State of the Order: Assessing January 2021

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

US Capitol under Assault. Fired up by President Trump at a White House rally,  thousands of protestors marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and stormed the US Capitol on January 6, disrupting congressional proceedings to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The specter of members of Congress scurrying for safety as rioters rummaged through the Capitol, threatening violence against Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others, seemed unfathomable in a nation that takes pride in its longstanding tradition of peaceful transitions of power.

  • Shaping the Order. The shocking assault on the Capitol deeply damaged America’s image as a beacon for democracy and provided autocratic rivals with an unparalleled propaganda coup. But the swift return by Congress on the same day to complete the electoral process and the peaceful inauguration that followed demonstrated resilience and reassurance.
  • Hitting Home. The insurrection, and the fact that so many members of Congress still voted against certifying the election for Biden, suggests that America’s democratic institutions may be more fragile than previously believed.
  • What to Do. While the Senate determines whether to hold Trump responsible for inciting an insurrection, President Biden should lead a bipartisan effort to counter radicalization and disinformation, while moving forward with his plans to host a Summit for Democracy to strengthen support for democratic values both at home and abroad.

Biden Takes the Reins. President Joe Biden was sworn in as America’s 46th president on January 20, issuing a call for unity and humility, and pledging to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” Among his first actions as President, Biden took steps to recommit the United States to the Paris climate agreement and rejoin the World Health Organization, while reaching out to democratic allies in Europe and Asia to affirm America’s alliance commitments.

  • Shaping the order. After four years of Trump’s “America First” presidency, US allies reacted with relief and optimism for improved relations with a US administration eager to strengthen multilateral cooperation and advance a rules-based international order. But the question is whether Biden can restore America’s legitimacy to lead in a world beset by a slate of ongoing crises and challenges.
  • Hitting Home. Stronger US cooperation with allies and partners can produce direct benefits for Americans in a number of areas, from the global pandemic to the economy to China.
  • What to Do. The Biden administration’s actions to re-enter multilateral agreements are to be welcomed. But to succeed, the US will need to press for reforms to existing institutions and agreements, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Iran nuclear agreement, while developing new entities, such as a D-10, to reinvigorate and adapt cooperation with allies to the new landscape.

Putin Jails Opposition Leader. Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets across Russia – in smaller towns as well as major cities – in a show of support for opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who returned to Russia on January 17 after recovering from attempted assassination by Russian intelligence services using a nerve agent, in what was described as a “battle of wills.” Navalny was quickly sentenced to nearly three years in prison, sparking an international outcry. 

  • Shaping the order. Navalny’s brave return to Russia has inspired a renewed opposition movement across Russia that could undermine Putin’s legitimacy and increase pressure for democratic reforms. But so far Putin’s security forces appear to have the upper hand, ruthlessly clamping down on peaceful protestors and ignoring calls by the G7 and other nations to release Navalny and respect the human rights of its people. 
  • Hitting Home. While the outcome of these protests is uncertain, a more democratic Russia would be less likely to threaten US and allied interests and may be more cooperative in addressing shared challenges.
  • What to Do. Washington should join its allies in pressuring the Kremlin to release Navalny, including by imposing new sanctions, and reaffirm support for democratic values in Russia, Belarus, and across the world.

“America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example. We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”
– US President Joe Biden

State of the Order this month: Strengthened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • The insurrection at the US Capitol was a shock for American democracy and its power of example around the world, though the presidential transition on January 20 went off smoothly.
  • Putin’s crackdown on protestors following Navalny’s troubling arrest presented a further setback for democracy but opened a potential new challenge to Putin’s legitimacy.
  • Myanmar suffered a blow to democracy, as the military seized power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders.
  • The Trump administration’s last-minute determination that China had committed “genocide” against Uyghur Muslims was endorsed by Biden’s new Secretary of State Tony Blinken, a signal that China may be called to account for its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang.
  • Overall, the democracy pillar was weakened.

Security ()

  • The US and Russia signed a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact, a welcome development for the security of the global order.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Yemen’s Houthi rebels a terror group and relabeled Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism – moves that may make it difficult for Biden’s anticipated diplomatic overtures to Iran and Cuba.  
  • India faced growing pressure to back away from its planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, as the Trump administration warned of potential sanctions – a move  the Biden administration may support.
  • With the New START treaty extension, the overall security pillar was strengthened.

Trade ()

  • The British government formally applied to join the CPTPP, the transpacific trading bloc of 11 countries, a move that would strengthen free and open trade.
  • However, the Biden administration’s issuance of a “Buy American” executive order, which aims to encourage increased purchases of US goods by federal agencies, could lead to new trade restrictions – though it will not significantly impact existing procurement agreements with allies.
  • Overall, the global trade pillar remained unchanged.

Commons ()

  • Despite a slow start, vaccine distribution continued to expand, with the US reaching over 1 million doses per day and over ten percent of the UK’s population receiving its first dose, though vaccination in Europe still lagged behind.  But the emergence of variants from the UK, South Africa, and Brazil have raised concerns about a new wave of cases if vaccines are not delivered in time.  
  • In addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Biden administration announced a new Global Climate Summit in April. 
  • The Biden Administration reentered the World Health Organization, promising increased funding for the pandemic and committing to join cooperative efforts at distributing vaccines around the globe.
  • Overall, the global commons pillar was strengthened.

Alliances ()

  • The Biden administration’s emphasis on reaching out to allies across Europe and Asia, including Biden’s call to the NATO Secretary General, signals a desire to reaffirm US alliance commitments.
  • British PM Boris Johnson is planning to host a virtual G7 summit in February to focus on the global pandemic and climate change.
  • As Johnson moves ahead with plans to convene D-10 leaders in June, several G7 nations are reportedly pushing back on the UK’s proposal to issue an “open societies charter” to be signed by leaders of the D-10.
  • Overall, the democratic alliances 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.

This month’s top reads

Three must-read commentaries on the democratic order     

  • Frances Z. Brown, Thomas Carothers, and Alex Pascal write in Foreign Affairs that despite the insurrection at the Capitol, the Biden administration should proceed with a Summit for Democracy to develop a new blueprint for U.S. global engagement on democracy.
  • Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, in Foreign Affairs, call for flexible and innovative coalitions to deal with China, including groups such as the D-10 and the Indo-Pacific Quad. 
  • Michael McFaul, writing in the American Purpose, contends that the Biden administration needs to develop new strategies to combat disinformation and advance confident, pro-active message of the virtues of democracy.  

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • The Atlantic Council published The Longer Telegram, written by an anonymous former senior government official who calls for an  integrated, operational, and bipartisan national strategy toward China for the next three decades.
  • Fred Kempe, in the New Atlanticist, suggests the assault on the US Capitol could serve as a catalyst for the American spirit and a renewal of democracy and US leadership.
  • Dan Fried and Anders Åslund, in the New Atlanticist, call for the Biden administration to work with allies to impose new sanctions against Russia in the wake of its arrest of Navalny.
  • Mat Burrows and Bob Manning, in the New Atlanticist, lay out three possible futures for Biden’s presidency.


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
Jeffrey Cimmino – Assistant Director
Daria Boulos – Project Assistant
Paul Cormarie – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart