At the G7 meeting in Cornwall in June 2021, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a New Atlantic Charter to reaffirm their nations’ commitment to a rules-based and democratic international order. The original Atlantic Charter, signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, paved the way for decades of transatlantic cooperation and a “special relationship” between the US and Britain. It was forged at a time when Britain was anxious for the US to enter World War II, and the signs of an American-led post-war order were on the horizon. Now the New Atlantic Charter, signed by Biden and Johnson, comes at a time of renewed strains on the international order which both nations have shaped and vigorously defended for many years. For the US, the charter is a strong signal from Biden that “America is back” and ready to resume its role as a guarantor of European security and a promoter of democratic values. For the UK, the charter highlights its longstanding alliance with the US and confirms that the alliance will not be affected by the UK’s exit from the EU and subsequent disagreement within the UK’s member states.
The first goal of the charter is to ensure that democracies are able to “solve the critical challenges of our time,” with the important addition of “starting with our own,” a reference to Washington and London. Great Britain and the USA remain strong, representative democracies, but the USA are after the Trump presidency and the 6th uprising. While the Brexit in the UK pitted neighbor against neighbor and led to more partisanship, the British institutions, the rule of law and asserted public confidence in elections largely in ways never seen in the United States. However, the New Atlantic Charter is arguably more important for Great Britain than for the United States. Now that Britain has officially left the EU and is in the midst of a strategic review of foreign and defense policies, the Charter enables London to forge new alliances based on the weight of its historic alliance with Washington.
The alliance between Washington and London was forged when Churchill and Roosevelt met in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, in August 1941. While reviewing the course of the war, they drafted a document that combined a realistic response to German aggression with idealistic post-war goals. At the end of World War II, the Atlantic Charter became a central document of liberal internationalism that led to the birth of the United Nations and NATO, two pillars of collective security and global governance in which both the US and Britain play a leading role . Crucially, the original Atlantic Charter also called for improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security, which paved the way for Clement Attlee’s dramatic reforms of British society in the post-war years. Now, the New Atlantic Charter comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the role of government in the lives of citizens, exposing economic inequalities that threaten global growth and prosperity. The charter calls for a strengthening of collective defense and greater cooperation between health systems in the run-up to the next pandemic. The charter thus rejects the model of authoritarian states like China and advocates a unique combination of individual freedom and state protection. It is a bold call for multilateralism, burden sharing, and collective will that compel nations to serve not only their own citizens but those of their neighbors.
With the signing of the New Atlantic Charter, the transatlantic unity on which the original Charter was based is now guided from a fulcrum to the Indo-Pacific. While Biden remains a true Atlanticist, the Atlantic is geostrategically less important than it used to be. It was a critical conflict area between the Allies and Germany during World War II and retained its strategic value during the Cold War. Today the Atlantic is a bridge between the old and established powers in the world order, with the potential for trouble spots that are unlikely to disrupt pre-existing geopolitical trends. It is strategically and ideologically a safe space – and a symbolic bridge that can help promote strength and unity in the Indo-Pacific.
Johnson likely has no allusions to the extent of the U.S. commitment to establishing supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. As NATO adjusts to the military challenge of China, not just Russia, any attempt by Washington to establish domination in the region to counter China’s rise will likely serve Britain as well. Much like Churchill, Johnson knows exactly how the US can advance British interests, especially at turning points in history where British power is either waning or being overstretched. As both Biden and Johnson draft the new charter, they both know that the world around them has changed dramatically, in part of its own accord. Still, both men are determined to retain some of the dominance and superiority that have brought their two nations to the height of their global power. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, the New Atlantic Charter serves to ground both nations in a common glory and a size that is not inflammatory and divisive, but for the benefit of common security and prosperity.
In the 21st century, the New Atlantic Charter is brave, ambitious, and idealistic in its hopes and goals. It will contradict the harsh reality that common challenges do not always involve cooperation and that democracy is not always the most inherent form of government. For each of its idealistic flaws, however, the New Atlantic Charter is also necessary and, when implemented by seasoned statesmen, capable of major reforms.
In the 21st century, the Atlantic must no longer be a point of conflictst Century, but its ideals are long-lived and capable of forging alliances necessary to prevent the next conflict. In the transition to the Indo-Pacific, the New Atlantic Charter can weigh the weight of the democratic victories of the USA and Great Britain against totalitarianism in the 20th centurythe Century and lead them into a new era. Britain may no longer be the world power it once was, but as a signatory to the New Atlantic Charter, its power is firmly rooted in its principles. For both the US and the UK, these principles are inviolable democratic values applicable to any civilizational challenge.
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