State of the Order: Looking Back on 2022

This special edition of State of the Order breaks down the most important events that shaped the democratic world order last year.

Reshaping the order

The year’s three topline developments

Russia’s Invasion Stalls. Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine constituted the most significant geopolitical event in 2022. Russian troops crossed into Ukraine overtly aiming to overthrow the country’s democratic government, but despite being outnumbered, Ukrainian forces thwarted Russian president Vladimir Putin’s plans for a decisive military victory. While Ukraine was able to take back some of the territory seized by Russia, Russian troops remained in control of much of eastern and southern Ukraine. The US and its NATO allies responded to Moscow’s invasion by providing increasingly sophisticated weapons and economic support for Kyiv, while imposing sanctions and restrictions on Russian oil sales that have significantly damaged Russia’s economy.

  • Shaping the order. Russia’s brazen assault on Ukraine constitutes an egregious violation of fundamental norms of the rules-based order – the prohibition of aggression against sovereign states and the seizure of territory. Despite mounting casualties, Putin showed no signs of backing down, and appears determined to reconstitute a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. But rather than creating fissures within the West, as the Kremlin had hoped, Russia’s actions brought the US and its allies closer together, as they joined in common cause to help defend a democracy under attack.
  • Hitting home. Putin’s aggression reminds Americans of the dangers posed by aggressive dictators, and that it is beneficial for the US to work with its NATO allies to defend democracy and shared security interests.
  • What to do. The administration should coordinate closely with allies to provide more advanced military equipment to Ukraine and help ensure that Kyiv has what it needs to continue to roll back Russian gains and ultimately force Russia to withdraw all troops from the country.

A World Divided. A key development in 2022 was the intensifying polarization between leading democracies and revisionist autocracies. China and Russia issued a joint manifesto forging a “no limits” strategic partnership, asserting their desire to push back against key tenets of the democratic world order, while Iran and North Korea provided direct military support to Russia for its war in Ukraine. At the same time, the G7, NATO and democracies in the Asia-Pacific came together to condemn Russia and help defend Ukraine. The US and its allies also began to find greater convergence on China, with the G7 criticizing Beijing’s “threatening actions” around Taiwan and NATO adopting a new Strategic Concept that, for the first time, cites China as a strategic priority.

  • Shaping the order. The show of solidarity between the leaders of Russia and China, while being tested in Ukraine, could mark a key inflection point in shaping the global order. The world appears to be dividing into blocs, with the advanced democracies of the free world standing on one side, while Russia and China build an expanding “axis of autocracy” aimed at pushing back on the US-led rules-based order. Meanwhile, much of the global South remained largely on the sidelines.
  • Hitting home. The strategic competition with revisionist autocracies will have direct implications for American businesses, which will need to look at ways to reduce vulnerabilities to Chinese and Russian suppliers as pressure toward selective economic decoupling continues to build.
  • What to do. The United States should coordinate with allies and partners to prepare for a long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, while seeking new ways to incentive democracies in the global South to advance common goals.

Autocracies Under Pressure. Anti-regime protestors took to the streets across Iran, China, and Russia, and other authoritarian states in 2022. The triggers for the protests varied – anger at the morality police in Iran; frustration over zero-COVID policies in China; anti-war sentiments in Russia – but all sought greater openness and political change. The autocratic regimes responded by arresting and intimidating demonstrators, restricting social media, and placing protestors on trial.

  • Shaping the order. The protests appear to be part of a pattern of growing citizen unrest in autocracies around the world, signaling the desire for freedom and governance that reflects the will of the people. But authoritarian regimes have become increasingly adept in clamping down on demonstrations and blunting their impacts, including by deploying and sharing more sophisticated surveillance technologies.
  • Hitting home. American values are better protected in a world where democratic norms and human rights are respected.
  • What to do. In coordination with allies, the Biden administration should supplement measures to constrain authoritarian governments with assistance to nonviolent pro-democracy movements across the world. The upcoming Summit for Democracy, in March 2023, will provide an opportunity to advance efforts in this space.

Quote of the year

“[W]e [have] emerged anew in the great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force… We need to steel ourselves of a long fight ahead… And finally, and most urgently, we maintain absolute unity – we must – among the world’s democracies.”

– President Joe Biden, speaking in Warsaw, March 26, 2022

State of the Order in 2022: Unchanged

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ( )

  • Ukraine – a fledgling democracy on Russia’s periphery – survived an existential threat, as Russian forces invaded the country and continued to fight for control.
  • Large-scale protests broke out across Iran after the killing of a young woman while in police custody because she refused to wear a hijab. Iranian security forces reacted violently to suppress the anti-regime demonstrations, while authorities ordered the executions of many of those involved.
  • In the most significant protest movement in mainland China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, thousands of citizens across the country demonstrated against Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policies. Government authorities quickly detained protestors and suppressed further demonstrations.
  • In Brazil, South America’s largest democracy, president Jair Bolsonaro reluctantly agreed to transfer power to former president Lula da Silva after being narrowly defeated in a runoff election.
  • Once seen as a pariah, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was resurrected on the global stage, welcoming President Biden to Saudi Arabia with an infamous fist-bump – despite Biden’s pledge to hold the regime accountable for the execution of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.

