State of the Order: Assessing October 2023

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Hamas attack puts Israel on war footing and tests US policy. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas orchestrated a multi-front attack from Gaza into Israel that left 1,400 Israelis dead and over two hundred civilians taken hostage. The attack represents the largest loss of life from a terrorist attack in Israel in more than fifty years and a colossal intelligence failure by the Israeli government. Israel retaliated immediately by launching large-scale missile strikes into Gaza and later sending ground forces into the territory. The Gaza Health Ministry estimates that over ten thousand Palestinians have died, most of them women and minors. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a national unity government and was reportedly considering a larger-scale ground offensive into Gaza. The United States said it views Iran as “broadly complicit” in the attacks—Tehran has provided weapons and training to Hamas for years—but has not offered definitive evidence that Tehran was directly involved in the planning of this specific attack. The conflict has divided the international community, inflamed Arab opinion, and tested the US ability to simultaneously support Israel’s right to self-defense while urging Israel to limit casualties and suffering among Gaza’s civilian population. US President Joe Biden called on the US Congress to pass a $105 billion military aid package, mostly for Israel and Ukraine.

  • Shaping the order. Hamas launched its attack as Israel and Saudi Arabia continued efforts to reach an agreement on normalizing relations that, if realized, would have further isolated Iran in that region. High-level delegations discussed Riyadh signing the Abraham Accords, which Israel had signed with four other Arab-led governments. Russia and China are poised to benefit from increased instability in the Middle East, which will consume US attention and resources that could otherwise be allocated to aiding Ukraine against Moscow or mitigating Beijing’s incursions in the South China Sea. The confrontation between Israel and Hamas has the potential to spread. Iran has recently launched attacks against US forces in both Iraq and Syria, and the United States retaliated with strikes on two Syrian facilities linked to Iranian-backed militias. Sitting on Israel’s northern border, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has in the past supported Hamas in its goals against Israel. Israel, in turn, said it would exact “devastation” on Lebanon should the group attack. Iran has warned that the United States and its allies will “not be spared” if Israeli attacks in Gaza escalate.
  • Hitting home. The war in Gaza has forced the United States to redirect attention toward the Middle East and away from other priorities, including China. US citizens are also at high risk. Israel has reported that several Americans are being held hostage by Hamas and many more have been trapped in Gaza, although some may have left through the Rafah crossing. A widening of the war could include attacks on US forces and terrorist attacks on US allies—and on the United States itself.
  • What to do. The Biden administration simultaneously must maintain support for Israel, including assistance; press the Netanyahu government to mitigate civilian casualties as it tries to destroy Hamas; try to prevent a widening of the war, including by deterring (and possibly responding to) Iranian attacks; and prepare to push for a sustainable regional settlement, including a two-state solution. Biden’s support for Israel in its moment of trauma may give the United States the political capital to seek to change right-wing Israeli hostility to a Palestinian state. The Biden administration will have to work closely with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other regional powers to transition from the immediate security and humanitarian crises to find a sustainable regional settlement. One early challenge will be an effort to find an alternative governing structure for a post-Hamas Gaza that allows people a secure life there.

Ukraine makes progress with strategic attacks. Ukraine’s ground offensive has made minor territorial gains; to date, Kyiv has recaptured 54 percent of occupied territory since Russia’s full-scale invasion. However, 18 percent of the country remains under Russian control. Ukraine’s longer-range missile and other attacks on Russian strategic targets have had greater success, including by forcing a retreat of much of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Crimea to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Potentially significant for the trajectory of the conflict in the coming weeks and months, Kyiv used long-sought-after ATACMS missiles, which it acquired from the United States, that have a roughly one-hundred-mile range, enabling Ukraine to strike deeper into Russian-held territory. The United States continued to funnel other assistance to Ukraine, recently announcing another $200 million in aid. Broader Western support remained strong. Most of the European Union’s (EU) twenty-seven leaders meeting at a summit in Brussels in October backed additional financial support to Ukraine. However, Slovak and Hungarian opposition potentially jeopardizes an EU project to provide $52.8 billion to Kyiv, since such a transfer would require unanimous agreement by member states.

