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This year marks the 41st edition of Freedom in the World. At the time the report was launched, in 1972, there was reason for concern about the condition of freedom. Democracy seemed to be in retreat, and the world’s democratic powers were mired in doubt and confusion.


The state of freedom reached its nadir in 1975, when 40 countries, just 25 percent of the world’s independent states, were ranked as Free, compared with 65 countries, or 41 percent, ranked as Not Free. At that point in history, the democratic universe was restricted to Western Europe, North America, and a few other scattered locales.


During the next quarter-century, freedom experienced an unprecedented period of progress.  By 2000, the number of countries designated as Free had surged to 86, or 45 percent of the total, while the number of Not Free states had declined to 48, or 25 percent. The Middle East remained the only major part of the world that had been untouched by democracy’s growth.


Since then, the state of freedom has been situated somewhere between stagnation and decline. While few of the countries that moved toward democracy in the previous decades retreated into authoritarianism, the march of freedom has met with a wall of resistance in three major settings: China, Eurasia, and the Middle East.


And while the ideologies of authoritarian powers vary considerably, their leaders form alliances in order to advance common goals. They have studied how other dictatorships were destroyed and are bent on avoiding a similar fate. They collaborate to sustain some of the world’s most reprehensible regimes, as in Syria, where Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela have offered diplomatic support, loans, fuel, or military aid to the Assad regime.


In an earlier period, it was the United States and its allies that were the guarantors of political change. Self-assured and optimistic, they provided the material resources and diplomatic muscle that tipped the balance towards freedom movements and new democracies. Unfortunately, the American government has failed to recognize the historic moment that presents itself today.


It is noteworthy that those who have joined the struggle for change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain are not chanting in praise of the “China Dream” or issuing appeals to Vladimir Putin. America may not be the most popular country in the Middle East, but desire for the democratic benefits it enjoys lies at the heart of the ongoing uprising in the Arab world and elsewhere.


The democratic world was experiencing a period of self-absorption much like today’s when Freedom House launched Freedom in the World. Once it had overcome its crisis of confidence, America helped propel a historic surge of democratization in parts of the world where self-government was almost unknown. But if there is no reassertion of American leadership, we could well find ourselves at some future time deploring lost opportunities rather than celebrating a major breakthrough for freedom.


Arch Puddington, a George W. Bush Institute fellow in human freedom, is vice president for research at Freedom House.