tactics or scare mongering. Chernobyl was a key event, perhaps the key event, in the unraveling of the Soviet system. And Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty played a critical role in telling the story to a crucial audience.
TAI: It’s been 30 years since the collapse of communism, and there have been some bumps in the road on the path toward democratization. How do you evaluate the development of Eastern Europe over the past three decades?
AP: It’s fair to say that many of us, myself included, were overly optimistic. When I joined Freedom House in 1994 the analysis staff was focused on two looming elections in the former Communist sphere. In Hungary, a populist named Istvan Csurka, a nationalist and writer, was running on a xenophobic and anti-Semitic platform. There was considerable fretting at Radio Free Europe, Freedom House, and among Hungarian liberals that Csurka would command support and stymie the march toward full democracy. In fact, his party did quite badly, and I believe wound up with no representation in parliament.
The other case was Vladimir Meciar. He was the Prime Minister of Slovakia, a thuggish former boxer, and no friend of liberal democracy. He had won the previous election, and many of those who were involved in democratization efforts in the region worried that he would win again. In the event, he was defeated. At that point, there was a universal sigh of gratification and a sense that things would now be moving smoothly towards free societies in the former Soviet orbit. Today, of course, we have much greater challenges than Meciar or Csurka.
TAI: How do you explain this countervailing trend today? Some speak of a rise of “neo-authoritarianism,” others talk about “democratic back-sliding.” How do you see it?
AP: Back then, we anticipated an embrace of liberal democracy throughout the world. We understood there would be exceptions—China, for instance. But even in a dictatorship like Egypt we saw glimmers of optimism in the development of a dissident community under Mubarak. Instead, we have witnessed a return to normal politics in many countries with weak histories of representative government. This is especially true in Central Europe. Instead of a straightforward march toward freedom and liberal reform, we’re experiencing the usual sort of party politics, with its ugliness and polarization.
Post-communist countries have weak histories of democratic government. Either they were incorporated in imperial monarchies or partitioned among larger neighbors. They exist in neighborhoods that have been fought over by Turkey, Germany, and Russia through the centuries. So if you take the long view, their troubles in developing liberal institutions is not that surprising. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the long view, so I’m deeply concerned and more than a bit disappointed about the direction politics has taken.
TAI: Tell us about Viktor Orbán and his so-called “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. How do you describe the situation? Is this low-functioning democracy? Soft authoritarianism? What is your level of concern?
AP: There are two things about Viktor Orbán’s ascension to power that I would emphasize. First, the Socialist Party left office in disgrace, with the country’s economy a shambles. You recall the famous recording where the Socialist Prime Minister cynically boasted about having repeatedly lied about the economy. The result was that Orbán not only won, but won with a two-thirds majority. And he used his supermajority to turn Hungarian politics upside-down across the board. He created a political system that, among other things, throws up serious obstacles to the defeat of the dominant party. To achieve this, he used gerrymandering, a partisan takeover of the election mechanisms, and other measures that, taken together, have elevated Fidesz into a dominant position in what is coming dangerously close to a one-party system.
The second thing that happened is not just the opposition’s defeat, but its collapse. This is a phenomenon that is not limited to Hungary. In country after country, we’ve seen once powerful parties simply disappear as relevant political forces. In European countries populists have gained as social democrats have eroded. In Venezuela, centrist parties that had governed the country for decades faded away after Hugo Chavez took over, with terrible consequences for democracy. There is a crucial lesson here as we face the rise of populism, illiberalism, and other anti-democratic currents.
In Hungary, you have an opposition that is still trying to recover from a dramatic setback and a ruling party that is governing along a pattern established by big city Democratic Party machines in the United States. Orbán has built, on a national basis, a machine like the old Chicago Daley organization that has integrated the business class into the Fidesz political structure, with business providing the funds to support the party’s election campaigns. It’s corrupt, but very successful in enabling the dominant party to retain power.
TAI: Washington pundits often conflate current-day circumstances in Hungary and Poland. Could you tell us how they’re comparable and how they’re different? What is your assessment of the situation in Poland?
AP: Some of the goals of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) are disturbing. The government has already taken important steps towards the transformation of the judiciary into a pliant politicized institution that will rubber stamp the government’s actions. Likewise, PiS has turned state media into an all-out propaganda machine. I’m also concerned with PiS’s drive to impose a state interpretation of national history that would encompass art, the teaching of history, and museum presentations. The politicization of culture is the sort of thing we expect from Russia and China, not from leading democracies.
But Poland is different from Hungary. In Poland, the opposition has not dematerialized in the same way. The Law and Justice government has only been able to make significant changes in the judiciary and in the state media. Poland still enjoys political pluralism and especially media pluralism.
