In a way, this is no surprise. After all, we have for several years been watching the dispiriting scenes from the Middle East and North Africa -- the least-free region of the world in Freedom House's "Freedom in the World 2016." We have seen, for example, the imprisoning and murder of journalists, the shooting of protesters and brutal beheadings at the hands of extremists and governments. And, of course, we have seen the waves of millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and beyond.
Inevitably, there is a large degree of subjectivity. But Freedom House, which describes itself as an independent democracy watchdog, rates dozens of indicators, including real-world assessments of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, whether there is a level playing fields for opposition parties, equality of opportunity for women, the rule of law, transparency of government operations. The resulting score, from 0 to 100, produces three categories: Free, Partly Free, and Not Free.
Worldwide, of 7.3 billion people, only 40% live in countries judged Free, down from 46 percent a decade ago. Of 195 countries, only 86 are rated Free. And even in countries rated Free, the report notes, there's another damaging change: Leading democracies are experiencing a crisis of confidence. Instead of leading the way and encouraging democratic progress, they have grown divided and ineffectual on the world stage, unwilling to inspire and unable to develop a coherent, united policy to tackle many of these global challenges.
The timing of their self-doubt could not be worst. In 2015, the level of freedom deteriorated in 72 countries, and advanced in just 43, the worst performance since the decline set in a decade ago, undoing the enormous advances seen in the last quarter of the 20th century.
The freest regions in the world remain the Americas and Europe, along with India, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
But in the Middle East, only Tunisia and Israel rank as Free, (the West Bank, analyzed separately, is rated Not Free) as the ongoing turmoil in the region has triggered anxiety among dictators, fueling even greater repression even in places where there isn't already open warfare. Fourteen countries in the region were designated Not Free. Only 5% of the population of the Middle East and North Africa enjoys full freedom by this measure.
Although the Middle East and North Africa are considered the least-free regions overall, Russia and China also stand out as being massive expanses that are significantly lacking -- and sometimes devoid -- of individual rights. Freedom House points to Russian President Vladimir Putin as aggressively challenging liberal values at home and among his neighbors, while noting that the ruling Communist Party of China, the most populous nation on the planet, has come to rely on a mix of economic growth and political repression to maintain its grip on power.
More encouraging were the findings in Latin America, where a number of countries score at levels more commonly found in Europe and North America. Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, for example, are seen as bastions of individual freedom, while the rest of the region is mostly free. (Cuba appears to be an exception -- despite reestablishing relations with the United States last year, it appears to have made almost no progress toward democratic reform).
But there were also disheartening conclusions on women's rights, and the failure to make good on the world's 20-year-old commitment to advance women's rights and equality.
Distressingly, on this issue, the bar has been lowered so far that even minor achievements are celebrated as victories. For example, Saudi Arabia was hailed by some last year for allowing women to participate in elections for weak municipal councils
, even as it still required women to have permission from a male guardian
in order to conduct normal daily activities taken for granted by women in most of the world (and, for that matter, by men everywhere).
All of this is particularly painful to observe from here in the United States -- a nation that itself is not immune to criticism -- because it is almost an article of faith that humanity steadily, irrevocably moves toward freedom and justice.
This kind of optimism, the optimistic reference to the arc of history, was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and was a centerpiece of some of President Barack Obama most inspiring moments. Indeed, we heard it in his soaring words on the night he won election in November 2008, when he declared it was time to answer the cynics and put our hands "on the arc of history, and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."
Yet the words of our leaders are not being reflected in the world around us -- many of those countries already enjoying the fruits of freedom, including levels of prosperity that would allow them to help others, are failing the test of leadership. It is likely that history will gradually, sometimes haltingly, move toward freedom, because that, ultimately, is what people yearn for.
But if we do not bend history toward freedom soon, the pressure that is building could create a violent snap that unleashes even more havoc on oppressed and oppressor alike.