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State of the Order: In May, the democratic world order continued to weaken. This is why.


In May, stresses on the world order multiplied. Israel initiated a military offensive in Rafah, with the aim of destroying Hamas’s final stronghold, despite the United States and other countries urging the Israeli government to avoid such an incursion. As June began, US President Biden announced a three-phase Israeli plan to end the conflict and begin reconstruction. Meanwhile, Russia launched an offensive in Kharkiv, seeking gains before arms provided to Ukraine—as part of the US aid package passed by Congress in April—arrived in quantity. As May ended, the Biden administration partially lifted the US ban on Ukraine using US-provided arms in strikes on Russian territory. Meanwhile, Iran’s president and foreign minister died in a helicopter crash, raising questions about Iran’s future leadership.

Read up on the events shaping the democratic world order.

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Israel initiates Rafah offensive, despite increased US pressure against it. On May 6, Israel initiated a military offensive in and around the southern city of Rafah, with the aim of destroying Hamas’ final stronghold. The offensive (which drove more than a million Palestinians to flee the city and its surrounding areas) and the extraordinarily dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip led to calls from most of the international community for Israel to cease its operations. The International Court of Justice ordered Israel to immediately stop the offensive, while the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced he would apply for arrest warrants for Israeli leaders and Hamas leaders—including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh—for “criminal responsibility” for “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” US President Joe Biden rejected the ICC application, saying there is “no equivalence between Israel and Hamas.” Also this month, Spain, Norway, and Ireland announced they would recognize an independent State of Palestine, joining the over 140 countries which have already done so, though the immediate impact is likely to only be symbolic.

  • Shaping the order. Tension between Israel and the United States, as well as intra-Israeli tensions, grew in May with Netanyahu still not having articulated a plan for postwar Gaza. In failing to do so, he was criticized by his own defense minister. The lack of strategic clarity threatens to undermine the stability of the war cabinet with opposition leader Benny Gantz threatening to leave the coalition by June 8 if a postwar plan is not in place. The US administration made clear the Rafah operation did not violate Biden’s redline and continued efforts to advance a trilateral agreement which would see Saudi Arabia receive new US security guarantees and support for a civilian nuclear program, and would see a commitment by Riyadh to favor the United States over China when it comes to sensitive technologies and to normalize with Israel
  • Hitting home. Protests on US college campuses continued into May, with the total number of arrests by police during demonstrations reaching three thousand. As the school year ends, protests seem poised to decline. Israel, a core US ally, is increasingly isolated internationally over its conduct of the war in Gaza.
  • What to do. The United States should continue engaging with the Israeli government to limit civilian casualties and pursue at least a temporary ceasefire that would lead to the release of some hostages, the release of some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and a pause in military operations to allow a flood of humanitarian aid into Gaza. The Biden administration should continue pursuing a regional path to a two-state solution.

Russia steps up its offensive as Ukraine benefits from an injection of US assistance and arms. Russia used glide bombs and other weapons to attack sites in Kharkiv and seized territory in the Kharkiv region though, as May concluded, its ground offensive seemed to have slowed. US policymakers, having passed a military aid package in April, turned to debating whether to lift restrictions on Ukraine’s use of US arms to attack targets inside Russia. The Biden administration partially lifted such restrictions—only for the area around Kharkiv—at the end of the month. This came after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on NATO allies to end similar restrictions. The US debate on the restrictions followed after repeated US indecision and dithering over assistance to Ukraine, with the United States only to provide aid following a prolonged period of time, after it would have been maximally useful to Kyiv. This time, however, the decision process was faster. Reports emerged of Russian sabotage operations in Europe and Russian attempts to intimidate European countries by threatening to redraw maritime boundaries in the Baltic Sea and moving demarcation buoys on the Narva River boundary with Estonia. The United States and European Union, as well as a number of European governments, have criticized the Kremlin border provocations.