  • Shaping the order. A Ukrainian land counteroffensive that liberates enough territory to put Russian supply lines at risk and change the course of the war has not yet been realized. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial war aims of subjugating all of Ukraine have failed, but he may be counting on Western support for Ukraine to wane as the war continues without decisive conclusion. Kyiv’s effective use of the ATACMS missiles and other technologies to strike at strategic Russian targets could change the balance of the war in Ukraine’s favor.
  • Hitting home. In an Oval Office address, Biden made a strategic case for US support of Israel and Ukraine rooted in the US bipartisan tradition of democratic internationalism—that US interests are advanced by supporting (and advising) democracies under assault, and that failure to do so would embolden and strengthen US authoritarian adversaries.
  • What to do. While the Israel-Hamas war dominates headlines, the United States must remain steadfast in its support for Kyiv and the US Congress must promptly pass additional support for Ukraine. Helping a democracy survive while also weakening—without use of US troops—one of the United States’ most aggressive adversaries remains in Washington’s interest.

Polish election shakeup. In Poland’s October 15 elections, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) failed to secure enough seats to form a government, marking a probable end to its rule. PiS leadership, while supportive of Ukraine and resistance to Russian aggression, has faced criticism for its perceived erosion of media freedom and judicial independence. The opposition, led by the liberal Civic Platform under former European Council President Donald Tusk emerged with 30.7 percent of the vote. The centrist Third Way coalition secured 14.4 percent of the vote, the Left Party secured 8.6 percent, collectively amassing 248 seats in the 460-member lower house of parliament. The nationalist Confederation Party entered parliament but did worse than expected, having only secured 7.2 percent of votes. Civic Platform, Third Way, and the Left Party have opened talks on forming a new government and are expected to do so before the end of this year. A coalition government would likely mean better Polish relations with the EU and especially Germany. The new coalition will have to cooperate with Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will remain in office until 2025 and is associated with the more moderate wing of PiS.

  • Shaping the order. Poland’s political shift to a liberal/center-left coalition upends a narrative that the populist/nationalist right had unstoppable momentum in Central Europe and beyond. The outgoing government is pro-NATO, supports strong relations with the United States, and correctly assessed Putin’s intent for aggression against Ukraine and Europe (especially in energy). The presumptive new government will likely continue those policies but will also likely combine them with a more EU-friendly approach.
  • Hitting home. US-Polish cooperation intensified after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and that cooperation is likely to continue. A new Polish government may be able to raise Poland’s influence in the EU, especially in crafting a sustainable policy to deal with an authoritarian and aggressive Russia, something that would benefit the United States and transatlantic community.
  • What to do. The United States should support the next Polish government while continuing to work with Duda, who has proven himself a steady partner. A strong and sustainable European policy toward Russia will depend on cooperation between Poland, Germany, and France, and the United States should work with all three countries to that end.

Quote of the Month

“American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.”
– US President Joe Biden, in remarks delivered from the Oval Office.

State of the Order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • Daniel Noboa won 52.3 percent of the vote to become Ecuador’s next president. The president-elect, a member of the Acción Democrática Nacional party, ran on a platform of turning around Ecuador’s failing economy and promoting anti-corruption measures.
  • In the lead up to presidential elections slated for December, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has reportedly overseen the detainment of dozens of opposition figures and offered material support in exchange for votes. A win for him, after coming into power through a military coup a decade ago, would mean another six years in power.
  • Alsu Kurmasheva, an American journalist who also holds Russian citizenship, was detained and arrested in Russia for failing to register herself as a foreign agent. This follows a Russian court’s refusal to release wrongfully detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich and another Russian journalist’s sentencing to over eight years in prison for staging an on-air protest of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • Guatemalan students, indigenous leaders, and unions mobilized protests calling for the country’s attorney general, Consuelo Porras, to resign following claims by President-elect Bernardo Arévalo—who won a landslide election in August—that Porras is plotting a coup against him.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.
  • Security ()

    • Amid concerns about Iran’s support of Hamas, the United States and Qatar reversed a prior decision to allow Tehran access to six billion dollars in oil proceeds following a prisoner swap. The funds are currently being managed by Qatar, who struck an informal deal with the United States to temporarily withhold them from Iran.
    • The United States launched strikes on two bases in Syria, in a move Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin calls a “response to a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups.” The targets hit were two weapons and ammunition storage facilities in eastern Syria.
    • The United Nations Security Council approved a year-long multinational security support mission to Haiti to combat the rise in gangs that control much of the country. The mission is led by Kenya, who contributed one thousand police officers. While the United States has not contributed personnel, the Biden administration has said it would aim to provide $100 million in support.
    • Russia’s parliament passed a bill that revokes Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
    • Putin traveled to China for the annual Belt and Road Forum. Speaking before Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Putin hailed China’s efforts to build what he called a “fairer” and “more inclusive” multipolar global order.
    • On balance, the security pillar was weakened.

