The new Atlantic Charter: Renewing a ‘special relationship’ between US and UK

While the new Atlantic Charter is written for the world of today, it still speaks to commonalities between the long-time allies that may have been lost in recent decades.

US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Johnson signed a new version of the ‘Atlantic Charter’ during the former’s first overseas visit since assuming the Presidency earlier this year. The original document, over 80 years old today, was a historic declaration of cooperation between the two countries and the foundation for their ‘special relationship’ for decades to come. While the new Atlantic Charter is written for the world of today, it still speaks to commonalities between the long-time allies that may have been lost in recent decades.

The original Atlantic Charter

US President Franklin Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in 1941 in Newfoundland, Canada to discuss what would eventually translate into the Atlantic Charter. They made the formal announcement a while later from a US Naval base leased from the British in a seemingly symbolic reflection of the two nations’ willingness to work together. At the time, the UK was on the back foot during the Second World War and Churchill was hoping that the agreement would incentivise the US to formally join the allied cause. Churchill was left disappointed when the US failed to do so, although it did contribute troops to the war effort months later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

In contrast to the previous world order in which countries acted in self-interest, the Atlantic Charter outlined a series of governing principles that emphasised unity and democratic values. The US and UK charted a post-war order that prioritised the self-determination of sovereign nations, the reduction of trade barriers, the disarmament of hostile nations and a united drive to ensure better economic and social conditions for all people.

While the Charter itself was issued as a statement and was therefore non-binding, it did have a profound impact on the perception of joint British and American values and marked the beginning of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the two countries.

In 1946, Winston Churchill was the first person to describe the alliance between the US and the UK as being something “special.” Over the years, as the partnership witnessed highs and lows, the phrase itself never left the public lexicon. The two nations have allied together during many conflicts including the two World Wars, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Gulf War and the War on Terror. The leaders of both nations have historically been considerably close, with Margaret Thatcher even famously referring to Ronald Reagan as “the second most important man in my life” after her husband. Public opinion in both countries has largely aligned with this political characterisation, with polls consistently highlighting the strong public support for the partnership.

After the Charter was announced, the UK dropped millions of posters highlighting the agreement over Germany, that cooperation between leading nations would result in the destruction of the German state. The allied powers quickly endorsed the Charter and more significantly, at a meeting between the Inter-Allied council in September of that year, the governments-in-exile of various states along with the Soviet Union and Free French Forces, announced their intent to adhere to the outlined principles as well. The fact that diverse nations with different sets of opinions agreed to these common principles was significant and later proved to be one of the catalysts for the formation of the United Nations.

However, the Charter was controversial in some parts of the world, with British colonies in particular noting the irony of a colonial nation calling for the right to territorial self-determination. In 1942, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Roosevelt about the ‘hollowness’ of the Atlantic Charter, pointing to the exploitation of Indians and Africans by the British. While Roosevelt was supposedly in favour of abolishing the imperial system, he was reluctant to pressure Churchill into change in the midst of a global war.

In the ensuing decades though, things have not always been smooth between the US and the UK, making the charter almost redundant. Notably, when the British invaded the Suez Canal, US President Eisenhower refused to support the move and was reportedly uninformed of its planning. Later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson came under enormous pressure from the US to send troops to Vietnam, a directive he repeatedly ignored. More recently, following a strong partnership during the second Gulf War, relations between the nations came under strain over issues related to foreign policy.

Writing in his memoirs, Obama alluded to this fissure, stating that while he liked David Cameron, they often “butted heads” on a range of topics. Under Trump, the relationship continued to be difficult and while Theresa May made great efforts to accommodate him, she later remarked that with Trump, she “never knew what to expect.” With the renewed Atlantic Charter, Biden and Johnson have embarked on the process of repairing this ‘special relationship’ and time will only tell if their attempts will be as meaningful as that of their predecessors.