  • Shaping the order. International decisions over the scope and scale of arms allies provide to Ukraine, and how Kyiv can deploy such arms, will be a key determinant in the war’s result. The US aid package, passed in April, sent a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States stands with Ukraine. The US decision to partially allow Kyiv to use US provided arms to strike inside Russia to defend Kharkiv is another strong signal, but more is needed to demonstrate international resolve, and possibly, weaken Russian domestic support for Putin’s campaign.
  • Hitting home. Russian victory in the war would result in cascading security problems in Europe that would draw on even more US resources. By allowing Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to attack inside Russia, the Biden administration would further sustain and demonstrate lasting support for Kyiv’s efforts against Russia’s invasion,  therefore advancing broader US interests.
  • What to do. The Biden administration and Congress—building on the Biden administration’s partial lifting of the ban on using US arms to target sites inside Russia—should allow Kyiv to use US-provided arms to attack sites deep inside Russia and urge other NATO allies providing arms. In addition, the United States and Europe should continue to respond swiftly to continued Russian border provocations. If reports of Russian sabotage operations in Europe are accurate, Russia should pay a price—for example, the United States could start with expulsions of Russian officials and stricter vetting or restrictions on Russian visitors. More generally, the United States and Europe will need to prepare for a long-term period of bad relations with Russia and a need to contain Putin’s aggressive Russia.

Iran’s president and foreign minister die in helicopter crash. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the country’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, died in a helicopter crash in northwestern Iran, while returning from a visit to Azerbaijan. Raisi, who died at age sixty-three, was a hardliner and largely viewed as a protégé and potential successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran confirmed the deaths but did not cite a cause for the crash. Khamenei named the first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, as caretaker president, which is consistent with Iran’s constitution. Iran will hold an election to select a new president on June 28. Raisi’s death seems unlikely to change Iran’s foreign policy and stance vis-à-vis the United States and broader West. However, the election could ignite a new round of protests and activism against the regime.

  • Shaping the order. Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian executed Khamenei’s foreign policy centered on expanding the country’s regional malign influence, deepening relations with China and Russia, and calming tensions with Gulf neighbors. Iranian foreign policy is unlikely to change significantly due to Raisi’s death. However, it reignites global attention on the question of who will succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.
  • Hitting home. Iran is a chief adversary of the United States. The question of who serves as president matters somewhat, but the question of who serves as the next supreme leader matters more significantly for the United States and world if the next supreme leader continues to have the same level of authority to direct Iran’s domestic and foreign policy as Khamenei enjoys today.
  • What to do. Raisi’s death does not warrant any change in foreign policy toward Iran. The United States should carefully track who wins the June 28 election, since this individual could be the most likely successor to Khamenei and therefore the most consequential to the United States for the coming decades.

Quote of the Month

Democracy is perceived to be retreating worldwide. The accelerating drift towards regimes indifferent to democratic values is a big concern to us, and I believe it is time the US, working with Kenya, deploys its capabilities and [rallies] likeminded democratic countries to set up the cause for democracy.
—Ruto in his speech at the White House.

State of the Order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order 

Democracy (↔)

  • On May 29, South Africans voted in one of the country’s most pivotal general elections since the end of apartheid. The African National Congress (ANC) lost its majority in parliament, which it had previously held for thirty years. In recent years, the ANC, once led by Nelson Mandela, has been plagued by concerns over corruption and mismanagement, with South Africa having received its lowest score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index last year.
  • Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, was inaugurated as Taiwan’s president, succeeding Tsai Ing-wen, also of the Democratic Progressive Party. Like with the previous administration, Lai’s priorities include strengthening ties with the United States through importing technology and advanced military technology, expanding the manufacturing of submarines and aircraft, and increasing cooperation with regional partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
  • In the world’s largest democratic general election—with nearly one billion eligible voters—India hosted its election of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the national parliament. The election took place in seven staggered phases between April and early June and determined that the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, maintained its popular majority but claimed fewer seats than expected and now needing to form a coalition with allies.
  • On balance, the democracy pillar was unchanged.

