State of the Order: Assessing March 2020

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

America’s absence. The United States has so far fallen short in leading an international response to the coronavirus. While it struggles to stem the virus at home, Washington has strained relations with allies by publicly criticizing the European Union’s response, reportedly seeking exclusive rights to a German vaccine, and blocking a Group of Seven (G7) agreement over a dispute on what to call the virus. 

  • Shaping the order. America’s reluctance to lead has created a global leadership vacuum and undermined democratic unity in the midst of one of the most significant global crises in recent history.
  • Hitting home. Without US leadership, international efforts to implement a coordinated strategy to stop the spread of the virus, allocate scarce medical supplies, control borders, and mitigate the economic impacts are likely to falter. As a result, Americans may be put at greater risk.
  • What to do. US President Donald J. Trump should take a more visible and proactive role in working with allies and partners, including through the G7 and Group of Twenty (G20), to lead a coordinated response to the coronavirus.

China makes its move. Buoyed by its self-touted success in preventing the spread of the virus, China is attempting to position itself as a global leader by offering assistance and medical aid to Europe and others nations hit hard by the virus. At the same time, Chinese officials have engaged in an overt disinformation campaign against the United States and other democracies.

  • Shaping the order. China’s effort to fill the global leadership vacuum left by the United States is facing strong headwinds. Beijing’s delay in taking action to stem the virus has been costly, and reports now suggest that China has had exponentially more coronavirus cases and deaths that it has been willing to acknowledge. Its delivery of faulty medical equipment has further undermined its credibility.
  • Hitting home. While China’s provision of masks and ventilators could benefit US hospitals (provided they function properly), its disinformation campaign is exacerbating tensions with the West and hindering much need cooperation to control the virus.
  • What to do. The G7 should demand that Beijing allow access to international health inspectors and proactively counter China’s propaganda efforts.

Can democracies deliver? China’s claim of success in stemming the virus has led many to conclude that autocracies are better placed to deal with crises such as this. But democracies, including South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, have proven that effective responses can be grounded in democratic values of transparency and accountability.

  • Shaping the order. Asian democracies have demonstrated that democratic principles can be assets in confronting the coronavirus. However, the United States and Europe’s struggles to deal with the crisis are fueling perceptions that the free world is divided and ineffective.
  • Hitting home. Coronavirus has shown that global challenges can have a direct and unfortunate impact on the daily lives of Americans. It will take the collective drive and coordination of governments, as well as the private sector, to secure the wellbeing of the American public.
  • What to do. Democratic governments should work more closely together, drawing on best practices to demonstrate that they can competently respond to the crisis in ways that are fully consistent with liberal values.

“Unprecedented events call for unprecedented action. Fast, massive and coordinated global action is necessary on the health and economic fronts to save lives and avoid a further economic crisis.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

State of the order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order

  • Democracy (weakened) – Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report finds that democracy has declined globally for the 14th consecutive year. Concerns over democratic backsliding have risen as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was granted sweeping emergency powers.
  • Security (stable) – The US-Taliban peace agreement hangs in the balance, sowing doubts about the future of the Western-backed Afghan government. Still the overall security of the order remained stable.  
  • Trade (weakened) – Global trade has plummeted since the outbreak of the crisis. Fifty-four countries have imposed export restrictions on drugs and medical supplies in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Commons (weakened) – Coronavirus threatens the planet. But a small silver lining—greenhouse gas emissions dropped around the world as coronavirus grinds human activity to a halt.
  • Alliances (weakened)  – While G7 leaders pledged to cooperate on coronavirus, US actions have strained already rocky relations with democratic allies. North Macedonia officially joined NATO, strengthening the transatlantic alliance.

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.

On the horizon

Looking ahead to April

  • NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting – April 2-3: What actions will NATO allies undertake to jointly address the coronavirus?
  • G20 Finance Ministers Meeting – April 15:  Can the United States lead a coordinated economic response to manage the crisis?   
  • G20 Health Ministers Meeting – April 19-20: Will the G20 be able to cooperate effectively as the crisis expands to the developing world?

This month’s top reads

Three must read commentaries on the democratic order    

  • Michael Abramowtiz and Arch Puddington write in The Bulwark that “with the United States and its allies no longer enforcing international norms, human rights abuses are becoming the rule instead of the exception.”
  • Hal Brands suggests in Bloomberg that America’s lackluster response to the coronavirus could damage America’s position as a global leader and undermine the democratic world order.
  • Mira Rapp-Hooper argues in War on the Rocks that if the world order is upended “it will not be the product of this pandemic alone, but of forces that began long before COVID-19’s discovery.”

Views from the Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Fred Kempe and Barry Pavel advocate for a ‘Coalition Countering COVID-19’ that would rally the seven leading industrial democracies, the European Union, NATO and, perhaps most importantly, the G-20.
  • Dan Fried argues that American resilience can overcome the coronavirus disaster.
  • Ash Jain, in Foreign Policy, calls for the US to lead a coordinated global effort through the G20 to contain the coronavirus and mitigate its economic impacts.
  • Matthew Kroenig explains how global pandemics have contributed to the rise and fall of great powers in the past. Read more about the future of great power competition in his new book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry.
  • Paul Miller argues avoiding future pandemics requires holding the politicians responsible for making the coronavirus pandemic worse accountable, chief among them Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • Joe Bodnar contends that China’s coronavirus strategy has been undermined by unforced errors.
  • Ash Jain and Joe Bodnar recap the launch of the Free World Commission, where legislators from leading democracies joined forces to defend shared values and a rules-based order.

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 – Senior Fellow
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Joe Bodnar – Project Assistant 

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Related Experts: Ash Jain, Frederick Kempe, Matthew Kroenig, and Paul D. Miller

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump declares National Emergency as he speaks on COVID-19 coronavirus at a news conference with members of the Coronavirus Task Force in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on March 13, 2020. Photo by Ken Cedeno/ABACAPRESS.COM