State of the Order: Stresses on the world order mounted in February. Here’s where the biggest impacts are coming from.

In February, stresses on the world order escalated. The war in Gaza continued, with rising civilian casualties and uncertain progress toward a temporary ceasefire—one that would include humanitarian assistance and the release of Israeli hostages seized by Hamas during the group’s terrorist attack last October that killed 1,200 people. European governments stepped up additional support for Ukraine in the fight against Russia, while the US Congress—amid partisan strife and neoisolationist rhetoric—continued to face gridlock on allocating more military aid to Kyiv. Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Russian opposition leader, died in prison, the latest of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s enemies to perish under suspicious circumstances, with responsibility lying with the Kremlin.

Read up on the events shaping the democratic world order below.

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

The war in Gaza—and calls for a ceasefire—persist. The conflict between Israel and Hamas continued apace with Israel maintaining a high tempo of attacks across Gaza. The Israeli military campaign has resulted in over thirty thousand fatalities thus far in Gaza and displaced roughly 1.7 million Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry. As February ended, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a plan for postwar Gaza that included Israel maintaining control over the Palestinian territory indefinitely. The plan also opposed the “unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state,” following news that the Biden administration is reportedly considering such a step as it seeks “a concrete, time-bound, and irreversible path” to a Palestinian state as part of an eventual resolution to the conflict. The Palestinian Authority was quick to reject Netanyahu’s plan, stating that it was intended “to perpetuate Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.” The United States pressed Israel to halt its planned offensive in Rafah in the southernmost area of Gaza until it had a plan to limit civilian casualties and allow for greatly expanded humanitarian assistance to move into Gaza.

Ceasefire talks continued in Paris, with Israel’s intelligence chief meeting with officials from the United States, Qatar, and Egypt, with the latter two bringing an understanding reached with Hamas. While an agreement has not yet been reached, the group has presented to Hamas a proposal for a forty-day pause, with an exchange of ten Palestinian prisoners for every one Israeli hostage released, along with humanitarian aid sent to Gaza. The objective was to reach an agreement before the beginning of Ramadan, as some fear that if the war continues during the holy month, the likelihood of the conflict widening may increase. But Ramadan began without a ceasefire in place.

The United States again vetoed a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the war, outside of the ongoing negotiations and without linking Hamas’ release of Israeli hostages to the ceasefire. The fifteen-member Security Council voted thirteen to one, with the United Kingdom abstaining, showing strong support for an end to the conflict.

  • Shaping the order. The Israel-Hamas war risks spreading into a wider state-on-state war and further unraveling security in the Middle East. US support for Israel, even as the Biden administration urges Netanyahu to exercise restraint and limit civilian casualties, risks further alienating allies the United States would otherwise engage to advance its priorities in the region. The war is also potentially alienating allies in the Global South who oppose Israel’s military campaign.
  • Hitting home. The war in Gaza has become a political issue in the United States—and in the ongoing US presidential campaign—with half of Americans now saying that Israel has gone too far in Gaza, according to a poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The rest of the respondents said they believed Israel’s response has “been about right” (31 percent) or “not gone far enough” (15 percent). Protesting the Biden administration’s position on the war, more than one hundred thousand voters in Michigan’s democratic presidential primary voted “uncommitted,” while over 620,000 voted for the president. Labor unions representing nine million union members called for a ceasefire and created a labor network to support that work. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, investigations continued regarding accusations of antisemitism on college campuses across the country.
  • What to do. In the immediate term, the US must continue pressing the Israeli government to limit civilian casualties and allow humanitarian assistance and demand that Hamas accept a ceasefire that would pause suffering and release all hostages. In addition, and as the Biden administration seems to have calculated, the way ahead includes the US working with its Middle Eastern partners to advance a postwar governance plan for Gaza that, despite the Netanyahu government’s opposition, seeks irrevocable progress towards a two-state solution. A framework wherein Gaza is governed by locally legitimate authorities is the surest path to stability and best positions the United States to refocus attention and resources to a two-state solution, with Israel-Saudi Arabia relations part of that package.

Europe steps up on Ukraine, while the US Congress continues to face gridlock. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine entered its third year as Ukrainian forces, suffering from shortages of ammunition, retreated from the town of Avdiivka. Despite this setback, Ukraine otherwise mostly held the line and continued long-range attacks on Russian military targets. The Zelenskyy administration replaced the military’s popular top general, Valery Zaluzhny, with the ground forces commander, Oleksandr Syrsky.

