State of the Order: Looking Back on 2021

This special edition of State of the Order breaks down the most important events that shaped the democratic world order last year.

Reshaping the order

The year’s three topline developments

America Is Back. The most significant development in 2021 was the return of the United States to its traditional role as leader of the free world. Joe Biden assumed the presidency promising to restore America’s commitment to democratic alliances and multilateral engagement after four years of a markedly different approach. The administration followed through by reaffirming US support for NATO, the G7, and the European Union, and, though unevenly at times, prioritized American support for democracy and human rights – capped by a virtual Summit for Democracy in December. The United States also rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and the UN Human Rights Council, and sought to reenter the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • Shaping the order. The single biggest factor impacting the future of the rules-based democratic order is the willingness of the United States, as still the world’s largest economy and strongest military power, to lead. Biden’s presidency marked a return to America’s role in advancing and defending the order – a development largely welcomed by US allies, though many remained concerned about America’s staying power and ability to execute its leadership role, especially given the deepening polarization it faces at home.
  • Hitting home. The rules-based order has led to unprecedented levels of national prosperity and has given generations of Americans the opportunity to live in a relatively safe and secure world.  
  • What to do. The Biden administration should follow its promising re-engagement with allies and partners to address the most pressing challenges facing the order, from autocratic coercion and democratic backsliding, to abuse of emerging technologies and climate change.

Autocrats Push Back. 2021 was also marked by intensifying efforts by China and Russia to challenge key tenets of the rules-based democratic order. China heightened its military threats against Taiwan, ramped up coercive pressure against democracies such as Australia and Lithuania, dismantled Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, and subjected the Uighurs to crimes against humanity. Russia threatened to escalate its assault on Ukraine, expanded cyber operations against the US and its allies, and bolstered support for dictators facing popular uprisings. The two powers deepened strategic and economic ties with each other while warning that “value-based diplomacy” will provoke division and confrontation.

  • Shaping the order. As Russia and China further undermined the rules-based order, the Biden administration responded by calling for democracies to prepare for systemic competition with rival autocracies and work collectively to strengthen and defend the order. Strategic competition has become the lens through which the United States and many of its allies are now framing their foreign policy priorities.
  • Hitting home. Hitting home. China exerted pressure on American movie studios and corporations, as well as NBA players and students at US universities, to not speak out against Beijing. Russia continues to engage in disinformation and cyber operations inside the United States.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should stand firm against Beijing’s and Moscow’s efforts to undermine the rules-based order, while galvanizing a common strategy among key allies and partners across Europe and the Indo-Pacific to deal with these challenges and strengthen and adapt the order.

Afghanistan Debacle. Among the most significant developments of 2021 was the sudden collapse of the US-backed Afghan government in the midst of a chaotic withdrawal by US and NATO troops. Nearly twenty years after being toppled in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban returned to power, bringing back their fundamentalist regime and oppressive human rights practices, especially against women and girls. The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan drew criticism from some NATO allies who felt the decision was made without adequate consultation.

  • Shaping the order. The fall of Afghanistan marked a significant 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 there proved out of reach. The question is whether the Biden administration can overcome the loss of US prestige and confidence as it attempts to reassert American global leadership.
  • 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 – threatening the security of Americans in the region and possibly the homeland.
  • What to do. The Biden administration should be prepared to engage in targeted military strikes in Afghanistan if it becomes a safe haven for terrorists. At the same time, Washington should make clear that, despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will remain committed to defending allies and supporting pro-democracy movements around the world.

Quote of the year

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world. We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that… autocracy is the best way forward… and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting [today’s] challenges… [D]emocracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.”

– President Joe Biden, February 19, 2021

State of the Order in 2021: Strengthened

Assessing the five core pillars of the democratic world order    

2021 was a challenging year for the rules-based democratic order. The democracy and security pillars were weakened, but others, particularly alliances and to some degree trade, were strengthened. While autocratic rivals undermined security and the pandemic raged on, America’s recommitment to defend and advance the free world, after a tumultuous year that preceded it, resulted in an order that was relatively strengthened in 2021.

Democracy ( )

Democracy continued to face significant setbacks in 2021, as the world entered its potentially sixteenth consecutive year of democratic recession. Key developments:

  • After weeks under house arrest, The January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol was a shock for American democracy and its power of example around the world, while raising serious concerns about deepening polarization and the future of the US political system.
  • From Belarus to Venezuela to Tunisia, pro-democracy movements lost ground. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad consolidated his grip on power as a number of Arab leaders moved to re-engage the regime after years of diplomatic isolation.
  • China’s move to dismantle democratic institutions in Hong Kong was in stark violation of Beijing’s commitment to preserve the fundamental freedoms and autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle.
  • The Biden administration hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy, bringing together leaders from more than one hundred nations for discussions on countering authoritarianism, promoting human rights, and combating corruption.