Also, Viktor Orbán has set himself up as the de facto leader of opposition politics in Europe. He hatched this idea of “illiberal democracy,” has moved his country close to Russia, and continuously criticizes EU values. The Russia relationship is crucial. Hungary is step-by-step moving to a position of semi-neutrality between Russia and the democracies. In Poland, concern about Russia is strong. I think that the Russia factor will prevent Poland from moving as far as Hungary has.
TAI: How do you view the question of nationalism in Hungary and Poland? There’s a common assumption that the nationalist rhetoric we hear there is fundamentally illiberal and unhealthy. But is there a possibility for a kind of enlightened nationalism in these countries? One thinks of figures like Josef Pilsudski or Jan Masaryk, who once pioneered a kind of robust liberal nationalism in the region.
AP: In Central Europe, leaders like Pilsudski and Masaryk were capable of embracing liberalism and patriotic nationalism. But I wonder how successful they were in bringing Jews, Slovaks, Germans, and other minorities into the equation. And, of course, things are different today. While Hungary and Poland are unusually homogenous societies, other parts of Europe have opened their doors to immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. The refugee crisis was, for many, a frightening episode. And then you must remember that the divisions in a country like Poland are not really over race or nationality, but over Polish culture: divisions between traditionalists and the provinces on one side and urbanites and secularists on the other.
The populist right has been growing in Europe for more than three decades. Parties like Austria’s Freedom Party and the National Rally in France have had representation in parliament for years, and they have been flogging the immigration issue for years. But we may be coming to a period where immigration loses some of its bite and other, more mundane but quite significant problems of society and the economy come to the fore. How will Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders thrive?
TAI: Leaving Europe for a moment, another big case study for democracy promotion is the so-called Arab Spring. In 2011, many had high hopes for democratization in the Middle East. What was your thinking at the time? Did we have the wrong expectations?
AP: We may have had unrealistic expectations. The people who gathered at Tahrir Square had no experience in building democracy, and the result was a military coup and General al-Sisi. In the Middle East, democratic forces have been suppressed by a malign coalition of the military and strongman politicians. They have decades of experience at monopolizing power and using the levers of repression.
The United States accepted the Egypt coup, and under Trump we treat al-Sisi as a friend. But the coup was unjustified. Morsi was not attempting to gain monopoly power, and the Muslim Brotherhood was not poised to seize power. The Morsi government was likely to fall of its own incompetence within a few months, and then someone else would have been elected. In any event, the coup has ushered in the worst police state conditions that Egypt has experienced in decades, and perhaps in its entire existence as an independent nation-state. Conditions are much worse than under Mubarak; the regime now holds thousands of political prisoners, has executed hundreds, and has imposed new controls on universities and the press. Sisi’s policies will come back to bite the leadership, and at some point you will have another revolution, but it might not be as democratic as in 2011.
TAI: We’ve talked a lot about failed democratization, or erstwhile success stories that are now trending the wrong way. What are some examples of the opposite trend—bright spots that are now making real strides toward democracy?
AP: I would start with Ukraine. When I joined Freedom House in the 1990s, Ukraine was a state run by corrupt oligarchs with close ties to Russia. It was not exactly a Russia satellite, but certainly Moscow had outsized influence. Now Ukraine is building an independent state with a national identity and democratic institutions. It is no longer a junior vassal of Russia. That’s a very positive thing. Aside from Ukraine, there have been positive if fragile gains in a few countries, like Malaysia, Armenia, Ecuador, Gambia, North Macedonia, possibly Ethiopia. And, of course, most of the countries that embraced democracy at the Cold War’s end have not slid back into some form of autocracy. They remain democracies—that’s important to keep in mind.
Perhaps more significant is the increasing willingness of people living under autocracy to protest and resist. People today are less prone to accept repression, corruption, foreign domination, or indifference to popular needs. People don’t necessarily have the ability to overthrow their oppressors, but they are more inclined to make the effort. They sometimes rely on opposition parties. More often they look to civil society movements to take the lead, and they still look to the United States for moral and diplomatic support. Today we see this in Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, even Iran. I think you’d see it in China if the regime there didn’t devote billions in resources to not just suppressing protest movements but in whiting out the very idea of a society where ordinary people could challenge the state.
Those who live under oppression still look to the United States. Right now we have a divided government, with a President who is oblivious to oppression abroad and hostile to injecting values into foreign policy, and a government which continues to support human rights and democracy. And then add to that a civil society—journalists, NGOs, humanitarian organizations, religious believers—who would very much like to see the United States reassert itself as the beacon of freedom. The role of civil society is likely to be magnified as long as Trump is President.
TAI: How do you evaluate the situation in Hong Kong? And do you think movements for democracy on China’s periphery can have ripple effects on the mainland?
