A tale of two Atlantic charters

The anniversary of a truly historic document prompts the former head of the Foreign Office to reflect on the substance of its successor

August 13, 2021
Roosevelt and Churchill aboard HMS Prince of Wales in 1941. Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Roosevelt and Churchill aboard HMS Prince of Wales in 1941. Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Eighty years ago this month, Churchill steamed across the Atlantic in HMS Prince of Wales to meet Roosevelt for the first of their momentous wartime summits. A surprise outcome was the Atlantic Charter, a joint statement setting out a shared vision of the future peace. Suggested by Roosevelt, and drafted largely by Alexander Cadogan—the only Foreign Office official in Churchill’s delegation—it became the founding document of the post-war rules-based order.

When Boris Johnson met Joe Biden in the margins of the G7 summit in Cornwall in June, the British side seized the opportunity to mobilise history on behalf of a prime minister who loves to see himself in Churchillian terms. They drafted a New Atlantic Charter, copying the format of the original with a high-flown preamble and eight principles. Just in case we missed the point, the new HMS Prince of Wales was anchored offshore as the leaders met.

We have now had time to digest the substance of what was signed. Since the 2021 version courts comparison so assiduously with its great predecessor, how does it match up? The original Atlantic Charter, published on 14th August 1941, was truly ground-breaking because it meshed together the perspectives of two countries in radically different positions—one fighting for its survival, the other still maintaining an awkward neutrality (that changed with Pearl Harbor four months later).

Some of the principles were easily agreed in the form Cadogan drafted them (for example on territorial integrity and the non-use of force). These were later transplanted into the UN Charter and hence into international law. Others involved difficult concessions from each leader. It cannot have been easy for Churchill the old colonialist to concede the right of self-determination for all peoples (rapidly seized on by independence movements in India and elsewhere). Roosevelt also insisted on the principle of free trade, knowing that this would hasten the end of the protectionist system of imperial preference among the British dominions. Churchill tried to play for time by inserting a phrase about respecting existing obligations, but the direction was set towards the dismantling of tariffs in the postwar decades.

The British side also had its priorities. One was to draw the US as far as possible into the anti-Hitler coalition. Cadogan later commented that it was remarkable that Roosevelt was willing to sign up to the goal of “the final destruction of Nazi tyranny” at a time when the US was not at war. The other British priority was to tie the Americans into the future system of international security, and so avoid a replay of the disastrous US decision to stay out of the League of Nations in 1920. Here too they were successful. In the most intensely negotiated passage in the text, they persuaded Roosevelt to sign up to the prospect of a “wider and permanent system of international security.” This initial US-UK agreement would contribute to the development of the United Nations system (of which the Americans became enthusiastic sponsors) and paved the way for the creation of Nato.

The New Atlantic Charter, launched with such fanfare in Cornwall and intended to revitalise the bilateral relationship for the post-Trump era, adopts the same tone of high and noble ambition. It reflects Biden’s commitment to an alliance of democracies based on shared values and open societies. The two countries pledged to work through the rules-based international system to tackle challenges undreamed of in 1941, such as climate change and threats to biodiversity. They resolve to sustain an innovative edge in science and technology, to maintain their shared responsibility for collective security through Nato, and to promote responsible state behaviour in cyberspace and arms control. In a fine example of the catch-all sentence, they commit to “continue building an inclusive, fair, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy for the 21st century.”

It is hard to object to any of this. And it is good to see that Biden’s America is back at the heart of international cooperation, working closely with Britain. But the striking difference between the 1941 and 2021 documents is that this year’s version creates no new area of agreement between London and Washington which did not exist before. It is a clever repackaging of existing policy objectives, but it breaks no new ground. It is also a reminder of how much the geometry of global power has changed in the intervening decades. The 1941 Atlantic Charter showed what could be achieved when Britain and America reconciled differences and then worked together to turn a common vision into durable institutions. In today’s polarised world, the US can no longer make the political weather, and Britain’s global reputation is a shadow of what it once was.

There is also a jarring disconnect between some of the aspirations in the New Atlantic Charter and the actions of the Johnson government. It is all very well declaring the intention of strengthening the “institutions, laws and norms that sustain international cooperation.” But the force of that is gravely weakened by the UK’s repeated threats to break a binding international agreement with the EU by suspending parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The commitment to “foster sustainable global development” rings hollow when Britain alone among the G7 countries has made far-reaching cuts in this pandemic year to its development programme. In the end, actions speak louder than even the most well-crafted words.