State of the Order: Assessing August 2023

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

US, Japan, and South Korea Trilateral Commitments. President Joe Biden’s first Camp David Summit brought together Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to discuss trilateral security cooperation in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and assertive North Korea. The first high-level convening between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo came on the heels of a rapprochement between Japan and South Korea. The trio of leaders committed to new areas of cooperation across security, technology, and the economy including establishing security-related information-sharing networks, collaborating on ballistic-missile defense, and conducting annual joint military exercises. They agreed to hold annual summits and reaffirmed a commitment to maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as addressing China’s economic coercion. The White House clarified that, although the three countries have not agreed to a formal mutual defense agreement, they have agreed to a “three-way hotline” for government administrations to more effectively communicate and “engage in critical circumstances.”

  • Shaping the order. The trilateral should, if realized, advance Japanese, South Korean, and American interests and security in the region. The three-way partnership adds to others that the US has forged in the region (e.g., the Quad) to shore up the international order and counter Beijing. The Camp David summit signals that the free world can organize and coalesce in the face of authoritarian threats.
  • Hitting home. Trilateral U.S.-South Korean-Japanese cooperation can be another means to constrain Chinese efforts to impose hegemony, both security and economic, in East Asia. It may strengthen US efforts to reach a sustainable set of norms with Beijing, including on trade, hopefully avoiding both confrontation and a weak position.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should maintain momentum coming out of the Summit by executing agreed immediate next steps. Chief among these will be scheduling and planning for the first of what are promised to be regular, named, multi-domain trilateral exercises to enhance coordinated military capabilities and cooperation.

Expanding BRICS. At its summit in Johannesburg, BRICS leaders from Brazil, Russia (Putin only remotely), India, China, and South Africa announced they would expand the group by inviting Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to join in January 2024. This comes as Russia and China push to establish the partnership as a counterweight to Western groups such as the G7, and emphasize the group’s geopolitical ambitions, as a champion for the Global South. Unsurprisingly, Russia and China used the meeting to push for anti-Western moves, including calling for increased intra-BRICS coordination to decouple members’ economies from the dollar. Saudi Arabia pursued BRICS membership despite efforts by the US and other Western nations to convince them not to join the grouping.

  • Shaping the order. The potential BRICS expansion signals that Russia and China continue to push for a counterweight to Western alliances like the G7. But it is not yet clear whether an expanded BRICS that includes both archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran would be functional.
  • Hitting home. The expanded BRICS would collectively represent 43% of global crude oil production and control a combined 29% of global GDP as well as large portions of global critical mineral supplies, including 75 percent of manganese and 28 percent of nickel. Increased energy trading among the BRICS members could further bifurcate the oil market. BRICS nations, which have used individual critical mineral export restrictions over the last decade, could adopt a more coordinated response and thereby reduce American access to these raw materials.
  • What to do. While an expanded BRICS has potential power, previous efforts to develop counterweights to Western-oriented groups, like the G-77, have generally fallen short. The Biden administration should continue to deepen its relationships with India and Brazil. Doing so advances American trade and security interests and, as a secondary byproduct, can undermine collective action with the BRICS. US engagement with Saudi Arabia should include steps to prevent Riyadh from more closely aligning with Moscow.

Ukraine’s Southern Push. Ukraine continued its counteroffensive against Russia, with the Zelensky government committing significant troops across the South and, as a result, slowly pushing back Russian forces, like in liberating the Southeastern settlement of Robotyne. Ukraine achieved this progress despite not having the ability to provide air cover to its advancing troops. Leaked intelligence reports indicated that the US and others are frustrated with how Ukraine has executed the counter-offensive, including its approach to allocating forces. Despite purported Western misgivings about Ukraine’s strategy, however, the counteroffensive resulted in several military setbacks for Russia. Reports continue of frustration among elite Russian circles that the war is headed in the wrong direction; the apparent assassination of Evgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Wagner military group, two months after his mutiny, also suggests a brittleness within the Putinist system.

