State of the Order:    Assessing May 2020

Reshaping the Order

This month’s topline events

Eyes on America. As Americans take to the streets to protest the shocking death of an African American man by a white police officer, global news channels have highlighted numerous displays of excessive police force against peaceful demonstrators and live attacks on and arrests of journalists. The aggressive use of tear gas and flash grenades to make way for a presidential photo-op across from the White House drew widespread global criticism and spurred an official Australian investigation.

  • Shaping the order. These incidents have alarmed America’s closest allies and risk undermining US moral authority to lead the free world. Russia, China, and Iran have scored a propaganda coup, seizing the opportunity to portray the United States as a violator of human rights and deflecting attention from their own systematic denials of fundamental freedoms.
  • Hitting home. The protests mark a consequential moment of national discord. Racial injustices and images of excessive police force are reinforcing the view among many Americans that the United States can no longer serve as a credible advocate for democracy and human rights.
  • What to do. Swift action should be taken to hold to account police officers involved in the use of excessive force, and these actions should be clearly communicated through US public diplomacy efforts. But restoring America’s global credibility will be a daunting challenge, requiring a significant change in tone and rhetoric by our nation’s leaders and meaningful actions to address the systemic conditions that led to this crisis.

China’s Power Play. China made a series of aggressive moves to assert its influence in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing enacted a new national security law in Hong Kong that could curtail basic rights and jeopardize its commitment to “one country, two systems,” conspicuously dropped the word “peaceful” from its annual call for unification with Taiwan, and deployed several thousand troops to its border with India—resulting in skirmishes that have left dozens of troops injured.

  • Shaping the order. These moves are escalating regional tensions, as Beijing appears to be seeking a position of regional dominance. But China’s actions may backfire, pushing India to seek a closer alignment with the West and reinforcing efforts by the United States and its allies to deepen cooperation on China.
  • Hitting home. Beijing’s actions could result in the imposition of sanctions, with direct economic implications for American companies. Any serious provocations by China, particularly against Taiwan, could lead to the deployment of US troops to the region and the potential for military conflict.
  • What to do. The United States should lead a coordinated effort among allies and partners to hold China accountable for its actions in Hong Kong, while reaffirming its commitment to defend Taiwan and strengthening ties with India.

Vaccine Nationalism. As the race for a coronavirus vaccine accelerates, Chinese state media reports that Beijing expects to have a vaccine ready before the end of the year. Pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Europe, and India are also making significant progress. But the United States was noticeably absent from an EU donor conference aimed at global cooperation to develop a vaccine and later announced it would permanently withdraw from the World Health Organization, raising concerns that the United States, China, and others may engage in “vaccine nationalism.”

  • Shaping the order. Were China to succeed in developing a vaccine significantly ahead of the democratic world, it could strengthen the regime’s legitimacy and expand its global influence. At the same time, concerns that the United States may use its leverage over global supply chains to gain access to vaccines and therapeutics at the expense of allies could further undermine confidence in American leadership.
  • Hitting home. The absence of global cooperation could inhibit access to vaccines and medications for the American people, particularly as other nations move ahead to cooperate—leaving the United States isolated.
  • What to do. The United States should work with allies and partners to develop joint principles for the development and allocation of a vaccine and therapeutics, and should remain engaged with the World Health Organization, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations, and other entities to coordinate vaccine distribution.

“What’s happening on the streets of America is a tragedy for Americans, but also a tragedy for democracy around the world…I look at what’s happening and I think, this is not the America we and the rest of the world know, love and respect. It’s quite different.”
____________________________________________Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia

State of the Order This Month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

  • Democracy () Dictators worldwide continue to use COVID-19 as a pretext to suppress democratic rights and freedom of the press, while state-sponsored religious discrimination is rising, according to Freedom House. China’s sweeping national security law in Hong Kong could lead to the end of the city’s political freedoms.
  • Security (↔)Russia’s decision to send warplanes to Libya and China’s deployment of troops to India have escalated regional tensions. The United States withdrew from the Open Skies arms control treaty after Russia’s continuing violations. But the overall security of the order remained stable.
  • Trade (↔) – The World Trade Organization is facing a leadership crisis after its director-general quit mid-term amidst escalating trade conflicts. On a positive note, the United States and the United Kingdom announced the launch of formal negotiations on a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
  • Commons () – While many nations appear to have turned the tide, coronavirus cases have now surpassed 6 million worldwide, as Latin America emerges as a new epicenter. In the maritime domain, China has expanded its territorial claims in the South China Sea, but the United States joined the UK  in sailing destroyers in the Barents Sea to counter Russia’s growing influence.
  • Alliances () – US relations with allies continued to deteriorate in light of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the WHO and its response to the domestic protests. Several Group of Seven (G-7) leaders rebuffed US President Donald Trump’s suggestion to hold an in-person G-7 Summit in Washington and to include Russia at a rescheduled meeting in September.

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     

  • Hal Brands and Jake Sullivan, writing in Foreign Policy, suggest the US will need to tailor its strategy for China depending on which of  two paths Beijing  takes to become a dominant global power.
  • Daniel Twining and Patrick Quirk argue in the American Interest that the US and its partners should implement a grand strategy to win the competition between democratic and autocratic political systems.
  • Richard Haass writes in Foreign Affairs that the current domestic upheavals could have a profound and enduring influence on America’s global influence.

Actions and Analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Steve Hadley, Atlantic Council Executive Vice Chair, and Anja Manuel, writing in the Washington Post, outline a series of provisions that would make the next stimulus package an asset to America’s global leadership.
  • Dan Fried argues in the New Atlanticist that America is a nation “forged in common values rather than common blood,” something the current administration fails to appreciate in its foreign policy.  
  • Barry Pavel, Matt Kroening, and Jeffrey Cimmino, in a new Atlantic Council issue brief, outline how the coronavirus pandemic has strained the rules-based global order.
  • Barry Pavel contends in Defense One that US efforts to increase deterrence in the Western Pacific should be carefully calibrated to avoid accidental escalation.
  • Matt Kroenig writes in Foreign Policy that partnering with Russia to undermine the growing partnership between Moscow and Beijing would be counter to US interests and values.
  • Jeffrey Cimmino argues in the National Interest that China’s ascent toward great-power status could become a casualty of the pandemic.
  • Justin Sherman argues in the New Atlanticist that Britain’s proposed 5G club of democratic partners is needed to develop an alternative to China’s state-backed 5G providers.

The Democratic Order Initiative is 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 – Program Assistant
Anna Downs – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: DC National Guard military police officers stand guard as demonstrators rally near the White House Reuters/Jonathan Ernst