State of the Order: Assessing March 2022

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Russian Invasion Stalls. Russia’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine stalled as Ukrainian forces, backed by Western military equipment, offered up fierce resistance and prevented Russian troops from taking control of any major cities. Facing mounting casualties, Russia’s military began to redeploy away from Kiev and toward the south and east in an apparent shift in strategy aimed at expanding control of Ukrainian territory in the Donbas and along the Black Sea. 

  • Shaping the order. Putin’s stated goal of “denazification” – overthrowing the Ukrainian government and installing a pro-Kremlin regime in its place – appears to have failed, which ensures, at least for now, the preservation of Ukraine’s democracy. But Russia’s brazen assault against Ukrainian territory continues, with catastrophic loss of human life and devastating destruction of towns and cities, and no end in sight.
  • Hitting home. Speaking virtually before the US Congress, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made a powerful and emotional appeal for greater military assistance, as members of Congress expressed bipartisan support for Ukraine.
  • What to do. Western military assistance could have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war. Washington and its NATO allies should bolster the provision of military equipment, including air defense and other advanced weapons systems requested by Ukraine, to help repel the Russian invasion.

Biden in Europe. President Joe Biden joined NATO allies for an emergency summit in Brussels that resulted in a statement pledging further support for Ukraine, including to defend against threats of WMD, and calling on all nations, specifically China, to avoid supporting Russia’s war effort in any way. Biden also participated in accompanying G7 and EU summits, where allies committed to work closely together to pressure Russia to stop its military aggression. Later in Poland, Biden delivered a major speech that one outlet described as a “generational call to arms for democratic countries to unite against autocracy.”

  • Shaping the order. As showcased by these summit meetings, Washington and its allies have responded to Russia’s invasion with remarkable unity—including by fast-tracking military equipment to Ukraine and placing an unprecedented slate of sanctions against Russia. Standing up to Russia in Ukraine is part of a larger battle between democracy and autocracy that could define the global order for years to come.
  • Hitting home. Biden’s Warsaw speech appeared aimed in part at a domestic audience, girding the American public to prepare for a sustained effort to defend the democratic world order against the challenges posed by autocracies.
  • What to do. Washington should continue efforts to keep allies aligned on Ukraine, while working to develop collective strategies to defend the rules-based order against Russia, as well as China, over the long run.

Moscow Avoids Isolation. The United States, joined by the EU, Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, imposed significant new sanctions against Russia, targeting defense companies and Russia’s parliament, and taking steps to revoke Russia’s “most-favored nation” status in the World Trade Organization. But despite efforts to isolate Russia, other major economies, including China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, signaled their reluctance to participate in any sanctions regime against Moscow.

  • Shaping the order. While the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy has been significant, the refusal by large parts of the world to participate indicates that Russia is not as isolated as Washington and its allies would like. Russia will seek to weather the sanctions by relying on continued energy exports to Europe and by leaning on China and others in the Global South that wish to avoid any disruption in their relations with Russia or impacts on their own economies.
  • Hitting home. Hundreds of American companies were forced to sever business operations with Russia, moves that may have negative short-term economic impacts but that could help reduce their dependence on autocracies and lead to a more stable and secure global environment in the long run.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should work with its European and G7 allies to limit Russia’s ability to circumvent sanctions, including through the threat of secondary sanctions against Russia’s existing trading partners. It should also seek to establish a potential new allied trade partnership that would incentivize the shifting of supply chains and new investments away from Russia and China and toward democracies, including those in the developing world.

Quote of the month

“[W]e [have] emerged anew in the great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force… This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves of a long fight ahead… And finally, and most urgently, we maintain absolute unity – we must – among the world’s democracies.” 

– President Joe Biden, speaking in Warsaw, March 26, 2022

State of the Order this month: Unchanged

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • Ukrainian forces successfully repelled Russia’s military assault on Kiev, preventing Putin’s efforts to overthrow Ukraine’s democratic government, at least for now.
  • The Kremlin continued its efforts to repress domestic dissent, detaining thousands of protestors across Russia and enacting a new law jailing journalists who report “fake news” or refer to the Ukraine invasion as a “war” as opposed to a “special military operation.” 
  • Senior US officials traveled to Venezuela to discuss potential oil purchases to mitigate the impact of sanctions on Russia, a move that many worried could undermine efforts to isolate Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro following his severe crackdown against domestic political opponents.
  • Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visited the UAE in his first official visit to an Arab country since the 2011 Syrian uprising, a move that was criticized by the US and others as an attempt to re-legitimize the embattled dictator despite the horrific atrocities committed by his regime against the Syrian population.
  • The US formally declared that Myanmar’s military’s campaign against the Rohingya minority, including mass rape, burnings, and drownings which resulted in deaths of more than 9,000 people, constitutes genocide and crimes against humanity.
  • Afghanistan’s Taliban government refused to open secondary schools to girls, abruptly reversing a previous commitment to allow girls access to education.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was weakened.