Security (↓)

  • On May 23, China initiated two days of military drills around Taiwan, calling them “strong punishment” for Taiwan’s “separatist acts.” The drills unfolded three days after the inauguration of Taiwan’s new president and his declaration for China to cease threats and accept the existence of Taiwan’s democracy. Taiwanese military experts said that the military drills marked the first time that China simulated a full-scale attack rather than just an economic blockade, with China targeting the Taipei-controlled islands close to the Chinese coast and sending naval and air patrols to the eastern coast which contains Taiwan’s developed military infrastructure.
  • The Pentagon released a statement that Russia likely launched a counterspace weapon, or a spacecraft capable of attacking satellites in low-Earth orbit, in mid-May. It follows their previous satellite launches in 2019 and 2022. Concerns over Russia’s efforts to develop nuclear space weapons with the ability to destroy satellites are increasing, as Russia vetoed the United States and Japan’s United Nations Security Council resolution in April that called for United Nations member states not to develop space-based nuclear weapons.
  • On balance, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade (↔

  • The Biden administration increased tariffs on Chinese semiconductors, solar cells, electric vehicles, and other strategic technologies, building on tariffs first imposed by former US President Donald Trump. The move aims to increase US domestic production in these areas, and experts assess that the decision simultaneously demonstrates Biden’s attempt to prevent China from using unfair trading practices and his resignation that Beijing will not change its model in the near term.
  • The United States and Kenya, during a state visit by Kenyan President Willliam Ruto to Washington, announced the Nairobi-Washington Vision, a call to the international community to support countries with high debt levels and to invest in economic growth.
  • On balance, the trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons ()

  • The space race has continued, with China sending an uncrewed craft to the far side of the moon to retrieve the first samples from that lunar area. Bill Nelson, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, feared that much of China’s so-called civilian space program is actually a military program, and that China could attempt to restrict access to lunar areas.
  • A new study underlined that climate change, shrinking biodiversity, the expansion of invasive species, and other anthropogenic changes on the planet are increasing the danger of infectious diseases for plants, animals, and human beings. While previous studies have connected individual diseases to specific ecosystem effects, this study showed the impact in aggregate and the need for prevention and mitigation strategies to decrease risks.  
  • On balance, the commons pillar was weakened.

Alliances (↔

  • Biden welcomed Ruto to the White House, making Ruto the first African leader to be honored with a state visit in Washington since 2008. During the visit, Biden announced that he would work with Congress to designate Kenya a major non-NATO ally (which would make Kenya the first Sub-Saharan country to receive this designation) and the two leaders agreed to new partnerships on security, technology, and debt relief.  
  • Putin visited Chinese leader Xi Jinping, reinforcing the countries’ strategic ties, underscoring the leaders’ personal relationship with one another, and showcasing an alternative to the United States’ global influence. They discussed bilateral trade, technology, and education expansion. The meeting reinforces Russia and China’s “no-limits” relationship that they established shortly before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
  • 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

  • US Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), in the New York Times, explains why investing in the US military is the best way to prevent—and prepare for—war.
  • Neha Wadekar, in Foreign Policy, argues that the global response—or lack thereof—to the refugee crisis created by Sudan’s civil war means that a new path forward is desperately needed.
  • Shannon K. O’Neil, in Foreign Affairs, contends that the US and Mexican presidential elections may pave the way for a reconsideration of the bilateral relationship.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weight in on this month’s events

  • Frederick Kempe, in Inflection Points Today, explains why Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe may very well be a moment of truth for China’s relations with the continent.  
  • General Christopher Cavoli, commander of US European Command and supreme allied commander Europe, outlined NATO’s efforts to modernize and prepare for the many challenges the Alliance is facing in an Atlantic Council event.
  • Matthew Kroenig and Andrew Michta, in the New Atlanticist, react to the meeting between Xi and Putin.
  • Daniel Fried, in the New Atlanticist, assesses that the Group of Seven should proceed with the plan to use frozen Russian assets for Ukraine, noting that the international community must be even more ambitious in its approach to condemn Russia’s war.
  • Samantha Vinograd, on CBS News, lays out the implications of the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

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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.

Patrick Quirk – Nonresident Senior Fellow
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Sydney Sherry – Program Assistant
Ginger Matchett – Project Assistant

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