  • Shaping the order. The Ukrainian counteroffensive appears to be working, albeit slowly and at significant cost. It has helped the Zelensky government reclaim key territories, dealt military losses to Moscow, and seemingly is feeding discontent across elite circles in Russia. A successful offensive could change the balance of the war.
  • Hitting home. A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive would boost US policymakers and public confidence in support for Ukraine. A failed or only marginally successful counter-offensive would sharpen the US debate as the Presidential election campaign intensifies.
  • What to do. The US and allies must remain united in their support for Ukraine’s strategy, keep misgivings and questions behind closed doors, and focus on giving Kyiv the weapons it needs to win. The US was smart to greenlight F-16 fighter aircraft transfers from the Netherlands and Denmark and needs to make sure pilots have the training needed to operate the equipment when they arrive in 2024.

Quote of the Month

“Today’s world is increasingly complicated and condensed, and one in which humanity faces both peril and promise. We are in a transformative era marked by strategic competition, rapid technological change, and increasingly worrisome transnational threats.”
– CIA Director Bill Burns, reacting to the release of the 2023 National Intelligence Strategy for the Intelligence Community. August 10, 2023

State of the Order this month: Unchanged

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • In Thailand, Srettha Thavisin, real estate tycoon and populist Pheu Thai Party candidate, won the backing of parliament to become the country’s 30th Prime Minister. The eleven-party government formed to rule the country and end a months-long political deadlock, however, noticeably excluded the progressive Move Forward Party, which won the most votes in the national election.
  • Fernando Villavicienco, an Ecuadorian presidential candidate who vocally denounced gangs and corruption, was assassinated weeks before the country’s elections. The elections head to a run-off in October, featuring leftist Luisa González—who secured 33% of votes—and center-right Álvaro Noboa—who secured 24% of the votes.
  • Bernardo Arévalo, son of a former president of Guatemala, won Guatemala’s presidential election, defeating former first lady Sandra Torres. However, hours before Arévalo’s victory, Guatemala’s electoral registry suspended his Seed Movement party, a move that could hinder the transition to an Arévalo government.
  • Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who deposed President Robert Mugabe in a 2017 coup, won a second term in office. The opposition, however, claimed the presidential election was beset by “gigantic fraud.” International observers, civil society groups, and even the African Union cast doubt on the validity of the election.
  • Military officers seized power in Gabon and placed President Ali Bongo Ondimba under house arrest. The president, whose family has been in power for half a century, recently won a third term in a heavily disputed election.
  • Vladimir Putin extended the prison sentence of democracy activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny by nineteen years. This follows the Putin government introducing trumped-up charges that Navalny was guilty of founding and funding an extremist organization.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.
  • Security ()

    • Niger remains at an impasse following last month’s military coup. ECOWAS threatened military intervention to restore democratic order but has not followed through. Mali and Burkina Faso pledged their support to Niger’s coup leaders.
    • The Netherlands and Denmark, in a move approved by the United States, announced they will deliver F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, likely in early 2024.
    • Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner paramilitary group chief, reportedly died in a mysterious plane crash in the northwest region of Moscow. US intelligence officials report that preliminary findings indicate that, although the plane was not shot down by a surface-to-air missile, it did crash as a result of an assassination plot.
    • The Ukrainian navy announced a “humanitarian corridor” in the Black Sea to allow safe passage to cargo and civilian ships trapped in ports since the outbreak of the war. Ukrainian officials stressed that the corridor is a voluntary “humanitarian mission and has no military purpose.”
    • Eleven Russian and Chinese naval ships conducted joint patrols near the Alaskan coast. The Chinese and Russian ships did not enter US territorial waters but were flanked by US destroyers and aircraft until their departure.
    • President Biden issued an executive order restricting American investment in specific Chinese companies involved in the development of emerging technologies.
    • For the second time, North Korea failed to successfully launch its Malligyong-1 spy satellite into orbit. The regime is committed to trying again, however, as the spy satellite program is a critical part of Kim Jong Un’s five-year weapons strategy initiative.
    • On balance, the security pillar was unchanged.

