State of the Order: Assessing March 2023

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Xi-Putin Summit. Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow for a high-profile, three-day summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the two leaders seeking to build on the “no limits” strategic partnership they signed a year earlier. Both nations committed to deepening political and economic cooperation and to “provide resolute mutual support with regard to matters of defending each other’s core interests,” though China appears to have heeded US warnings not to provide arms to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. The visit came just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes related to the unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.

  • Shaping the order. Xi’s visit to Moscow reaffirms China’s determination to pursue a burgeoning alliance with Russia and push back on the rules-based international order, an effort underscored by his parting words to Putin: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in a hundred years. When we are together, we drive these changes.” While there appear to be some tensions in the Russia-China relationship, particularly on Ukraine, the summit illustrates the deepening strategic competition between two very different visions of the world—one led by the US and its allies premised on democratic values and the rule of law and another driven by China and Russia that aims to make the world safe for autocracy. 
  • Hitting home. A world dominated by revisionist autocracies would be detrimental to Americans, who benefit from living in a global system marked by fair and predictable rules, economic openness, and democratic values.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should work closely with its transatlantic and transpacific allies to develop a common strategy for the free world to succeed in what could be a decades-long strategic competition with China and Russia.

Biden Convenes the Democracies. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken convened the second Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of world leaders representing 120 democracies across the globe. After much debate over the scope of participation, NATO members Turkey and Hungary, and other backsliding democracies, were excluded. Co-hosted by South Korea, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Zambia, the summit concluded with a joint statement reaffirming support for fundamental freedoms and a commitment to “revitalize, consolidate, and strengthen an international rules-based order.” China’s Global Times slammed the event as a US effort to “incite confrontations” and “peddle its false narrative(s).”

  • Shaping the order. As the world faces its seventeenth consecutive year of democratic decline, the summit served to rally democratic nations to uphold shared values and push back on authoritarianism, in a world increasingly shaped by ideological competition. But with some US allies, particularly in Europe, uncomfortable with dividing the world between democracies and autocracies, the summit’s ability to generate meaningful policy actions may be limited.
  • Hitting home. A more democratic world would result in greater security and prosperity for the American people. Still, the United States continues to face its own challenges to democracy at home, including a deeply polarized electorate, which must be addressed.
  • What to do. With South Korea offering to host the next Summit for Democracy, the US should prioritize action in specific areas—such as countering disinformation—while embracing new strategies to support civil resistance movements and help foster a fourth democratic wave.

China’s Iran-Saudi Deal. Iran and Saudi Arabia—long-time adversaries—reached an agreement to resume diplomatic relations, a potentially significant breakthrough that China worked to facilitate. Seven years after cutting formal ties, Tehran and Riyadh confirmed their “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs,” and agreed to pursue greater economic, security, and cultural cooperation. Separately, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China and Russia, invited Saudi Arabia to join as a dialogue partner. 

  • Shaping the order. The agreement may lower Saudi-Iranian tensions in the short run but is unlikely to fundamentally alter regional dynamics, given the serious threats to the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states long posed by Iran’s clerical regime. While the deal provides China with a big diplomatic win and exemplifies its growing influence in the region, Riyadh continues to rely on US security assistance to help defend it against Iran. The move appears to reflect a shift toward a “multi-aligned” foreign policy by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who sees the US as a less dependable partner, especially in the wake of criticism following the brutal murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
  • Hitting home. While the United States is no longer as reliant on Middle East oil imports as it once was, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC oil producers can still have a major influence on domestic oil prices.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should continue to strengthen cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that share US interests in countering Iranian influence, but it should also seek to uphold America’s commitment to fundamental rights.

Quote of the Month

“Democracy is a platform on which humanity’s collective progress has been built. A world without it would be a world without freedom, without justice, and without hope. Over the last year, we have shown our intent that we will not let our future be defined by authoritarianism, that instead, it will be defined by democracy.”

