Global freedom in retreat as autocracy spreads

Priceless: Freedom House rates 40% of people as free, 24% partly free and 36% not free.

A former UK foreign secretary says global liberty is ‘in retreat’. Some expected liberal values to spread this century. But growing evidence suggests freedom’s enemies are gaining ground.

‘To renounce liberty is to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties.’

So said philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Three centuries after his birth, he would be heartened to see countries on all six major continents where people choose their rulers and may think, say and do whatever they like.

But now this is under threat. Yesterday William Hague, the former UK foreign secretary, voiced his fear that all over the world freedom is retreating.

‘We have become used to the idea that our Western values are successful,’ Hague wrote in his Telegraph column. ‘Freedom, we assume, will repel and ultimately overcome any alternative.’ Hague thinks such assumptions are naïve. The rulers of Russia, Turkey and China are silencing dissent and expanding their influence. Dictators and fundamentalists dominate the Middle East, where a demographic bulge is bringing more people into unfree societies. Islamist violence has undermined freedoms in Western countries. And public opinion in the West has turned against liberal democracy.

The watchdog Freedom House now says global freedom has declined for 10 consecutive years. In that decade 105 countries have seen a net decline, and 61 a net improvement.

So has the era of globalisation and technological change empowered individuals or helped to enslave them? At the end of the 20th century, when liberal societies had beaten Nazi and communist tyrants, some declared the ‘end of history’. The spread of wealth, people and information would undermine those who sought to oppress others.

But growing evidence suggests it has done the opposite. TV channels backed by autocratic regimes can now broadcast to many in democratic countries. China has become prosperous and is believed to have hacked technological and military secrets. Terrorists can rapidly share information and escape detection. And the Wikileaks group, seen by some as a champion of internet freedom, has aided some of the world’s most dictatorial regimes by revealing the details of informants working against them.

In chains

The age of freedom is under threat, say some. It faces existential threats from autocrats and terrorists. New technology has given scary amounts of power to small groups of individuals who wish to affect others’ lives for ill. People in democratic countries are taking their freedoms for granted, and may soon be forced to fight for them.

Freedom is too powerful to end, others respond. Liberty is a basic human desire; only temporarily can its enemies suppress it, against people’s natural instincts. And globalisation is causing upheaval, but empowering individuals. Those who threaten freedom are merely reacting against a force they will never beat.

You Decide

  1. Is anything more important to you than freedom?
  2. Will the age of freedom ever end?


  1. List as many freedoms as you can think of (eg freedom of speech). Summarise what each one means in a sentence and give it a mark out of 10 to show how important it is to you.
  2. Choose an Enlightenment philosopher who advocated freedom and who interests you. Write a one-page briefing summarising their beliefs in your own words, including some brief quotes from their work.

Some People Say...

“Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction.”

Ronald Reagan

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this all a bit abstract to be relevant to me?
Freedom is the right to do what you want. Your life would be very different without it. For example, you might be prohibited from taking part in your favourite hobbies — or, even worse, you could be prevented from reading The Day.
Could freedom ever be a bad thing for me?
Only anarchists, who see all forms of authority as corrupt, believe in absolute freedom. Otherwise people agree that freedom must be at least partially restricted. But liberals think governments should make freedom their top priority; they should have only enough power to stop others restricting it and to help you make the most of it. Socialists tend to think too much freedom creates inequality, while conservatives may fear it disrupts the natural order of things.

Word Watch

The population of Arab countries is growing quickly: an estimated 60% of people are under 25.
Donald Trump could become US president on an anti-free trade, anti-migration, isolationist platform. Similar instincts help to explain rising movements on the left and right in Europe and the US.
72 countries became less free last year; 43 became more free. The worst setbacks were in the rule of law and freedom of expression: global press freedom declined to its worst level in 12 years.
End of history
A term used by the writer Francis Fukuyama.
These include Russia Today, which is backed by the Russian state and has an office in the UK, and Press TV of Iran, which broadcasts videos on YouTube.
The group, along with the Russian government, is believed to be associated with the hacking and publishing of emails which reflect badly on Hillary Clinton.
In 2011, Wikileaks published unedited cables from the US State Department. These included the details of people working against dictatorial regimes in Afghanistan, China, Ethiopia and Belarus.


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