State of the Order: Assessing March 2021

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

US-China Showdown. In the first high-level meeting of US and Chinese officials since President Joe Biden took office, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan publicly called out China’s threats to the rules-based order and its “assault on basic values.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and top diplomat Yang Jiechi countered with a fifteen-minute rebuttal extolling China’s virtues and castigating America’s foreign military interventions and “deep seated human rights abuses.” The two-day private meetings that followed were described as “candid” and expansive.”

  • Shaping the order: The unusually frank comments and public acrimony between top US and Chinese officials suggest that relations between the two nations are headed toward a downward spiral, as the Biden administration elevates US concerns over human rights and other Chinese actions undermining the rules-based order.  
  • Hitting Home:  The Biden administration’s actions reflect a bipartisan consensus in Congress to stand up to Beijing’s growing assertiveness and defend US security and economic interests.
  • What to do: The administration should be commended for its willingness to publicly confront Beijing on its actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and other areas of concern. It should follow the meetings in Alaska by working closely with allies and partners to develop a clear plan of action to hold Beijing accountable for its continued violations of international norms.

Indo-Pacific Quad and NATO.  President Biden joined the leaders of Australia, Japan, and India for the first-ever summit of the Indo-Pacific Quad, held virtually, that resulted in a joint statement committing to a region that is “free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” The Summit was preceded by Secretary of State Blinken’s and Secretary of Defense Austin’s first visit to Asia to meet with Japanese and Korean officials. After the summit, Blinken went on to make his first visit to Europe, where he met with EU officials and NATO foreign ministers and pledged to revitalize the transatlantic alliance.

  • Shaping the order: The Biden administration’s decision to elevate the Quad to leaders’ level and its early diplomatic forays into Asia and Europe signal a clear commitment to reinvigorate US democratic alliances and partnerships. Despite concerns that Donald Trump’s repeated denigration of allies caused lasting damage, America’s return to the global stage has been warmly received and suggests that allies continue to view American leadership as essential to addressing global challenges.
  • Hitting Home: Working with allies strengthens America’s ability to respond to global threats and challenges and could lead to greater security for the United States and its citizens.   
  • What to do: The administration should follow these important visits to Asia and Europe with an effort to bring allies across regions together to address key challenges, including by forging a new D-10.

China-Iran Axis. China and Iran signed a sweeping 25-year economic and security cooperation agreement in which China agreed to invest $400 billion in Iran, potentially including railroads, ports, and 5G networks, in exchange for a steady and heavily discounted supply of oil. The agreement reportedly called for deepening military cooperation, including joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development, and intelligence-sharing.

  • Shaping the order:  The agreements indicate that China’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East are yielding success. The move reinforces the consolidation of a growing bloc of authoritarian nations eager to blunt the  liberal, democratic world order.
  • Hitting Home: China’s investments in the Iranian economy could help strengthen Tehran’s ability to engage in terrorist activities against American Interests.
  • What to Do: The United States should look to reenter negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that include constraints on its malign regional influence. At the same time, the Biden administration should invest in an alliance of democracies to strengthen coordination on shared challenges, including Iran.  

Quote of the Month

“The United States relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be….Our intent is to be direct about our concerns, direct about our priorities, with the goal of a more clear-eyed relationship between our countries moving forward.”


– US Secretary of State Tony Blinken

State of the Order this month: Strengthened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

While several pillars remained unchanged, the Biden’s administration’s robust efforts to engage allies and partners significantly strengthened the alliances pillar, leading to our overall assessment that the democratic order was strengthened this month.

Democracy ()

  • In its latest move to tighten control over Hong Kong, China imposed a new law giving Beijing the power to block any candidate from seeking a seat in Hong Kong’s parliament whom it deems “unpatriotic”.
  • Russia’s deputy defense minister traveled to Myanmar to showcase Moscow’s steadfast support and desire to deepen a “strategic partnership,” in the midst of the Myanmar military’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
  • According to Freedom House, the world experienced its 15th consecutive year of democratic decline in 2020. The latest Freedom in the World report indicates that India has dropped to “partly free” in light of government crackdowns on public protest and free speech, while the health of American democracy declined due especially to Trump’s attempts to overturn last year’s presidential election.
  • In a significant positive development, Britain, Canada, and the EU joined the United States to impose joint sanctions on senior Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, marking Europe’s first human rights sanctions against Beijing since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • The United States also imposed a series of new measures against Russian officials and entities in response to the alleged poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of Russian opposition politician Aleksey Navalny.
  • Overall, the democracy pillar was unchanged.

Security ()

  • North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in violation of UN security council resolutions, an action seemingly aimed at testing the Biden administration’s resolve.
  • China increased its military activities around Taiwan, sending an aircraft carrier group to conduct drills near the island and stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone, raising substantial concerns of a military escalation or miscalculation by Beijing.
  • As noted above, China and Iran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement to strengthen the two nation’s long-standing economic and political partnership.
  • Despite the concerns raised by these developments, the overall security pillar remained unchanged.

Trade ()

  • The European Parliament postponed its review of the EU-China investment agreement signed late last year, amid the fallout from Europe’s imposition of sanctions against China related to Xinjiang and Beijing’s retaliatory travel restrictions which place the future of the controversial agreement in doubt.
  • The US and the EU took a large step toward resolving their longstanding trade dispute by agreeing to suspend punitive tariffs related to aircraft subsidies for Boeing and Airbus.
  • The Suez Canal was reopened after a large container ship became lodged in a sandstorm, blocking the critical shipping node for six days and causing widespread disruptions to global trade.  
  • Overall, the global trade pillar remained unchanged.

Commons ()

  • While vaccinations continue to ramp up in the United States and around the world, India and Europe saw significant spikes of confirmed coronavirus cases, largely due to the spread of variants that are more contagious.
  • Russia and China signed an agreement to jointly develop research facilities on the surface of the moon, as part of a larger effort to expand cooperation between the two nations.
  • President Biden invited Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to participate in a Global Climate Summit, a virtual event organized by the United States on April 22 and 23 that will include leaders from 40 nations and focus on global warming. 
  • Overall, the global commons pillar was unchanged.

Alliances ()

  • As noted, President Biden met virtually with the leaders of other Quad countries, a move that elevates US coordination with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific around China and other challenges.
  • Biden also joined EU leaders for a European Council virtual summit meeting in a move intended to signal a sharp break from Trump’s repeated aspersions of the European project.
  • US Secretary of State Blinken joined the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels and met separately with his counterparts in the transatlantic quad – US, Britain, France, and Germany – as well as the Visegrad Four — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
  • Earlier, Blinken joined Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for a foreign and defense ministers meeting in Tokyo, and then Seoul, in an effort to reinvigorate US alliances with Japan and South Korea. Austin later traveled to New Delhi to discuss the expansion of defense ties between the two nations.
  • 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     

  • Hal Brands and Charles Edel, in the Washington Quarterly, lay out a grand strategy for democratic solidarity in light of the challenges facing the United States and its allies around the world.
  • James Mattis, Michael Auslin, and Joseph Felter, writing in Foreign Policy, contend that the Quad offers the best opportunity for the US to lead a robust values-based partnership among democracies in the Indo-Pacific and other like-minded nations.
  • Helene Gayle, Gordon LaForge, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing in Foreign Affairs, make the case that the US should lead a global vaccination campaign to generate goodwill and reinvigorate American leadership

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • In a significant new Atlantic Council report, Hans Binnendijk and Sarah Kirchberger set forth a comprehensive transatlantic blueprint for strategic competition and, where possible, cooperation with China.
  • Fred Kempe, writing for CNBC, contends that the United States and China are offering competing worldviews, and that the winner of this geopolitical contest will shape the global future.
  • Barry Pavel, in the New Atlanticist, suggests that despite its theatrics, the high-level meeting in Alaska between the United States and China may be the first stage of a broader effort to manage cooperation with Beijing.
  • Julia Freelander, writing in the New Atlanticist, reasserts the importance of allies in achieving US foreign policy objectives.  
  • Edward Fishman and Mark Simakovsky, in the New Atlanticist, outline a three-step plan for reviving the transatlantic alliance that focuses on defeating COVID 19, reinvigorating security cooperation, and forging a united front on technology.
  • Ian Brzezinski, Daniel Fried, and Alexander Vershbow, in New Atlanticist, present a rebuttal to Moscow’s narrative about Western interests, grounded in historical perspectives.

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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 – Senior Fellow
Dan Fried – Distinguished Fellow
Jeffrey Cimmino – Assistant Director
Joel Kesselbrenner – Young Global Professionals Intern
Paul Cormarie – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (2nd L), China's State Councilor Wang and Foreign Minister, at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021. Frederic J. Brown/Pool via REUTERS