Security ( )

The security order faced increasing threats along a number of fronts in 2021. Key developments:

  • China escalated its military threats against Taiwan, while intensifying coercive actions against other democracies and significantly expanding its strategic forces arsenal, including nuclear weapons.
  • Russia amassed troops along its border with Ukraine, prompting concerns of an imminent new invasion, while the Kremlin continues to conduct cyberattacks and engage in other malign activities against the US and its allies.
  • The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, leading to concerns that it could once again serve as a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
  • Diplomatic efforts led by the United States and the EU to stem Iran’s nuclear program faltered, and experts estimated that Iran could have enough fissile material to produce a nuclear warhead in as little as a month.
  • The United States stepped up its response to global threats by bolstering arms shipments to frontline partners, including Ukraine and Taiwan, and reaffirming security commitments in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
  • Biden held an in-person summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, seeking a “stable and predictable relationship,” as well as a virtual summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping, keeping open channels for engagement. The US and Russia signed a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact.

Trade ( )

The trade order was strengthened in 2021, as the United States returned to promoting a free and open global trading system, though it did not pursue any significant new trade agreements. Key developments:

  • The US and EU made progress on resolving longstanding trade disputes on steel and aluminum tariffs and between Boeing and Airbus, and launched the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, aimed at coordinating joint responses to emerging technologies.
  • Trade ministers from the United States, European Union, and Japan agreed to renew a trilateral partnership aimed at upholding global trade norms and addressing challenges to the economic order.
  • China applied to join the CPTPP, the transpacific free trade pact initially negotiated by the United States and several major trading partners as a potential counterweight to China, but from which the US withdrew in 2017.

Commons ( )

As it continued to face the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, the global commons pillar was, on balance, unchanged in 2021. Key developments:

  • Despite the distribution of highly effective vaccines across the US, Europe, and around the world, the pandemic raged on as new variants emerged, and global deaths crossed five million. For many, life began to return to some sense of normalcy during spring and summer, but restrictions on travel and cancellations of large gatherings were reimposed as the year came to an end. Health officials remained concerned over the potential for new variants to arise, given that large parts of the world still lacked sufficient quantities of vaccines to immunize their populations.
  • Nearly 200 nations signed the Glasgow Climate Pact, which, for the first time ever, includes language explicitly calling for a “phase down” of coal power, as well as a curb on methane emissions and deforestation. But the agreement left unresolved how much and how quickly states should aim to cut emissions.

Alliances ( )

Democratic alliances were significantly strengthened in 2021, as the United States reaffirmed its leadership role. Notable developments:

  • On his first overseas trip as president, Biden joined the heads of leading democracies at the G7 Summit in Britain and the NATO summit in Brussels, reinvigorating ties with America’s closest allies. Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the New Atlantic Charter affirming core principles of the rules-based order.
  • Biden hosted the first ever Indo-Pacific Quad leaders’ summit at the White House, bringing Australia, Japan, and India into closer alignment with the United States. The United States joined Australia and Britain in establishing a new alliance framework, AUKUS, to enhance security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Yet tensions among allies flared at times, as France publicly castigated the AUKUS agreement, while Britain and the EU remained at odds over several post-Brexit trade and economic issues.

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.

Top reads for 2021

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.
  • 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.
  • Robert Kagan contends in Foreign Affairs that the alternative to US leadership is a world of chaos, and that the Biden administration must be up front with the American people on America’s responsibility to lead the world order.

Action and analysis by the Atlantic Council

Our experts weighed in on the year’s top developments

The Atlantic Council organized a series of private workshops with government officials, launched two key reports, and provided insights on strengthening cooperation among democracies and advancing support for a rules-based democratic order. Key highlights from 2021:

  • As the G7 Summit convened in June, Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, in collaboration with Tobias Bunde, Sophia Gaston, and Yuichi Hosoya, issued a report titled From the G7 to a D-10: Strengthening Democratic Cooperation for Today’s Challenges suggesting that a new D-10 can help foster strategic alignment and coordinated action among like-minded and influential democracies.
  • In the run-up to the Summit for Democracy in December, Ash Jain, Matthew Kroenig, and Jonas Parello-Plesner issued a report, An Alliance of Democracies: From Concept to Reality in an Era of Strategic Competition, proposing an Alliance of Democracies to help position the free world for success in the growing strategic competition with revisionist autocratic powers.
  • Fred Kempe provided compelling analyses in CNBC throughout the year, including this on US-China strategic competition and this on the state of US alliances following withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Dan Fried provided insightful commentaries on the democratic world order, including on Biden’s foreign policy doctrine and ways to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Rose Jackson, with Dan Fried, offered key recommendations for the Summit for Democracy, and the DFRLab hosted its 360/StratCom forum with a focus on the summit, including challenges posed by technology and rising authoritarianism.
  • Nicole Bibbins Sedaca highlighted the impacts of January 6 on US democracy promotion and advocated in favor of a more coherent and consistent democracy agenda.
  • Matthew Kroenig and Emma Ashford, in Foreign Policy, featured a series of engaging debates on America’s role in the world, including on Taiwan and Ukraine, and this look back at 2021. Kroenig also joined Jeff Cimmino in arguing for strategic clarity to deter a Chinese attack on democratic Taiwan.
  • Ash Jain authored or co-authored opinion pieces on the D-10, Indo-Pacific Quad, the Summit for Democracy, and an Alliance of Democracies, and his comments were referenced in the New York Times and Politico.
  • A compilation of State of Order monthly assessments for 2021 can be found here.

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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
Danielle Miller – Project Assistant
Paul Cormarie – Georgetown Student Researcher

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