The new Atlantic Charter

The new Atlantic Charter is a 600-word document that reaffirms the joint commitment of the US and the UK on a range of issues. In a speech following his meeting with Johnson, Biden announced that the agreement was “a statement of first principles, a promise that the United Kingdom and United States would meet the challenges of their age and would meet it together.”

The Charter touches upon topics like climate change, the Covid-19 crisis and the emerging role of technology, but its main focus is that of national security along the lines of the original Atlantic Charter, signed in 1941 and the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949. Towards that end, it alludes to a “shared responsibility for maintaining our collective security and international stability” and commits to defending “the principles, values, and institutions of democracy.” It also refers to the need of protecting democratic institutions and upholding principles of “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It also maintains that NATO will “remain a nuclear alliance” for as long as there are nuclear weapons.

While never explicitly mentioning China or Russia, the Charter is being seen as a rebuke of the two nations by including provisions underlining the importance of adhering to “the rule-based international order.” Moreover, it calls for Western allies to “oppose interference through disinformation or other malign influences, including in elections,” in a seemingly overt reference to Russian cyber-attacks and propaganda during the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential elections.

The 8-point new Atlantic Charter is a welcome signal to proponents of the US-UK alliance following a tumultuous decade of relations between the allies. It underscores Biden’s desire to move away from the ‘America First’ foreign policy doctrine of Trump and affirms his aspiration of re-establishing America as a prominent defender of the international world order.

Importantly, the agreement is in line with Biden’s actions as President. Since assuming office, Biden has taken a harsh stand against China and Russia, condemning the leaders of both nations for their questionable records on human rights and perceived lack of commitment to democratic norms. He has also added more Chinese companies to a Trump-era US Investment blacklist and has announced his willingness to establish a trade partnership with Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers to be part of its territory. While Biden’s China policy is somewhat similar to Trump’s, his firm treatment of Russia marks a sharp deviation from the approach taken by the last administration. Biden has imposed a raft of new sanctions against Moscow over a range of infractions, leading Prime Minister Putin to recently declare that US-Russian ties are at their “lowest point in years.”

The Atlantic Charter also aligns with Biden and Johnson’s recent commitment to vaccine diplomacy. Ahead of the Group of 7 (G7) meeting on Saturday, Johnson announced that member states would provide 1 billion doses of the vaccine to poor nations by the end of 2021 including a donation of 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the US. However, while significant, the announcement repeats many promises that have already been made. The European Union had already promised to donate 100 million doses of the vaccine in May and in February, the Biden administration pledged $2 billion towards global vaccination efforts. The 500 million doses provided by the US would cost $3.5 billion, of which, only $1.5 billion is represented in additional funding over and above the earlier commitment. Further, according to the non-profit Oxfam, given the need for booster doses, the global requirement for vaccines is approximately 11 billion doses; far more than what has currently been allocated. The US currently holds approximately 2.6 billion doses of the vaccine for a population of 330 million people.

Additionally, there have been questions raised over the motivation behind these commitments. In May this year, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian  implied in an official press briefing that Biden’s announcement over vaccines was strategic, stating that the politicisation of the issue makes people wonder “about US (sic) true intention and motives.” He added, “unlike the US, China will not use vaccines to influence or lead the world.”

For his part, Biden has also contributed fuel to the fire. In his speech regarding the 500 doses, he referred to Chinese vaccine diplomacy as a means of “influencing the world,” promising that the US would not use their vaccines to “secure favours from other countries.”

Writing in the Lancelet, Jaspreet Pannu and Michele Berry, both Professors at the Stanford School of Medicine, criticise the amalgamation of vaccine deployment with national interests. They argue that while vaccine diplomacy as a form of soft power is better than using militarised methods to curry international advantages, it still creates a power imbalance between rich and poor nations. Referring to the topic, they write, “on one side is a low-income country snubbed by countries with higher incomes, facing a worsening pandemic and tired of waiting for COVID-19 vaccine doses, and on the other are large countries that have nationalist political agendas.”