    Trade ()

    • US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the United States will more strictly enforce a price limit of sixty dollars per oil barrel—imposed by the United States and its allies—on Russia to limit the country’s economic mobility. The US sanctioned two tankers accused of violating the price cap.
    • The EU launched the first phase of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, the world’s first carbon border tariff. The measure will impose emissions tariffs on imported steel, cement, and other goods in a bid to block goods whose production is carbon-intensive from undermining the EU’s green transition.
    • Leaked documents reveal that the United States and the United Kingdom are negotiating a “foundational” trade agreement set to be announced before the each country’s 2024 election cycles. The deal is reported to include subjects such as digital trade and agriculture, but it most notably does not contain market access commitments that necessitate a formal free trade agreement.
    • At a summit in Washington, DC, the United States and EU failed to secure and agreement for a Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum but agreed to extend negotiations until the end of the year.
    • On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.

    Commons ()

    • Government officials have reported that India is unlikely to sign onto a global pledge to reduce emissions from cooling-related technologies.
    • Two powerful, 6.3 magnitude earthquakes in western Afghanistan killed nearly three thousand people, with thousands more injured or missing. This is one of the deadliest seismic disasters to hit the country in recent decades.
    • Ahead of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP28, energy companies are vying for a seat at the table, specifically in discussions pertaining to decarbonization, sustainability, and the green transition. The United Arab Emirates, the summit’s host, recently gathered top executives of the largest fossil fuel producers and called for the industry to be more involved in the global efforts to reduce emissions.
    • Putin announced that Moscow plans to operationalize the first segment of its new space station by 2027. Despite the failure of Russia’s moonshot in August, Putin went on to claim the country will continue to advance its lunar program.
    • On balance, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

    Alliances ()

    • Biden asked the US Congress to provide additional military aid to countries including Ukraine and Israel. Mike Johnson, newly elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives, announced that the United States is “not going to abandon” Ukraine, but will prioritize aid to Israel.
    • Russia failed to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council following its loss of a General Assembly vote to Albania and Bulgaria. However, nearly half of the General Assembly supported Russia’s bid, conveying that it is not as isolated as Western allies hoped.
    • The United States and China agreed to work toward holding a summit between Biden and Xi next month. The announcement came after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Washington and met with Biden.
    • A ministerial roundtable was held between the Group of Seven (G7) and African countries on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings in Morocco. The discussions largely centered on avenues for finance ministers—both from the G7 and from the Group of Twenty—to mobilize financing for Africa, including potential domestic reforms to improve the business environment in African countries.
    • At the 2023 NATO Defense Ministers meeting, the ministers discussed the Alliance’s defense plans and operations; they also met with their Israeli counterpart. The series of meetings concluded with the signing of two memorandums aimed at boosting European air defense capabilities: the European Sky Shield Initiative and NATO Flight Training Europe.
    • On balance, the alliance 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     

    • Lisa Anderson, in Foreign Affairs, assesses how the Egyptian president’s actions regarding the situation in Israel and Palestine will impact his own dwindling popularity and credibility amongst his own constituents ahead of the upcoming election cycle.
    • Bronte Munro, in Foreign Policy, argues that US domination in quantum computing will necessitate support from its allies and partners, including Australia and the United Kingdom.

    Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

    Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

    • Frederick Kempe, in Inflection Points, contends that the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are interconnected in the threat they pose to the global order, and that the Biden administration’s failure to “connect the dots” and act accordingly would be a grave strategic error.
    • Dan Fried and Alina Polyakova, in Foreign Affairs, asses the results of the Polish election.
    • Matthew Kroenig and Dan Negrea, in the National Review, contend that Biden’s vagueness in outlining a clear US strategy in Ukraine only emboldens those opposed to the US contributing additional aid to the conflict.
    • Andrew Michta, in City Journal, discusses the implications of Hamas’s recent attacks on Israel, specifically emphasizing the geostrategic and great-power implications of these developments.
    • Joslyn Brodfuehrer, in the New Atlanticist, argues that NATO’s greatest advantage is its network of allies and industry partners. Brodfuehrer goes on to call for enhanced industrial base cooperation amongst Alliance members to maintain the warfighting advantage in an era defined by strategic competition.
    • Ira Straus, in the New Atlanticist, advocates for a restructuring of NATO’s decision-making processes as the Alliance grows in order to ensure improved efficiency.


    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 – Nonresident Senior Fellow
    Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow

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Image: U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) and the Israeli war cabinet, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein