Beyond  /  Antecedent

Can the New Atlantic Charter Match the Importance of the Original?

What happens next matters most.

As President Biden’s first international trip recedes into the rearview mirror, it is an opportune time to take stock of the overarching theme of his tour, namely that “diplomacy is back.”

Biden will tout the agreement among the G-7 nations on a corporate global minimum tax, and his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin has generated the most discussion, but Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s negotiation of a “revitalized Atlantic Charter” epitomized Biden’s emphasis on diplomacy.

The new Atlantic Charter references the myriad challenges now facing the world, and commits to “institutions, laws, and norms” to strengthen democracy. It is much like the original 1941 version, which was an idealistic statement of war and peace aims negotiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The original committed the U.S. to the cause of building a new world order after the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.”

Both the original and revived Charters articulated new “grand strategies” — laying out goals for international relations and the means for achieving them.

But the main lesson of the original Atlantic Charter is that whether the new document achieves its promise will depend on what the public and policymakers do next and whether its ideas permeate the public consciousness and become a new guidepost for international relations.

By August 1941, Nazi forces had taken most of Europe and were on the march deep into Russia. The U.K.’s situation looked increasingly bleak. Roosevelt and Churchill met clandestinely off the coast of Newfoundland.

Their conference produced a trim, eight-point, 800-word “Joint Declaration.” It spelled out British and — rather astonishingly considering the U.S. was not yet at war — American war aims for the post-war world.

Initially published as a telegrammed news release, the Atlantic Charter was neither a treaty nor a formal agreement.

Yet upon closer scrutiny, the Charter’s bold, world-shaping ambitions stood out. In signing on, Roosevelt took a major political risk. He riled up the vociferous, anti-interventionist opposition back home — notably the America First Committee. And, without Congress formally on board, he probably committed the U.S. to joining the war, presenting possible constitutional issues.

The ideas the original Charter embodied were as audacious as the overall commitments. They centered on three themes.

First, the Charter incorporated idealistic World War I-era Wilsonian propositions, including respect for national sovereignty and self-determination.

Second, it included new security mechanisms among allies to promote goals such as free trade and disarmament. The two leaders kept these provisions deliberately vague so as not to invoke the specter of the failed League of Nations.

Third, most importantly, the Charter accentuated a group of points promoting what one Roosevelt aide called “the development of the human personality.” This classic New Deal phrase suggested policies such as improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.

The Charter’s lone lyrical passage called for the establishment of “a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” ...