Despite some hopes, the state of the world order ended 2023 on a bit of a low note, with security showing signs of weakening.
That’s the case even though there were positive signs for the world order. For example, participants at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP28, were able to come to agreements that some say may signal a new era for energy.
But while COP28 unfolded, the Israel-Hamas war continued apace and threatened to spread into a broader regional war. Meanwhile, transatlantic support for Ukraine stalled, with US and EU aid packages in limbo.
Get up to speed on the democratic world order below.
Reshaping the order
This month’s topline events
Israel-Hamas war threatens to spread. In December, casualties continued to mount in the Israel-Hamas war, with Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health reporting 21,978 Palestinian dead. According to Israeli authorities, as of December 28, there were 129 hostages still being held in Gaza, mostly by Hamas, including nineteen women. The United States publicly cajoled Israel to consider ramping down high-intensity military operations and transition to the next phase of the war, consisting of more precise and targeted low-intensity operations, a transition that media reports indicate began in the first weeks of the new year. Skepticism increased among regional and international observers over Israel’s ability to attain its primary military objective to destroy Hamas, while minimizing civilian casualties. Moreover, anger among families of hostages continued to grow as Israel and Hamas were not able to negotiate a new deal for a pause in the fighting and exchange of hostages for prisoners. Hamas and other Gaza-based jihadist organizations continued to fire thousands of rockets into Israel, marking over twelve thousand now fired since the start of the conflict according to the Israeli government, highlighting the terrorist group’s continuing ability to attack despite Israel’s operations in Gaza.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the crisis in Gaza demanding immediate and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian civilian population throughout the Gaza Strip. The United States and Russia abstained, and thirteen countries voted in favor. Meanwhile, regional actors increased their involvement in the conflict: In the Red Sea, Yemen-based Houthi rebels, after declaring support for Hamas, launched attacks on merchant vessels. Iranian-backed terrorist organizations attacked US bases in Iraq and Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah is exchanging fire with the Israel Defense Forces daily, and the proximity of Hezbollah’s Radwan forces to the Israeli border drove increased concerns about the potential for escalation between Israel and Hezbollah.
- Shaping the order. The conflict has already spread to include regional actors and retains the potential to ignite a wider regional war. Arab popular anger toward US support for Israel continued and shows no signs of lessening, nor does broad cross-ideological appreciation and support from the Israeli public. The UN, despite passing a resolution in late December, showed no ability to mediate an end to the violence.
- Hitting home. To date, only one of eight or nine American hostages believed to be held by Hamas has been released, while roughly three hundred Americans remain stranded in Gaza. Antisemitic, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim incidents have escalated since the start of the war. Of the 2,031 antisemitic incidents recorded in the United States since the war started, 1,411 have a clear link to the conflict, according to the Anti-Defamation League. A more intense regional war could draw in US forces and generate spikes in oil prices, especially if oil tankers are unable to traverse the Red Sea or otherwise come under attack.
- What to do. The United States should seek to verify that, as it encouraged, Israel has moved on to the next phase of military operations designed to be far more targeted, precise, and lower intensity, which should help to significantly reduce civilian casualties. The United States must also, with regional allies, expedite plans for a post-Hamas Gaza and explore options for stabilization and reconstruction of the territory.
Politics stalls Ukraine aid. Ukraine had mixed success in its military efforts to liberate the country from Russian invasion. While Kyiv’s land counteroffensive largely failed to achieve its objectives, Ukraine has had success in deeper attacks (e.g., on Russia’s Black Sea fleet). Moscow’s ground offensive was both ineffectual and costly. On December 29, Russia launched its largest-scale missile and drone attack on Kyiv since the start of the war. Transatlantic support for Kyiv stalled, as the US Congress, even following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the United States and impassioned plea for support, failed to pass an aid package before adjourning for the holiday break. Across the Atlantic, Hungary’s pro-Kremlin Prime Minister Viktor Orbán blocked European Union (EU) consensus on a package of additional military aid. Ukraine has expressed interest in jumpstarting the production of its own weapons rather than relying on Western military assistance. The United States is supportive and, in early December, signed an agreement with Kyiv to speed weapons coproduction and data sharing.
- Shaping the order. The delay in additional US and European military funding for Ukraine risks undermining Kyiv’s ability to continue its successful resistance to Russia’s aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin may conclude that victory is within his grasp. Russia’s defeat of Ukraine, more likely should US and European support falter, would be a major blow to European security, demonstrating that an aggressor can succeed in a war of conquest.
- Hitting home. US congressional support for Ukraine has become entangled with other issues, including immigration security on the US southern border. Failure to resolve the issues and continued blockage of aid to Ukraine would weaken US standing and credibility around the world.
- What to do. The US Congress must pass the additional military aid package, and the Biden administration must work with its EU counterparts and urge them to do the same.
Beginning of the end for fossil fuels? COP28, held in Dubai, closed with an agreement that signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil-fuel era, according to one UN climate change official. This included agreements aimed at facilitating a swift and equitable transition away from fossil fuels, with promises of significant emission cuts and increased funding.
- Shaping the order. The agreements made at COP28 signal signatories’ commitments to battling the ongoing climate crisis and making strides in alleviating the concerns of the populations most affected by warming.