Security ( )

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked the most significant assault on European security in decades, resulting in devastating loss of life and physical destruction of towns and cities across the country. The US and its NATO allies responded by providing Ukraine with advanced military equipment to help defend against Russian forces.
  • Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping issued an extraordinary joint manifesto pushing back against key tenets of the democratic world order, and affirming their intent to deepen cooperation on an encompassing range of economic, political, and security issues.
  • In an aggressive show of support, Iran and North Korea provided arms shipments to assist the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine, as part of a growing partnership among the autocratic regimes. 
  • Xi Jinping secured a third term as general secretary of the party, as China continued its threats and intimidation against Taiwan. Separately, Beijing signed a groundbreaking security agreement with the Solomon Islands that could allow China to establish a permanent military presence in the South Pacific.
  • Multilateral negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear agreement faltered, as Tehran rapidly expanded its weapons grade uranium enrichment production and narrowed the breakout time it needs to produce a nuclear device to within weeks.
  • On balance, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade ( )

  • With thirteen other nations on board, the US unveiled plans for an significant new regional trade pact – the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – aimed in part to counter China’s growing economic influence in the region.
  • The G7, along with the EU and several Asia-Pacific allies, imposed broad economic sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, including an EU ban on some Russian oil imports and an oil price cap, as well as export restrictions on technology. But Moscow welcomed China and India’s decisions to vastly increase oil purchases from Russia at premium discounts.
  • The US Congress passed groundbreaking legislation – the CHIPS Act – to help strengthen US competitiveness vis a vis China. The EU adopted a similar measure, allocating $46 billion to subsidize semiconductor production.
  • The EU, South Korea, and other US allies expressed concerns about rising US protectionism and discriminatory treatment, pointing to recent “buy American” provisions in spending bills and legislation providing subsidies for US companies. 
  • On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons ( )

  • While the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere reached a record high, 2022 brought significant progress to address climate change. Congress passed a historic climate bill putting the US on track to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The US and its allies also agreed to establish a fund to compensate developing countries for negative effects of climate change and accelerate global decarbonization.
  • As the world continued to move beyond the COVID pandemic, Chinese authorities began to shift away from the country’s “zero Covid policy,” relaxing rules on quarantines and surveillance as hospitals struggled to cope with the rapidly growing numbers of infections.
  • On balance, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

Alliances ( )

  • NATO members, as well as Japan, Australia, and other US allies, stood united in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while providing significant military assistance to Kyiv and imposing a slate of hard-hitting sanctions against Moscow.  More broadly, Germany, France, the UK, Japan, and other allies joined the US in increasing overall defense spending.
  • NATO invited Sweden and Finland to join the Alliance, reinforcing its critical role as an alliance defending its members against aggression. But Turkey continued to block formal ratification as it sought additional concessions relating to the treatment of Kurdish groups and other issues.
  • The US and Europe found increasing convergence on China, as G7 allies joined the United States in criticizing Beijing’s threats against Taiwan and NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept citing China as a strategic priority. The leaders of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea joined the NATO Summit in Madrid, strengthening cooperation between the transatlantic Alliance and its Indo-Pacific partners.
  • But divisions among other democracies persisted, as the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa joined Vladimir Putin at a virtual BRICS summit meeting and remained equivocal on Western efforts to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
  • Overall, the alliance 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.

Top reads for 2022

Three must-read commentaries on the democratic order     

  • John Ikenberry, in Foreign Affairs, argued that as the world faces a struggle between liberal and illiberal world orders, America is well-positioned to succeed given the appeal of its ideas and capacities to build partnerships and alliances.
  • Hal Brands, in Foreign Affairs, outlined a “free world strategy” for the United States and its allies to succeed in the clash between advanced democracies committed to the existing international order and the Eurasian autocracies trying to overturn it.
  • Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, at Brookings, called for a new economic “alliance of democracies” to counter authoritarianism and facilitate friend-shoring in the face of economic bullying from the world’s dictators.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weighed in on the year’s top developments

  • Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig co-authored two new Atlantic Council reports as part of a project on Shaping a New Democratic World Order. The first, A Democratic Trade Partnership: Ally Shoring to Counter Coercion and Secure Supply Chains, proposes an integrated framework for leading democracies and other partners to reduce strategic dependency on revisionist autocracies and coordinate and counter economic coercion by China and Russia. The second, Toward a Democratic Technology Alliance: An Innovation Edge That Favors Freedom, outlines the need for a Democratic Technology Alliance that would help the free world prevail in the race for advanced technologies by jointly investing in innovation, countering unfair practices, and developing rules and norms consistent with democratic values.
  • The Atlantic Council, in cooperation with the US State Department, hosted the ninth meeting of the D-10 Strategy Forum, bringing together policy planning and strategy officials from ten leading democracies to bolster cooperation amid a range of pressing global challenges, including those posed by Russia and China.
  • Dan Fried provided insightful commentaries on the democratic world order, including a long-term strategy that the United States and its G7 allies can take to sustain economic pressure against Russia, and why, over the long-run, progress toward democracy and the rule-of-law is possible, but not inevitable.
  • Matthew Kroenig offered several assessments on US policy, asserting that the United States needs to develop a defense strategy capable of deterring threats from Russia and China simultaneously, and setting forth how the United States can deter Russia from employing nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
  • Ash Jain outlined the strategic implications of Biden’s Warsaw speech and suggested ways that democracies can strengthen cooperation in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Melinda Haring proposed clear steps the United States must take to help resolve the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and warned that Russia has not abandoned its goal of crushing Ukrainian statehood.


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.

Ash Jain – Director for Democratic Order
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Otto Hastrup Svendsen – Georgetown Student Researcher

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