It is very easy to romanticize the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. Easy, but misleading. So when the two countries agree, as they just have, on a new Atlantic Charter, it is worth analyzing what is really at stake and the degree to which the charter represents reality rather than romance.
The original Atlantic Charter was a foundational document in transatlantic relations. It was struck by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941 after they met on board the USS Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. It was a way of signaling their intention to work together for the same cause in wartime.
The key elements were a preference for an open international system that would allow for self-determination, the removal of trade barriers, freedom of the seas, disarmament, and peace. Neither side was seeking territorial gains (as had happened in the First World War).
The charter aimed to sketch out American and British aims for the Second World War and beyond. And, to a surprising degree, its spirit and intentions prevailed. The results found expression in the United Nations system, in NATO, in post-war decolonialization, in world trade arrangements. The document has come to be recognized not just as a key element in the victorious alliance against Nazi Germany, but also as an expression of a new American vision for the world—one that the United States (largely) shared with the weary titan on the other side of the Atlantic.
This moment—between these two iconic figures, engaged in an epic struggle against the ultimate evil—is magical; it still exerts a pull on the imagination that most diplomacy cannot rival. But that allure shouldn’t distract from the fact that the charter was not merely a vague wish list. It had a concrete function in the very tough relationship between two wartime allies.
The text was idealistic, but also a compromise. The United Kingdom had hoped to draw the United States into the war, but that would take until December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States was keen to relieve the United Kingdom of its colonial possessions and its protectionist arrangements with its colonies, and only partially succeeded. FDR and Churchill, though they fought side by side against Nazism, could not have been more different in their instincts.
The agreement between Joe Biden and Boris Johnson (two men who are perhaps even more unalike than their wartime counterparts) is in many ways not comparable to the original Atlantic Charter. Neither (with the greatest of respect) are Joe and Boris to the original FDR and Winston. And though this is a dramatic moment in world affairs, it is not 1941.
Nonetheless, the new charter reflects a shared sense of the values that are most vital to champion in the world, including democracy, open societies, and a rules-based world order. The second iteration has also been modernized, with references to cybersecurity, disinformation, and the countries’ nuclear deterrents.
And once again there is a fight underway and a need for solidarity to win it. The idea behind these declarations is to signal—to friends and foes alike—not only a common orientation and direction of travel, but also a common purpose.
The rise of China presents both countries with difficulties that are more complex than those posed by the rise of Russia after the Second World War, in the sense that the United States and United Kingdom will remain very closely entangled with China’s economy even as they clash with its political leaders.
As Washington seeks to build a web of alliances to counter China, it is tapping into long-established cultural and political ties with some countries (Australia, and Canada, for example) while also reaching out to partners that are less certain in the struggle with Beijing and do not wholly share US sentiments about open markets, open societies, or democracy. The United Kingdom falls squarely in the former camp. It is not the decisive ally that it was in 1941, but it remains a hugely valuable one. Though it is far from being an Indo-Pacific power, the United Kingdom still has many diplomatic relationships to complement those of the United States. And while the United States and United Kingdom can’t aspire on their own to set the agenda of the world’s democracies these days, they can show the way and encourage others to come along—a style of leadership more appropriate to 2021.
“Shared values” between the United Kingdom and the United States have, of course, concealed many differences over the years. Neither country was especially keen on democracy for all in 1941. In the United States, racial injustice has persisted for decades after the Atlantic Charter. The United Kingdom may have retreated rapidly from India following World War II, but it remained a colonial power for many years after the conflict. Yet even eighty years ago, both countries had a sense of democracy as an important value and sought more than just the advantages of realpolitik.
The second Atlantic Charter, as with the first, is a moment in time in which the two countries are recommitting themselves to common purpose—a moment when they admit their differences (there are tensions over Northern Ireland, for example), but within the context of one of the closest international relationships in the world. That relationship is ultimately based not just on memories of wartime struggle or the Magna Carta or even the narrow interests of their deeply intertwined banking systems, but on popular solidarity between the two nations and a concrete commitment to work together to shape the better, fairer, and safer world that could lie ahead.
It is important to agree on what one is fighting against, but also on what one is fighting for. About the latter, the United States and the United Kingdom can, largely, agree.
Andrew Marshall is the vice president of communications for the Atlantic Council.
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