Alarm bells over the demise of the rule of law around the world have rung so often that we risk becoming numb to the latest incident of authoritarian overreach. Yet each abuse of power emboldens the next, and a new global data set from our organization, the World Justice Project (WJP), highlights the troublesome cumulative effect.

The WJP Rule of Law Index to be released today and launched in a global event, scores and ranks rule of law performance in 139 countries. For the fourth year in a row, the Index shows rule of law declining in a majority of countries. It also records a significant expansion of this negative trend over the past year. Seventy-four percent of countries studied saw an erosion in the rule of law since the last report was issued in March 2020. The negative trend holds for every region in the world and for rich and poor countries alike.

Drawing on in-country surveys of 138,000 households and 4,200 legal and public health practitioners and experts, the Index captures how governance and justice systems work in practice. Data for the 2021 Index were collected between October 2020 and May 2021.

“Rule by Law” Prevails

The Rule of Law Index ranks and scores each country on the following eight factors: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice. The Index’s methodology, which was developed with intensive multidisciplinary and multinational consultations and vetting, permits identification of particular strengths and weaknesses across various government structures and functions.

Unfortunately, in this year’s Index, signs of progress were few and far between. Indeed, a majority of countries studied had declining rule of law performance in every factor except “order and security.” Seventy percent of countries saw a decline in the Index factors measuring constraints on government powers and fundamental rights, and 82 percent of countries experienced a decline in at least one dimension of civic space (civic participation, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of assembly and association). As pandemic-era emergency powers have compounded the effects of years of deterioration in these key checks and balances, an authoritarian “rule by law” model is creeping forward in more countries.

Rule of Law During the Pandemic

The 2021 Index is the first in this annual series to be issued since the declaration of the pandemic, and the findings show the hit certain dimensions of the rule of law took during the health crisis. Most notably, 94 percent of countries experienced a decline in the timeliness of administrative, civil, or criminal justice. This trend was most prevalent with respect to civil justice, which had in previous years been an area of modest improvement globally.

The 2021 Index data also reflect how the pandemic has highlighted and reinforced persistent systemic discrimination. Sixty-seven percent of countries studied evidenced increased levels of discrimination during this period.

A Rule of Law Crisis Deepens in the United States 

The trends in the United States followed those in most of the rest of the world, except the downturn was sharper than in many other countries. Overall, the U.S. score in the Rule of Law Index declined by 2.9 percent, more than any other country in the Western Europe and North America region, and more than any other high-income country. Its global ranking fell by two, putting it at 27th out of 139 countries, just behind Portugal, Uruguay, and Latvia.

The U.S. scores fell in every factor except regulatory enforcement, with the most significant deterioration in the measures of constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, and criminal justice. The data were collected during the turbulent 2020 U.S. election and presidential transition, but they should not be dismissed as a transitory phenomenon. To the contrary, the data reflect the deepening of multi-year negative trends as well as certain longstanding systemic weaknesses, all of which will require a concerted effort to reverse.

The Index score measuring constraints on government powers, for example, captures issues such as checks on executive authority by the legislature, judiciary, independent auditing bodies, non-governmental actors, and the like. The last time the United States saw improvement in this score was between 2015 and 2016. Since 2016, in the period corresponding to the Trump administration, the U.S. score on constraints on government powers fell 16 percent, with double-digit declines in each of the indicators that make up that score, including legislative checks on government powers (-16%), judicial checks on government powers (-17%), checks from independent auditing and review (-21%), non-governmental checks (-16%), and sanctions of government officials for misconduct (-14%). Over the same period, the U.S. score on respect for fundamental rights fell 11 percent, giving it a ranking of 42nd out of 139 countries on that factor in the 2021 study.

Beyond these contemporary rule of law challenges, the United States suffers from historic weaknesses with respect to equal treatment in the justice system. This year the United States ranks 122nd out of 139 countries in the indicator measuring discrimination in the civil justice system and 111th out of 139 for impartiality of its criminal justice system.

Leading From Behind: Implications for the U.S. Global Democracy Agenda

The Index data on the United States underscore that not just the physical infrastructure of the country needs investment. The country’s rule of law foundation requires urgent attention too. This state of affairs complicates the Biden administration’s global democracy agenda, as it is hard to encourage others to improve when one’s own record is trending in the wrong direction.

The administration has acknowledged this challenge with at least rhetorical humility, promising to use its upcoming Summit for Democracy to learn as well as teach – showcasing “one of democracy’s unique strengths: the ability to acknowledge its weaknesses and imperfections and confront them openly and transparently.” In practice, it remains to be seen how the administration will overcome various political and bureaucratic barriers to using the summit to meaningfully address rule of law issues at home as well as around the world.

No prior U.S. administration has effectively connected the dots between domestic and diplomatic agendas in this way, and early signs suggest the Biden administration is also struggling to do so. For example, the White House has yet to embrace the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals as anything other than a tool of USAID development policy, even though the Goals are intended to be universal – applicable in developed as well as developing countries – and they align closely with the administration’s stated domestic policy objectives of building back better. The United States is the only OECD and G20 country that has failed to undertake a Voluntary National Review of its own progress toward achieving the Goals, and there is no evident sign the Biden administration will break that silence.

One hopes that studies such as our WJP Rule of Law Index can help. Reflecting the perspectives of ordinary people and practitioners and facilitating objective transnational comparisons, such data can support an honest assessment of weaknesses and identification of priority areas for reform. Undertaking a serious exercise of this nature is urgently needed to address the deteriorating rule of law situation in the United States. By doing so, the United States could also set an important example and help reverse the global rule of law recession.