– British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, speaking at the Summit for Democracy, March 29, 2023

State of the Order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader, was sentenced to two years in prison and expelled from parliament for a 2019 comment denigrating the surname “Modi”—the name shared by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gandhi remains free pending his appeal.
  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Russia and the United Arab Emirates, signaling an end to ten years of diplomatic isolation, despite his indiscriminate bombing campaign and use of chemical weapons against civilians during the Syrian civil war.
  • In a move intended to hold Vladimir Putin to account for war crimes, the International Criminal Court issued an indictment against and arrest warrant for Putin for unlawfully transporting Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption.
  • Amid widespread political and social unrest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to defer parliamentary action on a measure that critics charged would have placed significant limits on the country’s judicial independence—a matter on which President Biden indicated he was “very concerned.”
  • The United States, along with South Korea, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Zambia, co-hosted the second Summit for Democracy, with 120 world leaders participating in virtual discussions on advancing and defending democratic values.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was weakened.

Security ()

  • Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin held a three-day summit in Moscow, agreeing to expand political, economic, and security cooperation and work together to counter the US-led global order. 
  • Russian fighter pilots unloaded fuel on a US surveillance drone in international airspace over the Black Sea, causing the drone to crash and marking the first time US and Russian forces have clashed directly since the war in Ukraine began.
  • Putin declared his intent to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus—a move that seemed to conflict with a pledge he made with Xi just days earlier and that some interpreted as saber-rattling against the West and a bid to assert greater control over Belarus.
  • Naval forces from China, Russia, and Iran participated in joint training exercises in the Gulf of Oman, the third time in recent years that the three nations have conducted similar drills.
  • China brokered a potentially groundbreaking agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which the two regional adversaries agreed to resume diplomatic relations and cooperate in other areas.
  • On balance, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade ()

  • Britain was cleared to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), becoming its twelfth member and the first nation outside of the region to enter the robust transpacific free trade pact.
  • The second round of negotiations for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), launched by the US last year, was held in Bali, with a focus on the environment, technical assistance, labor, and digital trade.
  • Overall, the trade pillar was strengthened.

Commons ()

  • The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire report warning that the world is likely to surpass its target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures by the early 2030s.
  • UN member states, led by the US, EU, Britain, and China, reached final agreement on a landmark new High Seas Treaty that will provide a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas to protect against the loss of wildlife in the high seas.
  • Given the implications of the UN climate report, the global commons pillar was weakened.

Alliances ()

  • The parliaments of Hungary and Turkey voted in favor of Finland joining NATO, clearing the way for its accession to the alliance—though both nations continued to hold up Sweden’s bid for membership. 
  • President Biden joined British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego to announce that Australia will purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines, as part of the AUKUS security pact launched in 2021.
  • Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, demonstrating Japan’s commitment to Ukraine and solidarity with its G7 partners.
  • In their first bilateral summit in twelve years, the leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed to launch new security dialogues and normalize an intelligence-sharing agreement, in the context of the regional challenges posed by China and North Korea.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron warmly welcomed Prime Minister Sunak to Paris, where the two leaders sought to mend relations that were frayed following Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
  • 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     

  • The Washington Post Editorial Board opines that the growing alliance between China and Russia—America’s two greatest strategic challengers—has the potential to shift the global order and that the US and its democratic allies must be ready to respond.
  • Jon Temin, in Foreign Affairscontends that, more than another summit, the Biden administration needs a global democracy strategy to align its policies and programs and confront authoritarianism.
  • Peter Harrell, in Foreign Affairs, argues that sanctions are not going to affect Putin’s strategic calculus in Ukraine, as authoritarian regimes are prepared to withstand shocking levels of economic pain.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • In a new Atlantic Council publication, Fostering a Fourth Democratic Wave: A Playbook for Countering the Authoritarian Threat, co-authors Hardy Merriman, Patrick Quirk, and Ash Jain offer actionable strategies for governments to support nonviolent civil resistance movements, while constraining autocratic regimes and increasing the costs of their repression. 
  • The publication was launched at an Atlantic Council event organized on the margins of the Summit for Democracy, featuring Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, and Lisbeth Pilegaard, chair of the executive committee of the European Endowment for Democracy.
  • Fred Kempe, in Inflection Pointscontends that the Xi-Putin summit demonstrates that strategic competition is not just a theory anymore; it is an urgent reality that will require more creative coalitions to shape the global future. 
  • Dan Fried, in Just Securityargues that NATO membership for Ukraine is the best way to lock in and enforce peace in Europe. 
  • Matthew Kroenig, in The Wall Street Journalsuggests that Washington needs to modernize its strategic forces to prepare for a long-term strategic arms competition with multiple nuclear-armed rivals.
  • Katherine Walla highlights Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s remarks at an event on technology and democracy hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.


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
Sydney Sherry – Project Assistant

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