Security ()

  • While facing stiff resistance around Kiev and other areas, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raged on, with rocket, missile, and mortar attacks causing widespread death and destruction across the country.
  • China reaffirmed its “no limits” partnership with Russia, calling Russia its “most important strategic partner,” while Biden, in a two-hour video call, warned Chinese president Xi Jinping, of “consequences” if China provided material support to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.
  • China and the Solomon Islands are reportedly negotiating a treaty that would deepen security relations between the two nations and provide Beijing with inroads in the South Pacific not far from Australia and New Zealand, raising concerns in Washington, Canberra, and Auckland.  
  • Four Israeli civilians were killed in a knife attack by a Palestinian that was praised by Hamas – the deadliest terrorist attack against Israel since June 2016.
  • Overall, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade ()

  • The US and the EU agreed in principle to a new technology pact that will enable data flows across the Atlantic in ways that protect privacy and civil liberties, after a previous agreement was invalidated by European courts.
  • The Biden administration agreed to lift Trump-era tariffs on British steel and aluminum, resolving a trade dispute between key allies, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hopes for a US-UK free trade agreement appear to be far off.
  • Overall, the trade pillar was strengthened.

Commons ()

  • Faced with an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Shanghai, China began its most extensive lockdown in two years, as concerns grew over the potential global economic impacts of Beijing’s “zero-COVID” strategy.
  • As part of a coordinated effort to isolate Russia, the United States, Canada and most European countries closed their airspace to Russian As the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic exceeded 6 million, vaccination efforts slowed around the world, despite increased vaccine supply, and are projected to fall well below the World Health Organization’s target of having all countries vaccinate 70% of their population by mid-2022. 
  • Overall, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

Alliances ()

  • The US continued to coordinate closely with allies in NATO, the EU, and the G7 on Ukraine, including through the leaders’ summits that took place in Brussels, taking steps to expedite military transfers and impose increasing levels of sanctions against Moscow.
  • The US and EU formed a task force to discuss ways for Europe to reduce reliance on Russian energy imports, with a primary focus on natural gas.
  • South Korea elected a new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who is expected to take a harder line against North Korea and China, and seek to align Seoul more closely with the US and other democratic allies. 
  • Given these developments, the alliances 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     

  • Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, in a Foreign Affairs piece titled “The Return of Pax Americana?” assert that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided the US and its allies with a historic opportunity to regroup for an era of intense competition—not just with Russia but also with China.
  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, in Foreign Policy, contend that Putin’s penchant for risk means he is unlikely to give up on Ukraine anytime soon.
  • Moses Naim, in Foreign Affairs, writes that the autocratic success of Putin and other populist dictators has resulted in a crisis of democratic government on a scale not seen since the rise of fascists across Europe in the 1930s.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Fred Kempe, in CNBC, contends that Xi’s decision to double-down on his “no limits” partnership with Putin just days before the war in Ukraine marks the most dangerous gamble of his nine years in power.
  • Barry Pavel, Peter Engelke, and Jeff Cimmino, in the New Atlanticist, envision four potential scenarios for how the war in Ukraine might end.
  • Matthew Kroenig and Emma Ashford, in Foreign Policy, debate the prospect of a Russia-Ukraine peace deal and discuss the war’s geopolitical implications for democracies.
  • Ash Jain, in the New Atlanticist, outlines the strategic implications of Biden’s Warsaw speech and suggests ways that democracies can strengthen cooperation in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 
  • Aleksandra Gadzala Tirziu, in the New York Sun, explores what China and Russia’s deepening relationship could mean for the war in Ukraine.
  • Eddie Fishman and Chris Miller, in Foreign Affairs, argue for tougher sanctions, including on Russian energy, to isolate Russia from the global economy and dry up its main source of hard currency.

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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.

Ash Jain – Director for Democratic Order
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Jeffrey Cimmino – Associate Director
Danielle Miller – Program Assistant
Otto Hastrup Svendsen – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a video address to senators and members of the House of Representatives gathered in the Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., March 16, 2022. J. Scott Applewhite/Pool via REUTERS