Before the second world war, states acted as they wished in international affairs, limited only by their resources and power. These circumstances began to change in August 1941, before America joined the allied cause. On a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland, the US president Franklin Roosevelt and the British prime minister Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic charter at a time when Nazi Germany appeared to be decisively winning the European war. A few months later, America, Britain, the Soviet Union and 23 other governments declared in the name of “United Nations” an intention to regulate the postwar world based on three revolutionary principles: free trade, non-aggression and democracy.
Eighty years later, Joe Biden and Boris Johnson have signed a new Atlantic charter, to reflect a world of different threats and one in which the UK is a much diminished power. Mr Biden looks out and sees an increasingly dangerous world. In some ways the vista resembles the 1930s – with populists, nationalists and demagogues on the rise, European powers divided, and democracy vulnerable to foreign manipulation. There’s no mention of China in the 604-word charter, but it is the undeclared target of many of the policies regarding debt transparency, freedom of navigation and protecting the west’s “innovative edge”.
There is much to agree with in the text, especially the focus on the climate crisis and promoting sustainable global development. It also calls for both countries to adhere to “the rules-based international order”, a welcome snub to the Trumpian idea that this was a threat to US power. However, the 2021 text is a pale imitation of its 1941 forerunner. There’s nothing remotely as bold as a new international law on governing relations between states.
The original document’s genius was the realisation that the time to think and plan is not at the end of a crisis, but as it unfolds. For the past 15 months, Covid-19 shut down large swathes of the planet amid what was initially a chaotic me-first approach. The pandemic has accelerated trends already in progress and will usher in a new geopolitical era. As the grip of the pathogen loosens, the world will need new principles to address the deeper issues that led to a decline in international cooperation, creeping illiberalism, and a shift in the balance of power away from democracies.
Mr Biden is looking for allies in his mission to ensure that the world remains conducive to a liberal, democratic way of life. Mr Johnson is looking for a role for Britain outside of the EU, and London almost always dances to Washington’s tune. But Mr Johnson’s inability to stick to the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit deal he negotiated saw the US issue a reprimand this week. Washington bluntly told Mr Johnson to come to a “negotiated settlement” with Brussels and accept, if needed, “unpopular compromises” – even if that means London temporarily aligning with EU rules on agriculture and slowing progress on a future UK-US trade deal. Mr Biden understands that allies will not begin to forge a better future by falling out with one another.
Nations need international agreements to promote and protect their own interests. Cooperation between states requires rules. Attempts to abandon the idea of international restraint and go it alone usually end badly. There’s nothing in the new charter that other members of the G7, or the EU, could not sign up to. The world does not govern itself, and leading powers cannot abdicate their role in shaping international institutions – and mobilising others to defend them. If the world’s democracies were to turn away, then either others would step in or the world risks a descent into chaos as it did in the 1930s.