State of the Order: Assessing July 2021

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Nord Stream Fallout.  On the heels of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House in July, the Biden administration reached an agreement with Berlin that assumes completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany and outlines ways to mitigate its risks. The US previously threatened sanctions against Berlin if it moved forward with the pipeline, which Poland, Ukraine, and other eastern European nations fear could expand the Kremlin’s coercive leverage against them. Under the agreement, Germany agreed to invest in Ukraine’s green technology infrastructure and work with the United States on initiatives to diminish Russia’s energy dominance in Europe, including sanctions should Moscow commit further aggression against Ukraine.

  • Shaping the order. The agreement sets aside a thorny issue in the US-German relationship that could facilitate closer cooperation on other shared challenges. But completion of the pipeline, which was strongly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, could allow Russia to double gas flows to Germany, increasing Berlin’s dependence on Russian energy, and to bypass pipelines under Ukrainian government control, giving Moscow greater leeway to act against Ukraine without concern over its gas exports being cut off.
  • Hitting Home.  America is less secure when its closest allies increase dependence on autocratic rivals such as Russia for their energy needs.
  • What to do. The agreement outlines steps to limit Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon, but further discussions will be needed to develop actionable strategies to achieve this outcome. At the same time, the US and Germany, along with the EU, other G7 or D-10 allies, and key stakeholders such as Poland, should launch a multilateral strategic dialogue on longer-term options for reducing European dependence on Russian energy sources.   

The CCP at 100.  Marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping touted the success of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” while reaffirming the party’s “unshakeable commitment” to preventing Taiwan’s independence, and warning that foreign powers that try to bully China “will crack their heads and spill blood against a Great Wall of steel.” Xi later pushed back against US-led efforts to advance a democratic world order, asserting that there are “different pathways toward well-being” and that other nations “should not seek world hegemony through small-group politics.”

  • Shaping the order.  Xi Jinping’s strident and defiant remarks highlight China’s increasing confidence in its autocratic system of governance and perception that it is superior to that of liberal democracy. As the Biden administration frames its strategy around a global struggle between democracy and autocracy, the CCP also appears to be positioning itself to engage in a systemic competition with the US, while taking aggressive action to crack down against any perceived domestic threats to its political dominance.
  • Hitting Home.  A long-term struggle between the US and China could have significant economic implications for American businesses, including a need to diversify supply chains over time, especially with regard to sensitive technologies.
  • What to do.  Washington should develop a coordinated strategy with its closest democratic allies that includes the establishment of new entities to strengthen cooperation and defend against China’s actions to undermine democratic norms. At the same, the US and its allies should continue to engage with Beijing on issues where cooperation appears feasible.

Pandemic Revival.  Spurred by the highly infectious Delta variant, first identified in India, coronavirus cases surged once again in the United States, Europe, and across much of the globe. The spread of the variant outpaced vaccine distribution, prompting the return of mask mandates and further restrictions in many communities, as a growing number of breakthrough cases among those already vaccinated also raised concerns. 

  • Shaping the order.  The revival of the pandemic could slow the pace of the global economic recovery that was well underway as the virus appeared to be increasingly contained. With vaccination rates slowing in the United States, the rise in cases also highlights the challenges facing democracies on how to encourage those reluctant to get vaccinated – allowing communities to reach herd immunity and preventing the emergence of more lethal variants.
  • Hitting Home. With only about half of all Americans fully vaccinated, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States approached 100,000 per day in late July.
  • What To Do.  The Biden administration should continue to work with state and local health officials to incentivize vaccinations, while following through on pledges made at the G7 summit to expand the distribution of vaccines to developing countries worldwide.

Quote of the Month

“The foundation of our relationship is a shared commitment to democratic principles, values, and institutions. Together, we will uphold the rule of law, promote transparency and good governance, and support civil society and independent media…. We must act now to demonstrate that democracy delivers for our people at home and that democratic leadership delivers for the world.”


– The Washington Declaration, issued by US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 15, 2021

State of the Order this month: Weakened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

Democracy ()

  • Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament, dismissed the country’s prime minister, and seized executive power – actions that opposition leaders likened to a coup and that threatens to undermine Tunisia’s promising democracy, ten years after the toppling of dictator Ben Ali at the beginning of the Arab Spring.
  • Cuba witnessed the largest anti-government demonstrations in decades, with protesters chanting for “freedom” on an island that has been under communist control since 1959. But Cuban president Migel Diaz-Canal responded quickly with mass arrests, surveillance, and harassment of protesters.
  • Citing potential voter fraud, Brazil’s authoritarian President Bolsonaro stated he may not accept the results of the next presidential election, slated for October 2022, if he loses – prompting concerns that Bolsonaro may be seeking to borrow a page from US President Donald Trump.
  • Haiti’s embattled president Hovenal Moise was assassinated on July 7, apparently by hired mercenaries — a serious blow to Haiti’s fragile democracy, already challenged from Moise’s reported ties to gangs and corruption.
  • According to an investigation by the Pegasus Project, a highly invasive spyware licensed by an Israeli firm to governments for tracking terrorists and criminals was used to surveil smartphones belonging to journalists, opposition leaders, human rights activists, and business executives, including those located in Hungary, India, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.
  • Given several setbacks, the democracy pillar was weakened.