    Trade ()

    • US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo visited Beijing to discuss US-China commercial ties and address challenges faced by US businesses in China. While the US and China did not announce any major breakthroughs, reports indicate Raimondo and her counterpart agreed in principle for Washington and Beijing to exchange export control information and establish a bilateral forum for dialogue on other economic and commercial issues.
    • The American credit rating agency Fitch downgraded the US rating from the highest rating, AAA, to AA+, based on the growing US debt burden, recession concerns, and erosion of governance relative to other top economies in recent decades.
    • Negotiations surrounding the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework—a fourteen-country trade deal—were jeopardized by US pressure to have Japan accept anti-commercial whaling provisions. While both governments refused to comment on the issue, one senior Japanese official said the subject was a “non-starter” and “issue of contention” for Tokyo.
    • On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.

    Commons ()

    • Recent wildfires ravaged parts of Hawaii, Greece, and Canada. The Maui wildfires claimed over a hundred lives—with over 1,000 still unaccounted for—and displaced thousands more. The fire in Greece is the biggest in Europe this century.
    • India is the first country to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, days after Russia’s attempt ended in an unsuccessful crash on the lunar surface.
    • Record high temperatures and environmental catastrophes induced by the climate crisis are pushing up food prices and exacerbating global inflation. Olive oil, certain grains, and soybeans are only some of the commodities already being impacted.
    • On balance, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

    Alliances ()

    • President Joe Biden’s first Camp David Summit brought together Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to discuss trilateral security cooperation in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and assertive North Korea. The leaders agreed to cooperate on a range of issues across the security, economy, and technology spheres.
    • Mongolian Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai visited Washington in an attempt to strengthen the country’s economic ties with the United States and diversify away from its autocratic neighbors, China and Russia. While in Washington, Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to a new Economic Cooperation Roadmap, as well as signed an Open Skies Agreement.
    • Finland’s defense ministry announced that it would spend 2.3% of its GDP on defense in 2024. This followed all NATO members, in July, re-committing to spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defense. Prior to the July re-commitment, only seven NATO members had met this target.
    • Vladimir Putin confirmed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he will not be attending the G20 Summit in Delhi in September due to a “busy schedule”. Xi Jinping also confirmed he would not be attending the Summit.
    • Ahead of the upcoming G20 Summit in Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed inviting the African Union to join the group. This is part of the Prime Minister’s vision to enhance the “inclusiveness” of the bloc.
    • Saudi Arabia convened senior officials from nearly 40 countries to discuss potential avenues to reach a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine. Notably, Russian representatives did not make an appearance, but counterparts from the four other BRICS countries attended. While the meeting produced no significant breakthroughs, it does showcase Saudi Arabia’s rising prominence on the global stage.
    • On balance, 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     

    • C. Raja Mohan, in Foreign Policy, argues that the expansion of the BRICS alliance will likely galvanize increased Western engagement in the Global South, threatening China’s largely uncontested influence in key strategic regions.
    • Kelly Sims Gallagher, in Foreign Policy, contends that, despite their respective differences, the United States and China can pragmatically collaborate to advance green financing and development in the Global South.
    • Hannah Rae Armstrong, in Foreign Affairs, argues that the United States, unlike its European allies, must preserve the relatively positive reputation it has in the Sahel by pushing for peaceful mediation, rather than military intervention, in the aftermath of the coup in Niger.

    Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

    Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

    • Dan Fried, in The Ripon Forum, makes the case for Ukraine’s inclusion into the NATO Alliance, citing its shared interests in the West in defeating Russia and Putin.
    • Matthew Kroenig and Emma Ashford, in Foreign Policy, debate the impetus of coups in fragile states, using the 2023 Niger coup as an emblematic case study.
    • Andrew Michta, in the New Atlanticist, opines that the United States must reassess its strategy towards Europe to be more future-oriented and reflective of US interests on the continent.
    • Imran Bayoumi, in the Globe and Mail, argues for the need to update Canada’s National Security Strategy to accompany the country’s newly created National Security Council.
    • Aleksandra Gadzala Tirziu, in a Geopolitical Intelligence Service (GIS) report, details how India and China’s infrastructure-building competition along their disputed border region is heightening risks of conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers.

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    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.

    Patrick Quirk – Director for Democratic Order
    Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
    Soda Lo – Project Assistant

    If you would like to be added to our email list for future publications and events, or to learn more about the Democratic Order Initiative, please email pquirk@atlanticcouncil.org.

Image: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during a joint press conference with U.S. President Joe Biden during the trilateral summit at Camp David near Thurmont, Maryland, U.S., August 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein