Biden and Johnson’s ‘New Atlantic Charter’ Faces Old Challenges
US President Joe Biden’s first presidential trip overseas to the “Old World” added bite to the promise he made in his first address to a global audience in February: “America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back ”.
It also appears that the Anglo-American “special relationship” is back and better than ever.
For the first leg of his journey, Biden met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to sign a 604-word declaration that modernized the eighty-year-old “Atlantic Charter” issued by the predecessors of the two leaders: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August. 14, 1941. The revised charter has almost double the words of the original document, but an equal amount of international significance. The declaration, like its predecessor, defines the “special relationship” for a new era against rivals and looming threats while developing a “vision for a more peaceful and prosperous future”.
The cosmetic similarities continue. The two men seek to emulate their predecessors. Biden has long admired Roosevelt. US political experts frequently compare the two presidents and wonder if Biden is FDR’s “second coming”. Johnson has published a panegyric biography of his hero, The Churchill factor, in 2014. While critics found the book lacking in historical novelty, they spotted the “obvious subtext … that Johnson seeks to compare his own reputation as a political maverick with that of Churchill.”
After reviewing a historical exhibit containing copies of the 1941 charter with Biden, the British Prime Minister clarified the historical parallel: “As Churchill and Roosevelt faced the question of how to help the world in recovering from a devastating war, today we face a very different but no less daunting challenge – how to better rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic. In essence, the Covid-19 pandemic is Biden and Johnson’s “world war”. And the new charter is their roadmap for a post-Covid world facing the rise of authoritarianism and illiberalism.
The context behind “The New Atlantic Charter”, of course, differs from the original. Britain is much less powerful. The Allied Powers do not wage kinetic warfare against other states (at most, China and Russia are the West’s “competitors” or “rivals”). The “special relationship” is complemented by other European democracies, unlike 1941, when 4/7 of the current G7s were either Axis Powers or Axis-controlled.
However, an assessment of face-value similarities and distinctions not only ignores the common magnitude of the challenges and the collaborative spirit of each charter to resolve them, but also overlooks a major dissimilarity and obstacle in achieving that “vision. »Revised transatlantic.
In August 1941, the UK was at war with Nazi Germany for over a year. It survived the evacuation of Dunkirk and German bombardments during the Blitz, protected merchant ships in the Battle of the Atlantic, and counterattacked German land advances in the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Africa. Throughout Britain’s “finest hour” its “inhabitants held the fort ALONE,” Churchill later wrote in his wartime memoir, “until those who until then were half blind be half ready ”. The “Half-Blind” was a subtle dig against the Soviet Union and the United States, two countries that remained “neutral” in the war until Germany and Japan invaded them, respectively. Yet even before the two countries declared war on the Axis Powers, Moscow and Washington’s visions of cooperation with Britain began to improve when Churchill negotiated a military alliance with the Soviet leader. Joseph Stalin on July 12, 1941 and Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Law in March. 1941 which provided food, equipment and military materiel to Britain and other allied powers, making America an “arsenal of democracy.”
For Churchill, leased American guns were not enough. He needed to “bring the Americans into the war”. But Roosevelt usually refused to discuss US entry or further involvement in the conflict. The nation would remain neutral. Nonetheless, both men have watched with apprehension the perilous global developments, including the worldwide rise of demagoguery, populism and fascism as well as the general propensity of countries to act without regard to international principles or order, do facing the constraints of their limited resources and capacities.
Anticipating possible wartime American involvement, Roosevelt asked Churchill in late July 1941 if the two could meet “to consider the entire world position in relation to the common and established interests of our respective countries.” This assessment could give rise to “a joint declaration setting out certain major principles which should guide [U.S.-U.K.] policies along the same route. Churchill agreed, and less than a month later the two met on August 9 and 10 aboard the destroyer USS Augusta, anchored in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, to discuss wartime efforts and declare a postwar vision.
The two men agreed on eight common principles for “a better future for the world … after the final destruction of the Nazi tyrant”. These principles included an end to “enlargement” and “use of force”; respect for self-government and self-government; equitable and global access to economic prosperity, improvement of “labor standards, economic progress and social security”; and, a peace where “all men” could travel “unhindered” and live “in safety within their borders”, without “fear and without need”.
Eight decades later, the “New Atlantic Charter” affirms similar principles for solving “new and old challenges” and operating in a world that increasingly echoes the trends of the 1930s. It supports “work”[ing] through the rules-based international order “that Roosevelt and Churchill formulated in Newfoundland while making commitments on new issues, such as climate change, technology, cyberspace and” health threats ” , all in the same cooperative vein as the original charter.
Esther Webber and Anna Isaac from Politics recently criticized the new deal for its “package promises” which “lacked detail on how they could actually be achieved.” In this sense too, the charters are reflected. At the time, Churchill wrote to Labor leader Clement Attlee that the charter was “a provisional and partial declaration of war objectives designed to assure all countries our just objective, and not the complete structure that we should build afterwards.” victory “. Biden and Johnson have rightly avoided getting bogged down in their pithy statement with detailed policy prescriptions. “The New Atlantic Charter” is not a complex operating manual for future Anglo-American cooperation; it is another roadmap.
But behind the summit, the pageantry and conviviality of conferences and charters, the same fear persists: will the United States join Britain (and Europe) in countering serious threats and ensuring a responsible world order? Or will she choose to pursue an “America First” approach – as Charles Lindbergh preached in 1940 and Donald Trump practiced from 2016 to 2020? The choice of the United States depends less on the charter or Biden than on its political opponents.
Franklin Roosevelt “attached[d] so much importance “to the Atlantic Charter, writes Churchill, because he believed that it” would affect the whole movement of American opinion “towards intervention. Ultimately, this is not the case. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 succeeded. But America’s growing internationalism – its “arsenal of democracy” and its peacetime peace project – can be largely attributed to Roosevelt’s presidential adversary of 1940: Wendell Willkie.
In 1940, Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term, but claimed greater American involvement in the war for fear of provoking defeat by spending too much political capital. But during the campaign, Willkie supported Roosevelt’s plans for a peace project and an expedition of fifty destroyers to Britain. Willkie’s backing quelled firm, isolationist Republican opposition and gave the president the political maneuverability to pursue both initiatives. To quote journalist Walter Lippmann in 1944, “Under any direction other than his [Willkie’s], the Republican Party would have turned its back on Great Britain, making all those who still resisted Hitler believe that they were abandoned. Roosevelt agreed. “He was a godsend for this country when we needed him most,” he told an aide.
Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter with the assurance that his successors, regardless of their party affiliation, would uphold its values and principles. Biden can’t be so sure today. He reminded European leaders that “America is back to the table.” But they ask: for how long?
Under Biden, Washington will not practice a unilateral “America First” foreign policy that imposes tariffs on allies, embraces adversaries, repeals climate and nuclear agreements, and snubs international partners – all Trump has done as president – until at least inauguration day 2025 Yet the Republican Party’s continued support for Trump and his policies suggests that Biden’s promise to preserve “the rules-based international order” and US multilateralism are not guaranteed going forward, especially if Trump or a like-minded candidate (from either party) wins in 2024.
If so, “The New Atlantic Charter” will not represent a revitalized multilateral vision to improve a post-Covid world. Rather, it will validate the fears of America’s allies: the United States is no longer a world leader, but just another great power.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, US Department of Defense, or the US government.
Nick Danby is an intelligence officer in the US Navy. He graduated magna cum laude with the highest distinction in history from Harvard University. His work has been featured in the Financial Times, The National Interest The Diplomat, Naval History, ASPI The Strategist, Responsible Statecraft, Real Clear Defense, The Washington Examiner, and The Fletcher Forum for World Affairs.