State of the Order: Assessing August 2021

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Taliban Takeover. Afghanistan’s Western-backed government collapsed as the Taliban took control of Kabul and declared the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, while President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Nearly twenty years after being toppled in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban returned to power having capitalized on the Biden administration’s (and previously, the Trump administration’s) decision to withdraw all US forces from the country. After evacuating most of their citizens, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans who assisted their mission, US and NATO troops completed their final withdrawal at the end of August.

  • Shaping the Order. The return of the Taliban is a tragedy for Afghans who sought to live in an open society and a setback to the advance of a rules-based order — underscoring that despite two decades of sustained US and NATO combat support and economic aid, the establishment of a stable, democratic government proved out of reach. The developments in Afghanistan could embolden America’s adversaries, as China and Russia sought to portray the United States as a weak and defeated power upon which US allies cannot confidently rely.
  • Hitting Home. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan puts an end to US involvement in the “forever war” that most Americans felt had dragged on far too long. But the re-emergence of the Taliban could provide a safe haven to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups – potentially threatening the security of Americans in the region and even in the homeland.
  • What to Do. The Biden Administration should make clear that its withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a sign of retreat from US global leadership nor an abandonment of efforts to advance democracy and a rules-based order. Building on Biden’s initial remarks after the fall of Kabul, the administration should reinforce its determination to work with NATO and its Asia-Pacific treaty allies to strengthen U.S. alliances, while taking affirmative steps to support front-line democracies, such as Ukraine, and pro-democracy movements around the world.

US-Israel Realigned. In his first meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Naftali Bennett, at the White House, President Biden provided a forceful recommitment to Israeli security, vowing that the US and Israel have an “unshakeable partnership.” The two leaders reportedly agreed on a common strategy to halt Iran’s nuclear program, creating a joint team at the national security advisers level, while Biden indicated his administration would be prepared to move to “other options” if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

  • Shaping the Order. A strengthened US-Israeli partnership can serve as an anchor for stability in the Middle East, facilitating more effective cooperation to advance shared interests in regional security, nonproliferation, and a rules-based order. But the Israeli government’s unwillingness to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians and work toward a two-state solution could be a thorny obstacle in the US-Israeli relationship.
  • Hitting Home. A nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a direct security threat to the United States and its allies and could lead to a more dangerous world.
  • What to Do. Working through their newly-created joint team, the US and Israel should expand cooperation to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, while countering Iran’s destabilizing influence across the region. To ensure a unified front, these efforts should also be coordinated with other regional allies, as well as the G7 or D-10.

Democracy Summit. The Biden administration announced that it plans to host a virtual Summit for Democracy this year, with invited heads of state coming together on December 9-10 to focus on three main themes: defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. The White House aims to organize a follow-up summit one year later, in-person if feasible, providing a venue to take stock of commitments made during the initial convening.

  • Shaping the Order. Coming on the heels of the fall of Afghanistan, the Summit could serve as a timely opportunity for the Biden administration to rally support for democratic norms and showcase common resolve among the world’s democracies, at a time when democracy has suffered significant setbacks around the world.
  • Hitting Home. A more democratic world is likely to provide greater security and stability for the United States and generate increased trade and economic opportunities.
  • What To Do. To ensure the Summit’s success, the Biden administration should limit the guest list to leaders of democracies (as opposed to friendly non-democracies) that are prepared to set forth meaningful commitments in support of the Summit’s core themes. The outcome should include a democracy charter, in which participating leaders pledge to take active measures to counter authoritarianism and bolster support for democratic norms.

Quote of the Month

“[W]e all recognize that the decision to leave Afghanistan was extremely difficult. It entailed risks. But that doesn’t change the fundamental value of U.S. and Europe being committed to each other, especially in a time where we see the rise of China and the shifting global balance of power that makes it even more important, both for Europe and United States, to stand together in an alliance as NATO.”

– Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General

State of the Order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • The fall of the Afghan government, despite nearly 20-years of military and economic support from the US and its NATO allies, represents a significant blow to efforts to advance democracy, especially in the Islamic world.
  • With President Nicolas Maduro tightening his grip on the country, Venezuela’s main opposition parties announced an end to their three-year boycott of elections, abandoning one of the main tactics of their ongoing struggle against the country’s dictatorship.
  • Poles took to the streets to protest a parliamentary bill widely viewed as an effort by the country’s nationalist ruling party to silence government criticism by an independent television network (owned by the US-based media company Discovery), a leading source of news for many in Poland.
  • The United States imposed a new round of sanctions against Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka—timed to mark the one-year anniversary of his fraudulent re-election. The US also issued new sanctions against Cuban officials involved in the crackdown on anti-government protestors in July.
  • Overall, the democracy pillar was weakened.

Security ()

  • The re-emergence of Taliban rule in Afghanistan could provide a safe haven to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that could pose a direct threat to the United States and Europe, as well as India and other nations in the region.
  • Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation and a longstanding US partner against Islamist militancy, descended into an escalating civil war between the ruling government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. In May, the Biden administration imposed sanctions against Ethiopian officials for their role in abetting human rights atrocities.
  • Particularly in light of developments in Afghanistan, the security pillar was weakened.

Trade ()

  • The United Kingdom indicated that it aims to start negotiations on a free trade agreement with India by the end of the year, while India also expressed interest in free trade agreements with the European Union and Australia.
  • The global economic recovery from the pandemic has begun to wane, as the widespread outbreak of the Delta variant negatively impacted manufacturing centers in East Asia.
  • Overall, the global trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons ()

  • A major scientific study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed that human activity is changing the climate in unprecedented and irreversible ways, underlining the urgent need for global action as the United Kingdom prepares to host an upcoming global climate summit (COP26) in November.
  • In its first Indo-Pacific naval voyage in twenty years, Germany deployed a frigate intended to cross the South China Sea in the coming weeks, joining the US and other democratic allies in efforts to reaffirm freedom of navigation amid China’s maritime ambitions.
  • Overall, the global commons pillar was weakened.

Alliances ()

  • The US withdrawal from Afghanistan drew criticism from US allies, particularly in Europe, where many expressed disappointment with the level of consultation ahead of the decision to withdraw. President Biden sought to assuage allies in a special G7 summit meeting convened virtually by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
  • Frustrated with the continuing US travel ban on European travelers, the European Union recommended reinstatement of restrictions on US travelers, citing the significant increase in coronavirus cases across the United States.
  • As discussed above, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett’s visit to the White House strengthened relations between the two allies.
  • On balance, the alliances pillar was weakened.

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     

  • Anne Applebaum, in The Atlantic, defends the value of fighting for liberal democracy, a potent ideology opposed by America’s adversaries.
  • Anders Fogh Rasmussen, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that despite the Afghan government’s collapse, America and its allies cannot abandon the fight for democracy.
  • Kevin Rudd, in Foreign Affairs, suggests that the success of the Indo-Pacific Quad poses a threat to Beijing’s long-term ambitions to dominate the East Asian region.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Barry Pavel, in the New Atlanticist, suggests that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could be even more dangerous than it was prior to September 11, 2001.
  • Dan Fried, in the New Atlanticist, suggests that despite its failure in Afghanistan, the United States can come back strong to advance the cause of freedom and democracy, just as it did after its debacle in Vietnam.
  • Amanda Rothschild offers recommendations to the Biden administration in The Dispatch on how to avert a growing humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.
  • Dan Fried and Brian O’Toole, in the New Atlanticist, suggest that the new series of US sanctions on Belarus will not be powerful enough to rattle the autocrat Lukashenka.


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
Jeffrey Cimmino – Assistant Director
Joel Kesselbrenner – Program Assistant
Paul Cormarie – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Taliban fighters march in uniforms on the street in Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan, in this still image taken from social media video uploaded August 19, 2021 and obtained by REUTERS/File Photo