State of the Order: Assessing September 2020

Reshaping the order

This month’s topline events

Coronavirus Resurgence. Amid the news that President Donald Trump contracted the coronavirus, the pandemic soared across large parts of the globe. Europe faces a second wave as cases in France and Spain rose above spring’s peak, and Britain neared a tipping point for new lockdowns. India is on track to surpass the US with the most cases in the world, while the virus rebounds across America.   

  • Shaping the Order. With the global economy already expected to shrink by more than five percent this year, the resurgence of the virus could lead to a renewed worldwide recession. But having largely controlled the virus, China could see its economy grow this year, placing it in a stronger position to shape the post-COVID world order.
  • Hitting home. After causing more than 200,000 deaths, and with millions more infected, schools shutdown, and business shuttered, the pandemic continues its scourge on the daily lives of Americans across the country.
  • What to do. The US needs a clear national strategy for stemming the virus, with leaders at the federal and state levels speaking with one voice to advocate for basic health measures. At the same time, Washington should coordinate a global response to the pandemic, including on distribution of a vaccine as it nears final approval.

US Election Jitters. President Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the presidential election, suggesting that mail-in ballots will lead to fraudulent results and that the only way he can lose is if the election is “rigged.” Concerned by Trump’s comments, Congress passed near unanimous resolutions in both chambers reaffirming a commitment to an “orderly and peaceful transfer of power” in accordance with the US Constitution.

  • Shaping the order. The mere suggestion that a US president might refuse to concede an election has astonished allies and risks undermining America’s credibility as a champion for democracy, at a time when favorable views of the United States among allies have plummeted to new lows.
  • Hitting home. If the election results are close, legal challenges may lead to a prolonged period of political uncertainty, perhaps accompanied by potential violence, and even a constitutional crisis, depending on how the candidates and leaders in Congress across both parties respond.
  • What to do. Both presidential candidates — and senior members of Congress in both parties — should make clear that they will respect the outcome of the election process and avoid comments aimed at undermining public confidence in its integrity.

Brexit Trade Talks on EdgePost-Brexit trade talks between the United Kingdom and European Union appeared in jeopardy as Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that Britain would walk away if no trade deal is reached by October 15.  Separately, the EU filed suit against the UK in the European Court of Justice to dispute plans that would give London unilateral control over tariffs between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a move that could conflict with the Good Friday peace agreement and that prompted presidential candidate Joe Biden and US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to warn of impacts on a potential US-UK free trade pact.

  • Shaping the order. The failure of a UK-EU trade deal could lead to tariffs between Europe’s largest economies – creating significant adverse economic effects and undermining free trade. Continued discord between America’s closest allies could hinder efforts to maintain transatlantic unity on other global challenges, including China.
  • Hitting home. The EU is America’s largest trading partner, and the imposition of tariffs could harm US companies seeking to do business in Europe.
  • What to do. The US should encourage both parties to come to terms on a trade agreement, while privately working with the UK to address concerns raised about the Good Friday agreement.  

“A pandemic is by definition a global challenge. It requires a global response. No country is able to combat this common enemy alone. No one is safe, until all are safe. An effective global response can only come from all of us together.”
– Finland President Sauli Niinistö

State of the Order this month: Unchanged

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

  • Democracy (↓) – As President Trump sowed doubts about a peaceful transfer of power in the US, a new report released by Freedom House found that since the start of the pandemic, the state of democracy and human rights has worsened in at least 80 countries. The European Union is considering passage of its own version of the Magnitsky Act — modeled after similar US legislation — which would allow the EU to impose economic and travel sanctions against global human rights violators.  
  • Security (↔) – Military forces from Azerbaijan and Armenia began fighting in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, raising concerns of a full-scale war that could draw in Turkey and Russia. Taliban leaders joined Afghan officials for the start of peace talks in Qatar, which were facilitated by a US-Taliban agreement in February on the withdrawal of US forces.  In an unusual move, North Korea apologized after its soldiers shot and killed a South Korean official near the sea boundary between the two nations.    
  • Trade () – The US abandoned its threat to impose tariffs on aluminum imports against Canada following promises of retaliation. The WTO ruled against US imposition of tariffs on China imposed in 2018, prompting criticism from the Trump administration and a potential appeal. While it continues negotiations with the EU, the UK signed its first major post-Brexit trade deal with Japan. At next month’s BRICS Summit, China will propose a new joint initiative for emerging technologies between Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
  • Commons (↓) – As the coronavirus pandemic resurges, the worldwide death toll now exceeds one million. At the UN General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that China would seek to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that NATO must be prepared to adapt to new security challenges due to climate change.
  • Alliances () – France, Germany, and the UK issued a rare joint public rebuke of the United States, stating the US does not have legal authority to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, President Trump gently praised NATO, saying allies are now “paying a much more fair share.”  

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     

  • Thomas Bollyky and Chad Brown, writing in Foreign Affairs, warn of vaccine nationalism and contend that global cooperation on a vaccine is not too late.
  • Thomas Wright, writing for the Lowy Institute, analyzes the direction of American foreign policy under a Biden presidency or a second Trump administration.
  • Colombe Cahen-Salvador and Andrea Venzon write in The Independent that a new alliance of democracies is needed to defend democracy and hold authoritarians to account.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weigh in on this month’s events

  • Fred Kempe, writing for CNBC, suggests that the US election poses a historic test for what Ronald Reagan has called the “miracle” of peaceful transition.
  • Jeffrey Cimmino, Matthew Kroenig, and Barry Pavel, in a new Atlantic Council Strategic Insights Memo, propose a global strategy on China focused on three major elements:  strengthen, defend, and engage.
  • Carl J. Schramm and Henrik Fogh Rasmussen, writing The New Atlanticist, call for mobilizing the free world through a D-10 or an alliance of democracies to advance health defense.
  • John Roberts, writing in The New Atlanticist, analyzes the UK’s Brexit trade talks and potential implications for the Good Friday agreement.
  • Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, writing in the Wisconsin State Journal, argues that democracy requires open debate of issues in the public square and respect for differences of opinion.


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 – Program Assistant 
Daria Boulos – Project Assistant
Anna Downs – Georgetown Student Researcher

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Image: REUTERS/Ken Cedeno