State of the Order: Assessing April 2023

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Macron China Flap. Accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, French President Emmanuel Marcon traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. With a delegation of some sixty business leaders, Macron’s visit raised eyebrows after his comments on Taiwan, suggesting that Europe should not get “caught up in crises that are not ours,” and on relations with the US, advising that France should avoid becoming a “vassal” in the service of a larger power’s agenda. France later joined a G7 statement warning Beijing against “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion” regarding Taiwan.

  • Shaping the order. With China seeking to leverage the promise of greater commercial engagement to keep outside powers from interfering on Taiwan, Macron’s visit and subsequent comments did not sit well with allies and risked playing into Beijing’s efforts to drive a wedge within the transatlantic alliance. But the diplomatic fallout may be limited, as French officials later sought to downplay the comments and von der Leyen and other European leaders continue to press for a more assertive strategy to stand up against the threats to the rules-based order posed by China.
  • Hitting home. As China seeks to expand its global influence, the American people would benefit from closer cooperation with allies and partners to defend shared values and interests.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should prioritize efforts to develop a common strategy with key European and Asia-Pacific allies on China to deter a potential attack on Taiwan and limit Beijing’s ability to undermine the rules-based order.

Russian Offensive Stalls. A much-touted Russian military offensive in the Donbas region of Ukraine that began in late winter stalled, as Russian forces failed to make any significant gains around the town of Bakhmut despite a heavy investment of military resources and troops. Armed with more advanced Western weapons, the Ukrainian military began preparing to launch a strong counteroffensive, though US officials have reportedly expressed concerns that Ukraine may also end up falling short. Separately, Xi Jinping spoke for the first time since the war began with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and offered to help negotiate a settlement to the crisis.

  • Shaping the order. Despite suffering heavy casualties, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no signs of backing down, seemingly convinced that a war of attrition will eventually accrue in Russia’s favor, if Ukrainian forces are worn down and political support for Ukraine in Western nations begins to dissipate. While China’s proposed peace plan has so far failed to gain traction, diplomatic pressure toward a ceasefire is beginning to build. A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive is likely to dampen such pressure and could provide a boost of momentum for Ukraine to sustain the fight.
  • Hitting home. Americans have a strong interest in Ukraine’s success, as the US would be more secure in a world where aggressive dictators cannot get away with attacking other nations.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should work closely with NATO allies to deliver as quickly as possible the advanced military equipment that Ukraine needs to succeed in its forthcoming counteroffensive.

Biden’s Global Economic Plan. In a series of major speeches, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan laid out a new global economic strategy that aims to reduce dependence on China by investing in domestic capacity and working with allies to promote diversified global supply chains in certain strategic sectors. Echoing European Commission president von der Leyen, the US plan calls for “de-risking and diversifying,” rather than decoupling, with China. But the speeches received mixed reactions from US allies concerned about rising protectionism and among many economists, who suggested the plan could lead to higher inflation and create new economic risks as the government tries to pick winners and losers.

  • Shaping the order. Biden’s new economic plan represents a pivot from the past several decades of US global economic policy, which was premised on reducing trade barriers and integrating authoritarian powers such as China and Russia into the global economy, in the hopes that it would lead to a more open and peaceful world. In this effort to build a new economic order or a new “Washington Consensus,” as Sullivan called for, liberalizing trade is taking a back seat to establishing more stable and reliable supply chains and seeking to expand the domestic benefits of global trade.
  • Hitting home. While some US businesses may be negatively impacted, at least in the short-term, America will be economically more secure over time by ensuring that critical economic sectors are not dependent on China.
  • What to do. Building on Canadian deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland’s proposal for an economic alliance of democracies, the Biden administration should create a new ally shoring framework that outlines a common approach for reorchestrating supply chains and managing trade with Russia and China.

Quote of the Month

“We will together embrace the future of the [US-Korean] alliance, undergirded by our shared core values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights…The alliance will not only ensure the security and prosperity of both countries, but also contribute to the peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and of the world.”

– South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, speaking at the White House, April 27, 2023

State of the Order this month: Unchanged

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • The FBI arrested two men on charges that they helped establish a secret “police station” in New York on behalf of the Chinese government – part of a series of US prosecutions in recent years to disrupt Chinese efforts to surveil and harass individuals from China who are critical of Beijing.
  • Tunisian security forces arrested Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the main opposition party, as part of President Kais Saied’s escalating crackdown against political dissent and representing a further setback for a nation once seen as a rising example of democracy in the Arab world.
  • A Russian court sentenced democratic opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison, in what appears to be the longest sentence imposed for political activity in post-Soviet Russia. The move came just days after Russian authorities detained a Wall Street Journal reporter for allegations of spying, an action strongly condemned by US officials.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was weakened.

Security ()

  • China conducted its second major live-fire exercise in eight months targeted at Taiwan, including drills for “sealing off” the island, in response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.
  • China has reportedly begun to construct a military base in the United Arab Emirates, as part of an ambitious campaign to build a global military network that includes at least five overseas bases and 10 logistical support sites by 2030.
  • South Korea pledged to not develop its own nuclear arsenal and will be given an increased role in any potential decisions on US nuclear retaliation against North Korea, as outlined in a new Washington Declaration issued by President Biden and South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol. Separately, Pyongyang claimed it had successfully tested a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time.
  • With the potential to cause serious damage to US diplomatic and intelligence efforts, an American national guardsman leaked dozens of highly classified documents revealing information ranging from Ukrainian military capabilities to collaboration by US allies in the Middle East with Russia and China.
  • Xi Jinping spoke with Ukrainian President Zelensky by phone, in their first known conversation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Beijing sought to position itself as a potential peacemaker in the ongoing conflict.
  • On balance, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade ()

  • While meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula de Silvia pledged to boost economic cooperation with China and called for an alternative BRICS currency to replace the US dollar to finance trade between the two nations.
  • Japan began purchasing Russian oil above the $60 per barrel price cap imposed by the G7, after being granted an exception by the US and other participating nations to meet its energy needs.
  • The Biden administration set forth a new global economic strategy that aims to reduce dependence on China by investing in domestic capacity and promoting diversified global supply chains in certain strategic sectors.
  • Overall, the trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons (↔)

  • G7 energy ministers, meeting in Japan, committed to boosting the adoption of renewable energy and set ambitious new targets to expand offshore wind and solar power capacity by 2030.
  • According to the World Meteorological Organization, European glaciers lost a record amount of mass over the past two years due to the combined effects of global warming and below-normal snowfall.
  • Given the implications of the UN climate report, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

Alliances ()

  • President Biden hosted South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol for a White House state dinner, as the two leaders met to discuss shared challenges. Yoon also vowed to strengthen bilateral security and economic ties with Japan.
  • In an effort to repair relations frayed under the leadership of former president Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. met with President Biden at the White House. The visit came just days after the two nations held joint military exercises in the South China Sea.
  • Meeting in Japan, G7 foreign ministers stood united in criticizing China’s coercion of Taiwan, and agreed to intensify sanctions against Moscow for its war on Ukraine.
  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen chaired a meeting of the “Five Eyes” finance ministers, including Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the US, to discuss challenges stemming from the war in Ukraine and potential Chinese economic coercion.
  • Overall, the alliance pillar was strengthened. 

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     

  • Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, in Foreign Affairswrite that while the United States has become less dominant over the past 20 years, it remains at the top of the global power hierarchy, safely above China and far above every other country.
  • Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg, in The Atlanticcontend that the future of the democratic world will be determined by whether the Ukrainian military can break the existing stalemate with Russia.
  • Tom Malinowski, in Foreign Affairs, recalls numerous successes of US democracy promotion efforts over the past decades and argues that the US must maintain a foreign policy that is true to its ideals.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Fred Kempe, in Inflection Points, suggests that outcome of the war in Ukraine will depend on what sacrifices the United States and its allies are willing to make now to secure the future.
  • In an Atlantic Council Memo to NATO heads of state, Alexander Vershbow and Ian Brzezinski argue that the alliance should use the upcoming leaders’ summit in Vilnius to begin the process of integrating Ukraine into NATO.
  • Dan Fried, in Just Security, argues that Congress can investigate the Biden Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan without compromising the State Department’s vitally important Dissent Channel.
  • Imran Bayoumi, in Foreign Policy, makes the case for a democracy-first approach to Haiti and other vulnerable states that prioritizes building democratic institutions and promoting economic development.
  • In the New Atlanticist, Emma Verges, Markus Garlauskas, and Joseph Webster argue that China’s support to Russia is vital to sustaining Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine.


The Democratic Order Initiative is an Atlantic Council initiative aimed at reenergizing American global leadership and strengthening cooperation among the world’s democracies in support of a rules-based democratic order. Sign on to the Council’s Declaration of Principles for Freedom, Prosperity, and Peace by clicking here.

Ash Jain – Director for Democratic Order
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Soda Lo – Project Assistant

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Image: French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 6, 2023. Ng Han Guan/Pool via REUTERS