Security ()

  • With US and allied troops ramping up their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban seized control of more than half of the country’s local districts, potentially threatening the stability of the coalition-backed Afghan central government.
  • President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Khadimi signed an agreement to end US combat operations in Iraq by year’s end, though US troops will continue to operate in a train and assist mission going forward.
  • The United States and Britain blamed Iran for a drone attack off the coast of Oman against an oil tanker operated by an Israeli firm, killing two people, an attack which UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described as a “deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law.”
  • Vladimir Putin published an article arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that true sovereignty for Ukraine “is possible only in partnership with Russia,” a claim that could lay the basis for future incursions by Moscow against Ukrainian independence.
  • Beijing is developing more than one hundred new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in northwestern China, indicating a major new effort to strengthen its strategic nuclear capability.
  • US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in China with the aim to set “guardrails” around the increasingly contentious relationship between both countries and “keep the channels of communication open.”
  • The United States, joined by a broad group of allies including the G7, Five Eyes, the European Union, and NATO members, condemned Beijing for cyberattacks around the world, including a recent breach of Microsoft’s email systems, though the statement stopped short of issuing sanctions.
  • In light of these developments, the overall security pillar was weakened.

Trade ()

  • Meeting in Venice, finance ministers from the G20 signed off on a plan, already agreed to by some 130 nations, toset a global minimum tax rate of 15 percent of multinational corporations.
  • The Biden administration announced new rules that would require the value of a product’s component parts to be at least 75 percent manufactured in the US by 2029 to qualify for federal purchases under the Buy American Act, a move that raised concerns over rising US protectionism, though most US allies are exempt from the Act as parties to the World Trade Organization’s Government Procurement Agreement.
  • With the international tax plan moving forward, the global trade pillar was unchanged.

Commons ()

  • As discussed above, the Delta variant spread rapidly in the United States and Europe, as well as across much of the globe, undermining months of progress toward containing the pandemic.
  • China and Russia announced a pact to work together for new rules to control cyberspace, seeking to replace the existing internet governance structure, coordinated by the US-based ICANN non-profit group, with a system run by the International Telecommunications Union that could legitimize efforts to regulate and censor internet content.
  • China warned Britain’s Carrier Strike Group not to carry out any “improper acts” as it entered the contested South China Sea as part of a freedom of navigation operation.
  • With the revival of the coronavirus pandemic, the global commons pillar was weakened.

Alliances ()

  • The United States and India reaffirmed their commitment to deepening their security partnership, during a visit to New Delhi by U.S. Secretary of State of Tony Blinken. In an implicit reference to India’s recent democratic backsliding, Blinken also underscored the importance of democratic values, an issue he said he would approach “from a starting point of humility.”
  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and French defense minister Florence Parly signed an agreement to bolster US-French counterterrorism operations in Africa. As part of President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Tokyo, France also pledged to “actively” collaborate with Japan amid European efforts to ramp up its presence in the Indo-Pacific in light of China’s growing influence.
  • As discussed above, the US-German agreement on Nord Stream 2 strengthened relations between the two allies, though others in Europe, including Poland and Ukraine, expressed criticism for the deal.
  • Most European allies declined to sign on to a statement led by the United States condemning Cuba’s recent crackdown against protestors, instead issuing a separate statement that called on Cuba to respect the rights of its people, but also noting that “the easing of external restrictions including on remittances and travel” (i.e. those imposed by the US), would be helpful in encouraging internal Cuban reforms.
  • 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     

  • Larry Diamond, in Foreign Affairs, contends that the failure of American democracy would be catastrophic not only for the United States; it would also have profound global consequences at a time when freedom and democracy are already under siege.
  • Alyssa Ayres, in Foreign Affairs, suggests that the health of India’s democracy is particularly important given India’s potential role as a democratic counterweight to the authoritarian challenge posed by Russia and China.
  • The Washington Post editorial board contends that Xi Jinping has made it clear that China under his dictatorial rule will present an escalating threat to the democratic world and to China’s neighbors.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Matthew Kroenig, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, contends that China is engaging in a massive nuclear-arms buildup as part of its broader strategy to challenge the rules-based international system, and the US will need to respond by updating its nuclear program.
  • Dan Fried and Ash Jain, in the New Atlanticist, suggest that to succeed in reviving the free world, the New Atlantic Charter will need broader support among democracies worldwide and concrete steps to turn its principles into action.
  • Jeffrey Cimmino, in an Atlantic Council Issue Brief, outlines an assertive strategy to counter China’s oppressive human rights violations in Xinjiang.
  • Gissou Nia, writing in the New Atlanticist, argues that the US needs better tools to fight transnational repression by autocratic regimes that are increasingly targeting journalists and opposition activists in exile.
  • Dan Fried and Jakub Wiśniewski suggest, in an Atlantic Council Issue Brief, that the US and Poland can expand their relationship based on common strategic approaches but need to reverse a drift apart on democratic values.
  • Tiff Roberts, in the New Atlanticist, contends that private enterprises in China are increasingly being forced to bend to Beijing’s diktats.
  • On July 15, the Scowcroft Center held a public event, The Renewal of Transatlantic Relations in an Era of Strategic Competition, in partnership with Global Affairs Canada, that featured a keynote conversation with Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker and panel discussions on how the United States, Europe, and Canada can advance shared priorities and revitalize the most powerful democratic community in modern history.

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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.

Ash Jain – Director for Democratic Order
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Jeffrey Cimmino – Assistant Director
Joel Kesselbrenner – Program Assistant
Paul Cormarie – Georgetown Student Researcher
Audrey Oien – Young Global Professionals Intern

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