The number of democracies peaked in 2005 and has since declined. Once seen as an irreversible wave, democracy has proved shaky and vulnerable. Even in the United States.

Thus finds Freedom House, a research institute founded in 1941 as totalitarianism engulfed the globe. Since 1973, they have published “Freedom in the World,” an index of 24 variables ranging from press freedom to fair elections to civil rights. Countries rated 71 to 100 are called “free.” For 2020 (published in early 2021), Norway, Sweden and Finland were each rated 100, Canada 97, Germany 94, Britain 93 and France 90.

Reflecting recent polarization and demagoguery, the U.S. declined from 86 to 83, tying Romania. FH took into account our racial difficulties and fraught elections of 2020 but not the 2021 Capitol riot. How we handle Jan. 6 and voting suppression will doubtless figure in next year’s rating.

India, however, slid from 71 to 67, pulling it down from the lowest rung of free to “partly free.” The pugnacious Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Modi earned India the downgrade by whipping up hatred of Muslims (14% of India’s population) and curbing the media. And this does not count Kashmir’s military occupation.

Why is this bothersome? Because we are building a “quadrilateral alliance” of democracies — India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. (the “Quad”) — to oppose China. While India is vastly better than China (rated 9), Indian democracy is deteriorating as the government silences critics and protesters. (In 1975–77, Indira Gandhi’s “emergency” suspended civil rights and press freedom.)

Do we defend a problematic India under all circumstances? India has always had border disputes with China — a legacy of the borders Britain decreed when India was its colony — namely in Aksai Chin in the west and Arunachal Pradesh in the east, both later scenes of fighting. India is in nearly permanent tension with Pakistan (FH rated 37), which has caused four wars. India, Pakistan and China have nuclear weapons.

Neutralist India always rejected alliances and built the “nonaligned bloc” while proclaiming, “Chinese and Indians are brothers.” Prime Minister Nehru, brainy but naive, got a shock when China seized border areas in a short 1962 war. With the Sino-Soviet split, India drew close to Moscow (and Pakistan to Beijing). Delhi, still hopeful about improving relations with Beijing, is cautious about joining an anti-China pact.

The U.S is not picky about nondemocratic partners when the strategic situation calls for it. Salazar’s Portugal, Franco’s Spain and Tito’s Yugoslavia shored up our position in southern Europe. South Africa, distasteful as its apartheid was, quietly got U.S. support to block Soviet-sponsored moves in Africa. We always tilted toward Pakistan, which we still need to reach Afghanistan. Geostrategy sits uneasily with morality.

We may have to compromise with less-than-democratic rule to prevent Chinese domination of the Indian Ocean, where China already has a naval presence and bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti. We may console ourselves that India’s authoritarian bout will pass and India will soon revert to democracy, something we can’t anticipate in China.

We face an even bigger problem with Persian Gulf monarchies that are deep in Freedom House’s “not free” category: Qatar at 25, United Arab Emirates 17, Bahrain 12 and Saudi Arabia 7. Iran rated 16, but the real pits are North Korea at 3 and Syria at 1.

Notice the parallel with our discussion two weeks ago of the dilemma of keeping Saudi Arabia as an ally while knowing it fostered anti-U.S. terrorism and had a critical journalist dismembered. After a while, we’re going to run out of clothespins to hold our noses shut.

This comes at a time, observers note, when Democrats are split over foreign policy. Centrists around President Biden might be termed moderate interventionists. With Secretary of State Blinken leading, they would like to avoid new wars but want to renew U.S. leadership, now focused on China. They could keep a few American forces in Afghanistan and possibly in Syria.

A smaller group, largely absent in the administration, wants to end our “forever wars” and steer clear of new ones. They would withdraw from Afghanistan even though the Taliban would inflict human-rights horrors, especially on educated Afghan women. (BTW, have American feminists taken a position on this?)

India is a tacit American ally in Afghanistan, where Delhi wants to offset Pakistani influence. The Afghan Taliban combine Islamist extremism and Pashtun tribalism. Pashtuns comprise some 40% of Afghanistan’s population (15% of Pakistan’s). Keeping Pashtuns content is an important Pakistani concern. (Pakistan’s intel agency hid Osama bin Laden for a decade.) Blocking a Taliban victory, on the other hand, is an Indian national interest.

Does the U.S. have a stake in any of this? Pashtunistan has never been a U.S. national interest — few know where it is — but regional stability between two nuclear powers is. Pass the clothespins.