State of the Order: Assessing April 2020

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

WHO to Blame? As the pandemic spreads, the United States has halted funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), accusing the UN health organization of being too close to China and too slow to react as the virus spread beyond Wuhan. European allies harshly criticized the move, while Beijing stepped up funding for the WHO in a bid to project a positive global image.

  • Shaping the order. The US funding freeze could strengthen Beijing’s role in the WHO and further damage America’s relations with allies. While the WHO deserves scrutiny for early missteps, the US decision undermines the world’s largest global public health agency while it is seeking to fast-track vaccines and support governments to stem the virus.
  • Hitting home. The move could make it more difficult for the WHO to take actions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, especially in the developing world, potentially extending the pandemic and putting more Americans at risk.
  • What to do. The United States should resume funding for the WHO in this time of crisis, while seeking an independent review of the organization’s activities and setting forth recommendations to make it more accountable and effective.

US-China Friction. Tensions between the United States and China escalated as Washington pressed assertions that the virus originated in a Chinese lab. Beijing has rejected the allegations, reacting with a mix a “mask diplomacy,” economic threats, and combative propaganda. The European Union, Australia, and others have called for a transparent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, but the United Kingdom and other “Five Eyes” intelligence agencies have publicly questioned the credibility of the US allegations.

  • Shaping the order. China’s aggressive propaganda campaign on the coronavirus has proven counterproductive, alienating governments in Europe and Asia and undermining its diplomatic efforts. But the current dispute is deepening an already tense divide between the United States and its allies, making it harder for the free world to develop a common strategy to manage China’s rise. 
  • Hitting home. Growing hostility between the United States and China could hinder efforts to defeat the virus and jump start the global economy – leaving Americans more susceptible to the economic fallout of the pandemic. But credibly identifying the origins of the virus could help prevent future outbreaks.
  • What to do. The United States should support an independent investigation of the pandemic, and based on the results, coordinate closely with allies to hold Beijing accountable to international norms. 

Surveillance State. Governments around the world are deploying digital surveillance tools to combat the spread of COVID-19. While Asian nations have demonstrated that robust contact tracing is essential to fight the pandemic, efforts to implement health surveillance in the United States and Europe are facing pushback from citizens eager to protect privacy rights. 

  • Shaping the order. Contact tracing is an essential element of stemming the spread of the virus, and South Korea and Taiwan have shown that such programs can be implemented in democratic societies. But autocrats may seek to impose these measures indefinitely to constrain political opposition.
  • Hitting home. Without clear standards and protections of privacy, many Americans will likely refuse to participate in government contact tracing programs – making it more difficult to slow the virus and open up the economy.
  • What to do. Addressing these concerns will require a delicate balancing act. The United States and its democratic allies should develop a framework for contact tracing that protects civil liberties and can be used as a model for nations around the world.

“A virus that spreads in almost all countries can only be restrained and contained through the interaction of all countries. International cooperation against the virus is of paramount importance.”  –  Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

State of the order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

  • Democracy (Weakened) –  Autocratic leaders are exploiting the coronavirus to concentrate their authority – as public protests and opposition movements have been curtailed by lockdowns.
  • Security (Unchanged) – Taiwan remained on heightened alert after Chinese fighters crossed the median line, while North Korea fired off a barrage of short-range missiles and Iranian speedboats once again challenged US warships in the Persian Gulf. But the overall security of the order remained stable.
  • Trade (Unchanged) – The United States again challenged the legitimacy of the World Trade Organization, saying a recent ruling by its Appellate Body was “invalid.” As dozens of countries try to cope with the virus by restricting trade in food and medical supplies, the Federal Reserve joined its central bank counterparts to help mitigate the financial impacts of the crisis. 
  • Commons (Weakened) – Though it has appeared to peak in many nations, the pandemic continues to take its toll around the world. With global economic activity at a devastating standstill, air pollutants have dropped to levels not seen since the early 20th century.
  • Alliances (Weakened)  – NATO foreign ministers agreed on the need for a “coordinated and comprehensive approach” to combat Russian and Chinese disinformation on the pandemic. But US relations with allies continued to deteriorate.

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     

  • Richard Haas argues in Foreign Affairs that COVID-19 “will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it.”
  • Chad Brown, in Foreign Affairs, suggests it will take a “coordinated political commitment among global leaders” to prevent an onslaught of new protectionist measures in these extraordinary times.
  • Ashley Tellis, writing for the National Bureau of Asian Research, argues that Washington “must double down on its alliances and partnerships” to counter any future challenges from China.

Actions and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • The Atlantic Council convened an Allied Town Hall in April, bringing together ambassadors and chiefs-of-mission from thirty US allies and partners across the Atlantic and Pacific for a strategy session on the coronavirus.
  • Dan Fried and Ana Palacio argue in the New Atlanticist that the US should coordinate with its democratic allies to devise an immediate and systemic response to the coronavirus challenge.
  • Gerard Araud and Benjamin Haddad suggest in the New Atlanticist that the best way for the US to counter China in multilateral institutions is by leading with allies.
  • Ash Jain and Dan Fried, writing in the National Interest, contend that the US and its allies should not abandon their support for an international order rooted in common values for the sake of aligning with despots.
  • Matt Kroenig writes in The Atlantic that “democracy is the best machine ever invented for generating enormous power, wealth, and prestige on the international stage.”
  • Jeff Cimmino argues in the National Interest that the US can be tough on the WHO and still recommit to strengthening global health security.

The Democratic Order Initiativeis an Atlantic Council initiativeaimed 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 – Senior Fellow
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Joe Bodnar – Project Assistant 

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