AP: Hong Kong is a very hard issue for an American. To see free people anywhere threatened by this neo-totalitarian system that Xi Jinping has built is to look into the abyss. Freedom House is in solidarity with Joshua Wong, Martin Lee, and the other leaders of the Hong Kong Democracy Movement. And we must remind the world about the full dimension of the China system, with its frenzied censorship, its high-tech police state apparatus, its absence of the rule of law, and its influence operations and bullying outside its borders. This is crucial, because Beijing does care about its global reputation.
Taiwan does not have China breathing down its neck in the same way that Hong Kong does. Taiwan just had yet another election that reinforced the insistence of its people that it not come under the ministrations of Beijing. Taiwanese don’t want a system that censors social media, jails political dissidents, erases inconvenient episodes from the history texts, and practices thought control in reeducation camps. Our first obligation is to remind the world that the people who know China the best—that is, the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan—want nothing to do with Xi Jinping’s China Dream.
TAI: Where do you place India on the spectrum of democracies? It has many of the procedural hallmarks of democracy, but there are real questions about culture—as seen now with this proposed citizenship law that would privilege India’s Hindu identity. Is democracy in tension with pluralism in India?
AP: India is currently a major disappointment for Freedom House. One of the things we’ve been talking about here today, albeit indirectly, is the threat to minority rights all over the world. You’re seeing it in these anti-Muslim laws and policies in India, and you’re seeing it in concentration camps in Xinjiang. You’re seeing it in the truly ugly rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski when they describe Muslim refugees from Syria. You’re seeing it in the United States when Trump calls Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. This is a distressing trend, especially because the world has seen such an explosion of immigration and population movements. People of different races and cultures live among each other all across the world, and this is not likely to change.
The demonization of minorities poses a huge obstacle to the success of democracy. There’s no simple answer here, but the United States has a special role to play. We are the country where the movements for minority rights got underway during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We have dealt with these issues through the process of democratic debate. We’ve had debates about how you integrate schools. We’ve had debates about how you build strong pillars of entrepreneurial activity in the black community. We’ve had debates about affirmative action. The United States has managed to confront this problem through the normal process of political debate so that race relations, although testy and polarized, has not deteriorated to zero-sum confrontation. Other societies have to learn how to do this, and we have to make sure that we don’t forget how to do it.
TAI: Let’s turn to some criticisms of democracy promotion. In their new book The Light That Failed, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes suggest that the democracy promotion strategies of the 1990s in Eastern Europe were built around “imitation” of the West, and that the imperative to copy Western models was bound to produce a backlash. What do you make of this critique?
AP: Krastev and Holmes have made an important contribution to the debate over Central Europe’s fate. But I am apprehensive about theories that seem to cover all the bases and encompass everything. Likewise, I’m not impressed by the proposition that others have advanced that there are “many paths to democracy.” There are clearly different routes to freedom. But to achieve real democracy requires a set of strong institutions that are common throughout the democratic world. Honest elections, a diverse media, an independent judiciary, property rights, a state that tolerates a critical press and an independent civil society, minority protections. If these institutions are lacking, then you don’t have democracy; you have something else. And there is no such thing as “illiberal democracy” or “democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
TAI: What do you make of the broader argument that the democracy promotion community has focused too much on procedures and institutions, and not enough on cultivating the cultural values necessary to sustain democracy? Is there a way we can credibly encourage the latter?
AP: First, let’s be clear about democratic processes. Autocrats like Putin and Hugo Chavez have undertaken something new in political life. They have used democratic means to promote autocratic ends. Having triumphed initially through the normal election process, they then weakened, warped, and manipulated all these so-called petty democratic processes and institutions and achieved something akin to a quiet, bloodless coup. The totalitarians and the dictators of the 20th century sneered at democracy and elections. They held power through cults of personality, terror, and often a dogma—German nationalism for Hitler; dictatorship of the proletariat for Stalin and Mao. Today’s autocrats do not commit mass murder, they don’t jail thousands of dissidents, they even tolerate a carefully rationed amount of opposition media and badly hobbled opposition parties.
As for culture, it is clear by now that democracy can thrive in all kinds of environments. Just look at Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, East Asian societies with successful democracies that exist in the shadow of the dragon. And yes, recent trends suggest that we should be more cautious in promoting the kind of rigid secularism that clashes with cultures where faith and national identity are intertwined. But we should be cautious here as well. The Modi government is invoking the Hindu faith in justifying a frightening series of measures aimed directly at India’s quite sizable Muslim minority. The BJP has embarked on a course that is dangerous from every perspective—ethical, spiritual, geopolitical, and internal security.
TAI: Another critique of democracy promotion, often made from the right, holds that advocating minority rights tends to expand into a left-wing agenda, pushing things like LGBT rights on other countries. Secretary Pompeo has recently put together a “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” which suggests that human rights have become too broadly defined and that we need to narrow the scope of what we advocate abroad. What do you make of that effort?