- Hitting home. The climate crisis continues to impact US citizens by fueling disastrous storms, flooding, drought, and wildfires. Following through on the COP28 commitments and associated stalling of further warming would benefit Americans.
- What to do. As a leading emitter of greenhouse gasses, the United States must honor the commitments made at COP28 and other climate-related convenings, as well as influence its allies and partners to ensure that they do the same.
Quote of the Month
“The American people can be and should be incredibly proud of the part they played in supporting Ukraine’s success. We’ll continue to supply Ukraine with critical weapons and equipment as long as we can… But without supplemental funding, we’re rapidly coming to an end of our ability to help Ukraine respond to the urgent operational demands that it has.”
– US President Joe Biden, in a World Freedom Day proclamation
State of the Order this month: Weakened
Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order
- Russian opposition leader and Putin-critic Alexei Navalny was located in a prison near the Arctic Circle following nearly three weeks of his whereabouts being unknown. Navalny is currently serving a nineteen-year sentence on trumped-up charges of extremism.
- The Democratic Republic of Congo incumbent, President Felix Tshisekedi, won reelection with 70 percent of the vote; Tshisekedi’s opposition and civil society groups have since challenged the validity of the results, arguing that there were irregularities that impacted the results.
- On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.
- Israel’s confirmation that it mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza in its hunt for Hamas militants reinvigorated anger toward the Netanyahu administration’s wartime strategy. Critics call Netanyahu’s aggressive tactics counterproductive to his aims of ensuring the safe release of all hostages held in Gaza .
- The United States continued supplying Israel with weapons, artillery shells, and bunker-buster bombs. US deliveries that began shortly after October 7 have amounted to roughly fifteen thousand bombs, fifty-seven thousand artillery shells, and one hundred BLU-109, which are two-thousand-pound bunker-buster bombs. Some security analysts criticize the move as inconsistent with calls from US officials, including from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asking Israel to use more precise and smaller munitions.
- Victor Manuel Rocha, a former US foreign service officer who held diplomatic positions across Latin America (such as ambassador to Bolivia), was charged over spying on behalf of Cuba’s intelligence services for decades, dating back to the early 1980s.
- On balance, the security pillar was weakened.
- A Beijing meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and some of Europe’s top officials—including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—inspired hope for easing economic tensions and reinvigorating trade between the two parties. Xi heralded the EU as a “key partner for economic and trade cooperation, a preferred partner for scientific and technological cooperation, and a trustworthy partner for industrial and supply chain cooperation.”
- Bhutan restarted the process of World Trade Organization accession, this after graduating from the least developed country category—a feat that has only been attained by six other countries.
- COP28, with themed days throughout the conference, featured the inaugural Trade Day: a day solely dedicated to trade, which highlights “the growing recognition of the need to put trade front and center in climate action,” according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
- On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.
- Droughts and low water levels induced by the mounting climate crisis are inhibiting the flow of goods up and down the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal Authority, calling these challenges “unprecedented,” has implemented limits and restrictions on the number of vessels allowed in the canal, as well as the depth of the ships allowed, further slowing the flow of trade and passage.
- COP28 saw over eighty billion dollars in climate finance commitments from individual states, development banks, and private-sector sources. However, there is still a gap in funding ($41 trillion) required to achieve outlined objectives.
- On balance, the commons pillar was unchanged.
- The EU agreed to talks with Kyiv to begin the process for Ukraine to join the bloc. Despite this positive development, the EU failed to find consensus on the issue of sending continued aid to Ukraine in the form of a $54-billion long-term support package. Continued talks are set to resume in early 2024.
- The United States is working with the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada to advance a proposal for Group of Seven (G7) countries to seize approximately $300 billion in frozen Russian assets and to use those assets to support Ukraine. This marks a shift after months of indecision, though it remains uncertain whether the G7 can reach consensus on use of these assets.
- On balance, the alliances pillar was unchanged.
Strengthened (↑)________Unchanged (↔)________Weakened (↓)
What is the democratic world order? Also known as the liberal order, the rules-based order, or simply the free world, the democratic world order encompasses the rules, norms, alliances, and institutions created and supported by leading democracies over the past seven decades to foster security, democracy, prosperity, and a healthy planet.
This month’s top reads
Three must-read commentaries on the democratic order
- Adrian Karatnycky, in Foreign Policy, theorizes the regional and global implications of a potential Russian victory in Ukraine.
- Norbert Röttgen, in Foreign Affairs, contends that European nations must not only continue but also increase support to Ukraine in its fight to defend its sovereignty.
- Daniel Twining, in Nikkei Asia, explains why Asia’s historic year of elections is a cause for hope in the global struggle against authoritarianism.
Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council
Our experts weigh in on this month’s events
- Frederick Kempe, in Inflection Points, assesses the impact of Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington amidst Congressional infighting regarding aid to Ukraine.
- Matthew Kroenig, in the Fox News Rundown podcast, discusses the strategies behind China’s cyberwarfare efforts and how the minds behind these efforts are able to find and exploit weaknesses in US private and public networks.
- Daniel Fried, in Bloomberg’s Sound On podcast, discusses the end of the truce between Israel and Hamas.
- Ellen Wald, in the New Atlanticist, explains the rationale behind the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.
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