Conspiracies of Hope: Democracy, human rights, & The Signal

Conspiracies of Hope

Democracy, human rights, & The Signal
Ivy Gould / The Signal
Despite increasing political polarization around the democratic world—where it can now seem as though we’re living in starkly divided realities, formed by competing ideological views and media ecosystems—there’s a remarkably broad and resilient moral consensus on the foundational values of democracy and human rights.

You can see this in the global response to Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, widely interpreted not only as an illegitimate invasion of one country by another but as an attack by an autocratic power on an emerging democratic society—essentially, an attack by autocracy on democracy.

You can also see it in the global response to other challenges to democracy and human rights when they might break into the news—whether it’s Beijing’s designs on Taiwan or ongoing oppression of the Uyghurs in northwestern China; Moscow’s imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and other political dissidents; or Tehran’s crackdown on Iranian women and their pro-democratic allies since the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s morality police last year.

You can see it in the global response to the standing nightmare of the North Korean prison state, at one end of the spectrum, or attempts to undermine elections in established democracies like the United States or Brazil, at the other.

This consensus on the foundational values of democracy and human rights is far from total, even within democratic societies, but it’s pervasive and powerful—almost in defiance of the partisan divisions that shape so much of contemporary life. The Signal isn’t just part of this consensus; we’re defined by it. It’s central to our mission, generating some of the biggest questions we ask as we grapple to understand what’s happening in the world.

Which is why we’re delighted to be partnering with the Human Rights Foundation on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Oslo Freedom Forum. In 2009, HRF inaugurated the OFF to pay tribute to survivors of Communism and Nazism. They’ve since developed it into an annual event that raises global awareness, gives voice to the world’s democratic dissidents, and activates a network of support for them and resistance to autocracy throughout the year.

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be featuring conversations with participants in this year’s Forum, beginning Thursday with Jason Rezaian. Rezaian is an Iranian-American journalist, a columnist for The Washington Post, and the author of Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, about his experience in captivity in Iran.

As ever, we’ll love your thoughts along the way:

—J.J. Gould

Previously, at The Signal …

‘A Whole New Era’

What do mass street protests mean for the regime in Iran? Vali Nasr on how the demonstrations represent a new kind of danger to the Islamic Republic.
Tbel Abuseridze
It’s been eight months since a new wave of demonstrations broke out across Iran, and still, the regime hasn’t been able to stop them. The unrest began after the country’s morality police arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman—because her hijab didn’t fully cover her hair, as mandated by Iranian law—and ended up killing her in custody. Support for the demonstrations remains widespread in Iranian society: Workers in the oil sector briefly went on strike, with groups of lawyers and doctors reportedly joining the protests as well. As demonstrators continue to mobilize around the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” some are going so far as to call for the end of the Islamic Republic altogether.

Globally, Iran’s theocratic system has been an archrival to the United States, in the Middle East and beyond, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the region, Israel has seen Tehran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, and the international deal to freeze the program remains highly contentious across the U.S., Israel, and Arab countries. Many of the seemingly intractable political problems in the Middle East, meanwhile, trace back to the hostility between the Islamic Republic and its Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia. In this fraught context, how threatening are these protests to the regime in Tehran?

Vali Nasr is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and the author of seven books on the Middle East and Islam. As Nasr sees it, the turmoil in Iran presents a major threat to the Iranian regime. The broad sympathy among the Iranian people for the demonstrators’ demands extends even among those who support the system. Though security forces have brutally repressed and killed some of the protesters, many of those in the street are teenagers, and the regime is reluctant to use overwhelming violence against them. And this uprising is different from previous unrest, Nasr says, because—by rejecting the hijab and the law requiring it—the protesters are challenging the cultural foundations of the Islamic Revolution itself. At the same time, the regime faces a new and daunting problem of trying to restore domestic stability while dealing with a perpetually sluggish economy and the ongoing regional and international instability that usually demands most of its attention. And abroad, the demonstrations are changing perceptions of Iran in the region—and so, changing the political dynamics of the Middle East.

Continue reading …

The Moscow Line

How is propaganda from Russia shaping the global context of the war in Ukraine? Mike Smeltzer on the Kremlin’s program for manipulating the media at home and abroad.
Alexander Popov
Western leaders are fighting an information war, as Russia continues to press its invasion of Ukraine. The European Union took the unprecedented step of banning the state media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik. According to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, these outlets “will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union.” Neither is the EU alone in trying to disrupt the Kremlin’s media agenda. YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are blocking them in Europe. RT America announced it was “ceasing production” due to “unforeseen business interruption events” after it was dropped by DirecTV and Roku. Meanwhile, the Russian government is limiting—and in some cases, ending—Russians’ access to social media. The Kremlin is also criminalizing and restricting access to independent journalism, forcing some news organizations to close. What effects are all of these initiatives and counter-initiatives having on the conflict in Ukraine?

Mike Smeltzer is a senior research analyst for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. To Smeltzer, the global battle of narratives over Ukraine is moving in an uncertain direction—just like the military conflict itself. These parallel struggles, he says, will continue to intersect with and influence each other: Much of the world is currently rejecting Russian attempts to frame the invasion, but the Kremlin is constantly looking for new tactics, and its propaganda still has the potential to undermine support for the Ukrainians. Another complicating factor, as Smeltzer sees it, is that banning Russian propaganda can have unintended consequences, emboldening autocrats and making liberal democrats look hypocritical in promoting the value of freedom.

Continue reading …

Friends Like These

Why is democracy eroding more among America’s allies than in other countries? Moises Naím on how massive social change is affecting the way citizens feel, and the nature of politics, around the world.
Tbel Abuseridze
Democracy is in retreat. It’s been one of the most persistent themes of the era—through a Donald Trump presidency defined by contempt for U.S. institutions; populist autocrats winning elections in Europe, Asia, and Latin America; military coups in Egypt, Myanmar, and Sudan; and an illiberal China’s apparently unstoppable rise. Now a research institute based in Sweden that measures democracy globally, V-Dem, has reached a striking conclusion: On average, democratic indicators dropped in the United States and allied countries at nearly twice the rate of non-allied countries during the past 10 years. Very few allies experienced any increases in democracy, which the institute calculates based on hundreds of indicators, including election fairness and judicial independence. In other words, most global democratic regression isn’t the result of China, Russia, or other authoritarians undermining countries that are struggling with transitions to democracy; it’s the result of weakening institutions in countries that are established democracies—such as Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and Israel. The study defines U.S. allies as the 41 cosuntries that Washington has mutual-defense agreements with. Of course, though the United States is the world’s oldest uninterrupted democracy, it has long kept defense pacts with dictators, and it hasn’t always demanded democratic behavior from its partners. Still, why the correlation between alliance with the U.S. and democratic decline?

Moisés Naím—formerly Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry, the director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and an executive director of the World Bank—is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. In his view, the United States isn’t causing breakdowns for democratic allies; the U.S. usually has little to do with the vitality of democracy outside its borders. The global problem of democratic decline ultimately traces back to a series of profound economic and social shocks that most parts of the world have gone through during the past 20 years—and as Naím sees it, the social and political consequences of these shocks have been greater in liberal than in illiberal countries.

Continue reading …
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Categories: Geopolitics

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