AP: Freedom House testified before this commission. I took a look at its mission and some of the statements that Secretary Pompeo had made. They’re notable for their vagueness. Given this lack of clarity, I would not want to pass judgment about its findings, whatever they might be. When governments get involved in passing judgments on combustible issues like the nature of human rights, it often doesn’t end well.
I say that because while there is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a global document with broad credibility, in real life human rights are driven by popular movements. You will not see anything about LGBT rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in the 1940s. You didn’t hear much about LGBT rights when Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching and Bayard Rustin, who was gay, was one of his advisors. LGBT people themselves started a movement for equality. That movement took decades but eventually, in much of the world, LGBT people did achieve something like legal equality. They are engaged in a movement to expand the geographical boundaries of their rights and that will continue. It will continue whatever this Commission says or doesn’t say.
TAI: Let’s turn to democracy at home. One group is very concerned about Trump, his rhetoric, and his verbal assaults on institutions. Another group says, “Well, our institutions are holding and democracy is actually fairly resilient.” What’s your assessment?
AP: In our Freedom in the World report, the United States has declined more than any other established democracy over the past ten years. The decline started before Trump, so let’s get that out of the way. For example, the voter suppression laws in states like Georgia, Ohio, and North Carolina were instituted before Trump. But the decline has accelerated during the Trump Administration.
At Freedom House, we’re very concerned about the state of democracy in America. We still believe in the United States as a great democracy that has a natural role as the leader of global freedom. So it’s a huge issue if American democracy is in decline. It’s an even bigger problem if the President of the United States actually resents that mission, has tried to abandon America’s role as global democracy leader, and has identified himself with autocrats like Putin, Sisi, Kim Jong-un, and Xi Jinping.
I’m not a pessimist because American democracy has proved itself historically to be capable of revival. But right now, it’s moving in the wrong direction, in a way that is very disturbing.
TAI: If you look back at what we Americans have done to promote democracy abroad in the past 40 years, what have we learned and what could we do better? If you were setting up the democracy promotion infrastructure from scratch today, what would it look like?
AP: I’ve always felt that the democracy movement was extremely important. But I also felt that the model of American democracy itself was our most important contribution. Our democracy has experienced some dark moments in my lifetime, including Vietnam, for example. But overall, the United States built an economic powerhouse out of free market principles and it built a strong multinational democracy, probably the first in the world. When the wall came down, when people in Eastern Europe talked about the various things that had influenced them, it was the American and European models that inspired them.
What would I have done differently? That’s hard to say. I think I would have made it clear from the very beginning that a society’s initial embrace of democracy is not enough. I once had lunch with John O’Sullivan, when he was at National Review and I was still working at Radio Free Europe. He said, “When do you think Radio Free Europe should go out of existence?” I said, “Well, when these countries have free media.” That was a premature judgment, because while the countries in Eastern Europe developed free and independent media almost immediately upon the collapse of communism, today the media in every one of these countries is either captured by the state or the ruling party, as in Hungary, or heavily dominated by oligarchs with their own particular missions.
We should have understood that building democracy in this part of the world was going to take a long time. These societies have had little experience with the messiness of democracy.
TAI: In your working life, what is the biggest success story for democracy promotion and what’s the most striking failure?
AP: The greatest achievement is the collapse of communism. America contributed to communism’s demise at one level through projects like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at a more basic level by strengthening democracy at home, through prudent economic policies and through the democracy promotion efforts that we embarked on in the 1950s, and then later on in the 1980s through organizations like NED.
The greatest failure? Russia, no question. We fought the Cold War to counter Russian imperialism. Keep in mind what that meant: the domination of all the republics in Russia’s neighborhood, plus the Baltics, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Then add Central Europe and the other parts of the world where the Soviets were supporting totalitarian or autocratic forces.
The actions and policies that ultimately shaped Russia after the Cold War, the actions and decisions that have enshrined Putin as Russia’s leader, were Russian decisions. But it’s unfortunate that America didn’t realize how important Russia’s ultimate direction would be for the world, and for democracy. How important it would have been for America to go the extra mile to help Russia build a system that moved towards democracy and that eased the burdens of economic transition. Even a country with poorly formed democratic institutions, a country which Freedom House ranked as Partly Free instead as among the most repressive, would have been a major step forward. I also think it was a major mistake for the United States to adopt a passive stance when Putin made clear his hostility to democracy and especially to America. Especially under Obama, we just stood by while Putin engineered his campaign against democracy—in Europe, Ukraine, and eventually the United States.
*Editor’s Note: The introduction to this piece has been updated since publication to account for the subsequent release of the “Freedom in the World 2020” report.