European governments stepped up on aid and security cooperation with Kyiv, with the European Union agreeing to provide fifty billion euros of additional economic assistance over five years. GermanyFrance, and Denmark signed ten-year security agreements with Ukraine, with pledges of military aid packages of $1.2 billion, $3.2 billion, and $247.4 million respectively. The Netherlands also pledged to sign an additional ten-year agreement with Ukraine in the near future. The United Kingdom signed an agreement with Ukraine in January. These agreements all follow the US-led G7+ initiative, announced at the 2023 Vilnius NATO Summit, to establish long-term security commitments with Ukraine. In contrast, amid partisan rancor, the US Congress failed again to pass additional military aid for Ukraine. As the month ended, the US House of Representatives was set to take up the sixty-billion-dollar aid package for Ukraine, though passage remained uncertain.

  • Shaping the order. Sustained support from the United States and Europe (in particular Germany, which ranks second, after the United States, in aid to Ukraine) in the form of weapons, ammunition, and aid will be critical to Ukrainian success on the battlefield. Such support would enable Ukraine to hold the line on land while intensifying offensive strikes on Crimea, on critical logistics arteries, and inside Russia itself—and wear down Russian arms stocks. Absent such support, Russian forces could continue to advance; Ukraine could lose the war. Should Ukraine fall, an emboldened Russia could mount attacks on other countries in Eastern Europe, e.g., Moldova, whose Russian-supported breakaway province of Transnistria called for Russian support in late February. Russia could even consider limited incursions against a NATO ally, such as Latvia or Estonia.
  • Hitting home. A determined minority in the US Congress is holding up continued military support for Ukraine even though helping Ukraine defeat the Russian military, without risking US soldiers, is in the US national interest. US opposition to support for Ukraine persists. That’s the case despite the fact that a plurality of Americans (43 percent) are in favor of giving support to Ukraine until Russia exits the country and 46 percent argue the West isn’t doing enough to prevent Russia from winning in Ukraine.
  • What to do. The US administration should continue to push Congress to pass the long-delayed aid bill, thus investing in Ukrainian, European, and US security. The Biden administration should continue its work with the rest of the G7+ to provide Ukraine with security agreements with allies and partners across the world and provide military aid that is critical to Ukraine’s survival.

Alexei Navalny dies, responsibility lies with the Kremlin. Russian dissident and political opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison on February 16, the latest in a series of Putin enemies who were killed or died in unclear circumstances. Russian dissidents and long-time Russia watchers regarded Navalny’s death as a sign of Putin’s sense of impunity and—according to an activist and friend to Navalny—an attempt by Putin to deprive the beleaguered Russian opposition of its leader before Russia’s presidential election scheduled for March. Navalny’s death followed the regime’s February 8 disqualification of presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin, who had been running on an avowedly antiwar platform. Western leaders blamed Putin and the Kremlin and mourned Navalny’s death (though former US President Donald Trump and some of his supporters declined to directly address it). US President Joe Biden announced over five hundred new sanctions for Russia. A spokeswoman for Navalny said that Russian authorities attempted, unsuccessfully, to pressure Navalny’s mother into forgoing a public funeral. Despite that pressure, the funeral took place on March 1, with people lining up for hours to pay respects at his grave.

  • Shaping the order. Under Putin’s leadership, a belligerent Russia has emerged as a virulent and violent enemy of the international order. Weakened internal opposition, coming at a time of US political division over additional aid for Ukraine, means Putin may feel a sense of impunity that could lead to further aggression abroad. Navalny’s death is a setback for the Russian opposition and broader pro-democracy movement—and comes at a time when other dissidents have fled the country, continued to languish in prison, or have been killed or died. But the democratic opposition in Russia still persists, and Navalny’s wife Yulia has vowed to fill the vacuum and continue his work.
  • Hitting home. Putin’s Russia continues to be a major US adversary. Evidence emerged in February of Russian disinformation campaigns targeting the 2024 US presidential elections and intelligence was unveiled about the Kremlin’s plans to build a space-based nuclear weapon potentially capable of destroying military and commercial satellites.
  • What to do. US counter pressure, including intensified sanctions and other economic measures, remain necessary, but they alone are not sufficient to weaken and deter Putin to the extent needed to secure the world order. The West needs to support Ukraine’s fight to defeat the Russian army, and it must also ramp up support for the beleaguered Russian opposition. While regime change in Russia is not (and should not be) a US policy aim, history suggests that when Russia loses in war, domestic reforms and more responsible foreign policy can follow. Ukraine’s success and Putin’s defeat would encourage democratic countries, especially in Asia, to refute Kremlin narratives and even set the stage for a fourth democratic wave to the benefit of US interests as well as the broader liberal world order. US leadership is needed to galvanize the changes needed to make the fourth democratic wave a reality.

Quote of the Month

“In these unsettled times, it is clear: America cannot retreat. America must stand strong for democracy. We must stand in defense of international rules and norms, and we must stand with our allies. That is what represents the ideals of America, and the American people know that is what make us strong.”
– US Vice President Kamala Harris in a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

State of the Order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order 

Democracy ()

  • Political candidates aligned with Imran Khan, the former Pakistani premier who was jailed after he was ousted, won the majority of seats in Pakistan’s national elections. The independent candidates—many of whom would have run with Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party—outperformed expectations despite the shutdown of cellphones across the country, potential vote rigging, and even the party’s removal from the ballot.
  • An attempt by Senegalese President Macky Sall to delay the country’s presidential election by ten months was struck down as illegal by the Constitutional Court; the government then scheduled the elections for March 24. The Sahel has seen eight coups unfold in six countries in only the last three years, raising questions about whether Senegal could be the next democracy to experience significant backsliding.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.

Security (↓)

  • In early February, the United States launched strikes against eighty-five targets linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian proxy forces. The strikes were part of Washington’s response to the January 28 killing of three servicemembers on a US military base in Jordan. Major General Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, stated, “this is the start of our response, and there will be additional actions taken.”
  • While Ukraine’s war on land has faced a setback, intelligence services in Kyiv assess that one-third of Russia’s fleet in the Black Sea has been disabled after a Ukrainian sea drone sank a Russian warship on February 14. Ukraine’s success at sea has allowed the country to put its agricultural products back on global markets.
  • On balance, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade (

  • The US House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party found that, over a period of about fifteen years, five US venture capital firms invested more than three billion dollars in Chinese firms working on technology, artificial intelligence, and computer chips, as published in a new report. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continued its push for domestic chip manufacturing, saying the government intends to provide a $1.5 billion grant to US company GlobalFoundries.
  • After the death of Alexei Navalny, Biden announced over five hundred new sanctions for Russia. The new sanctions target entities in the financial and defense sectors that are helping Russia wage war against Ukraine. Some economics experts, however, have expressed reservations about the strength of the measures announced.
  • On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons ()

  • A leak from I-Soon, a Chinese cybersecurity company, gave an inside look into the work of Beijing-linked hackers. An investigation of the data has identified some of the targets, including the government agencies of nearby nations and Taiwan, as well as the tools and techniques used by the company.
  • Latin America is facing a massive dengue outbreak. Ahead of Carnival, the city of Rio de Janeiro announced a public health emergency, and Peru followed in late February. Cases in the region are already above where they were in the same period last year, which was a record year for infections.
  • On balance, the commons pillar was weakened.

Alliances (↑)

  • Hungary ratified Sweden’s NATO bid after a months-long delay, finally granting the Nordic country entry into the Alliance. Experts argue that Sweden’s accession will pose a “strategic setback” to Russia and bolster NATO and its stockpiles.
  • European leaders expressed anxiety that the United States will not fulfill its NATO Article 5 obligation of mutual defense after Trump said that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member that didn’t “pay [their] bills.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued that Trump’s statement damaged the Alliance, and Europeans responded privately (and sometimes publicly) with alarm.
  • On balance, 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

  • Johanna Kao, in the new 2024 Atlas on freedom and prosperity around the world, compiled by the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Center, argues that China has failed to share the benefits of the country’s upward trajectory equally among its citizens.
  • Salil Tripathi, in Foreign Policyanalyzes how Prabowo Subianto—who is poised to be Indonesia’s next president—may lead his country.
  • Hal Brands, in Foreign Affairsargues that the United States must balance power without subverting democratic purpose, and that it must avoid any perceived hypocrisy globally that it uses immoral methods to achieve the “worthy end” of spreading democracy worldwide.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Frederick Kempe, in Inflection Pointsrecaps a recent Atlantic Council event with Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, where Sikorski issued a message to the US Congress on the necessity of aid to Ukraine. 
  • Matthew Kroenig, Jason Marczak, and Jeffrey Cimmino lay out a strategy for combating malign Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Dan Fried, in Just Securitymemorializes Alexei Navalny, highlighting his bravery and commitment to a more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Russia.
  • Patrick Quirk and Will Meeker, in Just Securityoffer a new framework for US policy toward West Africa that aims to promote stability and prosperity by prioritizing support for strong governance and vibrant political systems.
  • Experts from across the Atlantic Council examine the cost to Russia of its invasion of 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.

Patrick Quirk – Nonresident Senior Fellow
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Sydney Sherry – Program Assistant

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Image: Palestinians walk past destroyed houses, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Jabalia refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip February 22, 2024. REUTERS/Mahmoud Issa TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY