In an inauspicious kick off to 2024, the international order weakened in January. Violence in the Middle East increased further, with Iran-affiliated forces killing US service members in Jordan, and the US Congress failed to provide a new wave of aid to Ukraine when it is desperately needed.
As a bright spot, however, the president-elect of Guatemala was finally inaugurated after months of effort by antidemocratic forces to derail the transition.
Read up on the events shaping the democratic world order below.
Reshaping the order
This month’s topline events
Wider Middle East becomes embroiled in tensions. Predictions that the conflict between Israel and Hamas would escalate have proven true. Houthi rebel attacks on vessels in the Red Sea continued, leading shipping companies to instead transit around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding significant costs and anywhere from seven to twenty days to the trip. One Japanese source reported that shipping fees have increased by 180 percent since October 7. The United States relabeled the Houthis as a terrorist group and, alongside the United Kingdom, leveled additional sanctions on Houthi figures and launched strikes at Houthi targets within Yemen.
Iran also amplified tensions, including with missile and drone attacks on targets in three countries—Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan—all within a span of twenty-four hours. Pakistan hit back, launching rocket, missile, and drone attacks against what it alleged were militant hideouts in Iran. But soon after, the foreign ministers of both states agreed to wider security cooperation, reducing that escalation. Iran-backed forces attacked US bases in Iraq, resulting in traumatic brain injuries for four servicemembers, and in Jordan, killing three servicemembers and injuring dozens. Experts assess that the broader conflict, from Hamas to the Houthis, is marked with the “common link” of Iran, leading some to suggest that the United States and its allies and partners should strike more Iranian proxies or even Iran itself. Soon after the end of January, the United States conducted strikes against targets associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria.
The United States continued to press Israel to use greater precision in its war on Hamas. The Biden administration has reportedly considered limiting weapons deliveries, seeking to mitigate excessive use of force by Israeli forces. Qatar has emerged as the main intermediary with Hamas in these and prior ceasefire talks. Qatar, the United States, Israel, and Egypt held talks in Paris that led to a basic framework for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release. It is unclear if the deal will hold. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed the Biden administration that he opposed the idea of a post-war Palestinian state, directly in conflict with the White House’s stance favoring a two-state solution. The United States seems to be seeking to push a regional strategy that includes linking Saudi-Israeli normalization to an irrevocable pathway toward Palestinian statehood.
- Shaping the order. The Israel-Hamas war has spurred groups like the Houthis to take advantage of the narrative for their own interests, increasing violence in the region. Trade disruption from the Houthi attacks has lowered the amount of freight through the Suez Canal by 45 percent. Antisemitic attacks in Europe, including in Belgium and France, are on the rise, putting democratic rights in peril.
- Hitting home. The recent attacks put at risk US embassies and the over thirty thousand US servicemembers in the broader Middle East. In early February, the Biden administration responded by launching strikes at over eighty-five targets associated with Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria.
- What to do. The Biden team is hoping to see that the war between proxies doesn’t escalate into a broader regional conflict. Simultaneously, it is trying to leverage its new coalition to retaliate against attacks on the United States and shipping lanes. It should continue doing so. The United States should work closely with allies and partners to identify how best to respond to the Houthis and other Iran-backed groups, and it should consider whether military options are needed against Iran. Democracies across the globe should continue to support negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Mixed bag on transatlantic support for Ukraine. At the turn of the month, the European Union (EU) was able to agree on a $54-billion-euro aid package for Ukraine that overcame Hungarian objections. In addition, NATO signed a $1.2 billion ammunition contract to replenish artillery supplies of allies supporting Ukraine. Yet, the United States has yet to pass its long-discussed Ukraine supplemental. In the face of congressional failure to act, the Biden administration looked to a group of fifty countries supporting Ukraine to cover the gap and implored them to do so at the group’s latest meeting.
The stalled military assistance is damaging Ukraine’s military position. Reported ammunition shortages in Ukraine could allow Russian land advances; White House officials gave an “incredibly stark” prediction of bad military consequences without funding for continued military assistance to Ukraine, including an assessment that Russia could win the war in just weeks.
- Shaping the order. US failure to provide funding to Ukraine could prove disastrous because Europe, despite its considerable military and nonmilitary contributions, may not be able to make up the shortfall. However, if US and European funding comes through, and especially if the United States and Germany provide long-range fires, there is a reasonable chance of relative Ukrainian battlefield success. Kyiv could hold back the Russians on land while intensifying strategic attacks on Crimea, Russian logistic chokepoints (the Kerch Strait Bridge among them), and infrastructure inside Russia, using Ukrainian drones and other weapons. Some analysts believe that European and US weapons and ammunition production will grow so that by 2025, the current Russian arms advantage will diminish.
- Hitting home. Biden repeatedly committed the United States to supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes.” Delay in providing Ukraine needed aid has already made this promise appear questionable, and ultimate failure to provide the aid would be a major blow to the credibility of US commitments to allies and partners and a detriment of the global rules-based order.
- What to do. The Biden administration and the US Congress, where a majority appear to support Ukraine funding, must find a way to get it done, not according to the maxim “as long as it takes” but instead according to “whatever it takes.”
A new day for democracy in Guatemala. Bernardo Arévalo was inaugurated as Guatemala’s president. This is a significant win for democracy in Latin America as Arévalo, who clearly won the August 2023 election, had faced sustained efforts by the “pact of the corrupt” (a network of politicians and elites who have long-influenced Guatemala’s institutions to benefit themselves) to derail the transition to power. Senior US officials engaged Arévalo throughout the transition process, offering symbolic support for the credibility of his victory. Arévalo took office on January 14 with a commitment to tackle corruption and to rebuild the country’s democratic institutions.
- Shaping the order. Guatemala faced significant democratic backsliding in 2023. With Arévalo in office, many hope that Guatemala will be able to renew its democracy and create a well-functioning government capable of serving its people.
- Hitting home. As of 2021, Guatemala was the source for the fourth largest population of unauthorized immigrants (seven hundred thousand people) entering the United States. By reducing corruption and creating a stable economy, fewer Guatemalans could be compelled to leave their home and take the dangerous journey to the United States.
- What to do. The United States and its regional allies and partners should build on initial success and support Arévalo in his efforts to reduce corruption. The Biden administration should support Guatemala through the “Democracy Delivers Initiative,” marshalling resources from across the US interagency that could help Arévalo deliver in the early months of his presidency.
Quote of the Month
“For the first time in generations, the world is not at a single inflection point. It is at multiple inflection points, with risks overlapping and compounding each other. And there is no doubt that we face the greatest risk to the global order in the post-war era. But in my mind, there is also no doubt that we can move forward with optimism and resolve. Yes, the risks we face are real and present. But in order to face risks we have to take risks—together.”
– European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
State of the Order this month: Weakened
Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order
- The people of Taiwan elected Lai Ching-te as president, despite veiled threats from China that doing so would risk war. The election demonstrated that, despite some worries, Taiwan’s people are not easily intimidated; the election also underlined their commitment to democracy.
- The Supreme Court of Israel ruled 8-7 against a law that would have put guardrails on its powers and given more authority to the prime minister. The judicial overhaul was heavily protested in the summer of 2023 and thrust Israel into turmoil, which some worry could resurge with the new ruling.
- On balance, the democracy pillar was strengthened.
- Ukraine’s position in the Donbas region has become increasingly precarious, as Russia appears to have seized the city of Marinka. Russia celebrated it as its first population center taken in over six months, but Ukraine continues to fight on the outskirts.
- South Korea’s military reported that North Korea launched three separate cruise missile tests in January. The tests raised tensions in East Asia, especially after North Korea described its missile as “strategic,” implying that the missiles could eventually be armed with nuclear weapons.
- On balance, the security pillar was weakened.
- Nippon Steel, a Japanese company, made a step forward in its plans to purchase US Steel for nearly fifteen billion dollars, which was announced in December. The momentum forward came in the form of a letter from three banks, committing to lend Nippon Steel the money it would need to secure the acquisition of the US company. The Biden administration continues to face pressure from both sides of the aisle on the sale, undermining the president’s careful balance between curating alliances and promoting domestic production.
- The authorities managing Panama Canal traffic have been forced to cut crossings by 36 percent due to a drought—one of the worst ones the region has ever seen. The move further imperils global shipping, as Houthi attacks continue in the Red Sea.
- On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.
- Mukhtar Babayev, Azerbaijan’s minister of ecology and natural resources, was selected to lead the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, also known as COP29, in November. Climate activists fear that having Babayev, a former oil executive, lead COP29 may make it less successful at curbing global warming than is hoped for, especially as temperatures continue to rise.
- UN agencies continue to warn of the risk of famine in Gaza, with an official from World Food Program stating that Gaza has “the largest concentration of people in what looks like famine-like conditions anywhere in the world.” Some Palestinians have reported that they lack clear water to drink or have resorted to eating grass to survive.
- On balance, the commons pillar was weakened.
Alliances (↔ )
- The Turkish Parliament approved Sweden’s bid to join NATO, leaving only Hungary to ratify the accession and expand the alliance to thirty-two members. Sweden’s application has been in consideration for twenty months and was a significant victory for the Alliance.
- Ethiopia and Somaliland, a territory that declared itself independent of Somalia, signed a port deal that would give Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. In exchange, Ethiopia said it would formally recognize Somaliland as an independent republic. Somalia has spoken against the deal, and the United States and the European Union have expressed support for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
- On balance, the alliances 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
- Caroline de Gruyter, in Foreign Policy, offers a playbook for fighting back against Viktor Orbán’s obstructionist stance on EU decision-making.
- Ellen Wald, in the New Atlanticist, contends that the US wants to end its reliance on Chinese lithium, but its policies are doing the opposite.
- Michael Green and Daniel Twining, in Foreign Affairs, contend that spreading liberal values and democracy in Asia gives the United States a competitive edge over China.
Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council
Our experts weigh in on this month’s events
- Frederick Kempe, in Inflection Points, argues that the United States is unprepared for a war on three fronts.
- Matthew Kroenig, in the New Atlanticist, contends that the United States needs to take action against Iran’s aggression.
- Andrew Michta, in Politico, explains why a new US national security strategy is necessary.
- Elizabeth Braw, in Politico, concludes it will be difficult to respond to Russia’s gray zone warfare in the Baltic Sea.
- Joseph Lemoine, Dan Negrea, Patrick Quirk, and Lauren Van Metre, in a new Atlantic Council report, discuss how the authoritarian development models of China and Russia compare to free societies.
- Dan Fried, in the Jerusalem Strategic Post, explores the state of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, two years in.
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.
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