According to Ash Jain and Dan Fried, both former members of the US State Department, the new Atlantic Charter arrives at a time when “the world is entering a new era of strategic competition between democracy and autocracy, with democracies on the defensive and autocratic rivals gaining strength.” Writing for a leading think tank, the Atlantic Council, they state that while some factors are similar between 1941 and today, “the US and UK can’t shape the world as they did after World War II.”

The original Atlantic Charter, according to Alan Dowd of the Fraser Institute, helped usher in an era of greater “peace and prosperity.” It also signalled an end of “American isolationism” and proved to be a catalyst for a “wider and permanent system of general security.” In contrast, the new Atlantic Charter largely reaffirms existing policies, focusing on the need to strengthen cooperation in areas such as security, technology and global health, all of which the US and UK already work together on.

Additionally, the original charter was signed at a time when the British Empire was still intact and the US economy was growing at a rate of over 17% annually. To succeed, Jain and Fried assert, the Charter must include the support of a wider range of countries, and in its current form “the Atlantic Charter 2.0 is not the answer” to the most present global challenges.”

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the New Atlantic Charter lies in its symbolic value. It is a gesture from Biden and Johnson that their governments are closely aligned in terms of values and aspirations following a series of road bumps under Obama and Trump.

Full text of the new Atlantic Charter

The New Atlantic Charter
JUNE 10, 2021

STATEMENTS AND RELEASES
Today, the President of the United States and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom reaffirm their commitment to work together to realise our vision for a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Our revitalised Atlantic Charter, building on the commitments and aspirations set out eighty years ago, affirms our ongoing commitment to sustaining our enduring values and defending them against new and old challenges. We commit to working closely with all partners who share our democratic values and to countering the efforts of those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions.

First, we resolve to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies, which drive our own national strength and our alliances. We must ensure that democracies – starting with our own – can deliver on solving the critical challenges of our time. We will champion transparency, uphold the rule of law, and support civil society and independent media. We will also confront injustice and inequality and defend the inherent dignity and human rights of all individuals.

Second, we intend to strengthen the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international co-operation to adapt them to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, and guard against those that would undermine them. We will work through the rules-based international order to tackle global challenges together; embrace the promise and manage the peril of emerging technologies; promote economic advancement and the dignity of work; and enable open and fair trade between nations.

Third, we remain united behind the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. We oppose interference through disinformation or other malign influences, including in elections, and reaffirm our commitment to debt transparency, sustainability and sound governance of debt relief. So too will we defend key principles such as freedom of navigation and overflight and other internationally lawful uses of the seas.

Fourth, we resolve to harness and protect our innovative edge in science and technology to support our shared security and deliver jobs at home; to open new markets; to promote the development and deployment of new standards and technologies to support democratic values; to continue to invest in research into the biggest challenges facing the world; and to foster sustainable global development.

Fifth, we affirm our shared responsibility for maintaining our collective security and international stability and resilience against the full spectrum of modern threats, including cyber threats. We have declared our nuclear deterrents to the defence of NATO and as long as there are nuclear weapons, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. Our NATO Allies and partners will always be able to count on us, even as they continue to strengthen their own national forces. We pledge to promote the framework of responsible State behaviour in cyberspace, arms control, disarmament, and proliferation prevention measures to reduce the risks of international conflict. We remain committed to countering terrorists who threaten our citizens and interests.

Sixth, we commit to continue building an inclusive, fair, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy for the 21st century. We will strengthen financial stability and transparency, fight corruption and illicit finance, and innovate and compete through high labour and environmental standards.

Seventh, the world has reached a critical point where it must act urgently and ambitiously to tackle the climate crisis, protect biodiversity, and sustain nature. Our countries will prioritise these issues in all our international action.

Eighth, we recognise the catastrophic impact of health crises, and the global good in strengthening our collective defences against health threats. We commit to continuing to collaborate to strengthen health systems and advance our health protections, and to assist others to do the same.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Boris Johnson, M.P.
June 10, 2021

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