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In August 1941, four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill held a secret rendezvous off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Much of continental Europe, including France, had fallen to Nazi Germany, and imperial Japan was on the march in Asia. At this dark moment, the U.S. president and British prime minister sought to give hope to oppressed peoples, by outlining their vision for an open, just, and stable postwar world. Their handiwork was the Atlantic Charter, the founding document of what today we call the “liberal international order.”
After a seven-decade run, that world order is under grave assault. Many people, including citizens in free societies, have grown skeptical of democracy, open markets, and international institutions. Globally, nationalism, populism, and protectionism are ascendant. Authoritarian powers, China and Russia foremost among them, seek to weaken Western solidarity and liberal values. Meanwhile, the United States, the former champion of an open world, has abdicated global leadership. Under President Donald J. Trump, it has embraced an amoral, transactional, and insular foreign policy, contributing to the sense of a world adrift.
Fortunately, not everyone is taking this lying down. At this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, a group of international statesmen and women released a “Declaration of Principles for Freedom, Prosperity, and Peace.” This document advances seven principles for a free, fair, and sustainable international order, consistent with the Atlantic Charter but updated for today’s circumstances. Call it Atlantic Charter 2.0.
The co-chairs of this effort are Madeleine Albright, Stephen Hadley, Carl Bildt, and Yoriko Kawaguchi, who formerly served as U.S. secretary of state, U.S. national security advisor, and Swedish and Japanese prime ministers, respectively. Although sponsored by the Atlantic Council and the Centre for International Governance Innovation, this initiative is not simply a transatlantic or even Western endeavor. Its global task force includes luminaries from democracies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as Europe and North America.
The original Atlantic Charter had eight principles. This Declaration offers “seven statements,” on topics ranging from international peace to the world economy to the global commons. Each enunciates a basic human right and outlines the obligations of states (and, where appropriate, private entities and individuals) in promoting and defending it. Collectively, these principles offer a hopeful vision of the future, with potentially global appeal.
Let’s take a closer look at the seven statements.
- Freedom and Justice: The Declaration’s point of departure is “the right of all people to live in free and just societies, where fundamental rights are protected under the rule of law.” Beyond repeating well-established liberties like freedom of expression and assembly (already enumerated in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the text adds some contemporary wrinkles. In promoting the “free flow of information,” for example, governments are expected to protect personal information and individual privacy. They are also obliged to “combat corruption,” and to ensure equal protection under the law, regardless of “gender, disability, and sexual identity,” among other factors.
- Democracy and Self-Determination: The authors unequivocally agree that all just governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and that citizens have a right to “choose their own leaders through a free, fair, and competitive democratic process,” without meddling, threats or intimidation, or “foreign interference.” These principles are all unassailable. But they merit constant repetition, given a global retreat of democracy that (according to Freedom House) has entered its thirteenth year.
- Peace and Security: All peoples, the document continues, have a right “to live in peace, free from threats of aggression, terrorism, oppression, crimes against humanity, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Accordingly, governments must avoid endangering the peace or allowing such violence to occur on their territories. In the real world, of course, things are not always so black or white. Nuclear deterrence, for instance, is based on the implicit threat of annihilation. The document also fudges on its call for states to “refrain from the use of force,” adding the qualifier: “except as just and necessary to advance these principles.” Who gets to make that decision remains ambiguous.
- Free Markets and Equal Opportunity: The greatest criticism of the liberal international order is that it no longer delivers shared prosperity. Aware of this, the authors temper their neoliberal instincts with recognition that restoring confidence in globalization requires addressing surging inequality and strengthening social safety nets. “We affirm the right of all people to engage in economic activity based on free market principles,” they write, but add that citizens must have “equal opportunity to contribute to and the ability to share in the benefits of national prosperity.” To this end, governments have an obligation to “protect the rights of workers, including the right to seek gainful employment; seek to mitigate the adverse impacts of global trade; and encourage inclusive, equitable, and well-regulated economies.” The drafters clearly hope that such measures will de-fang economic populism.
- An Open and Healthy Planet: Like the Atlantic Charter, the Declaration insists on the freedom of the seas, a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy since 1776 and an increasing concern given Chinese behavior in the South and East China Seas. But its support for “free and open access to the global commons” goes well beyond the oceans. The document calls on all states to “refrain from undue interference with freedom of navigation in the air, seas, and outer space, or with access to cyberspace.” Even more significant, the same statement affirms the right of all people to “a safe and healthy planet.” Back in 1941, few imagined that human activities might someday jeopardize life on Earth. Today, few outside the White House and other conservative circles ignore the reality of global warming and its catastrophic potential.
- The Right of Assistance: Any effort to revitalize the liberal international order must counter a powerful sovereigntist mindset that is skeptical of international commitments and rejects external concerns about internal conduct. The Declaration tackles this dilemma head on, by framing sovereignty in terms not simply of rights but of responsibilities. “We affirm the right of national sovereignty, while recognizing that sovereignty obligates governments to uphold these principles.” This will be the Declaration’s most controversial statement. The authors posit that citizens in all countries (“including in non-free societies”) have the right to receive outside aid to realize their rights. Moreover, where governments “are unwilling or unable to cease and remedy flagrant or systemic violations,” other states may “take such actions just and necessary to prevent them.” It is unclear how many sovereignty-minded states will sign onto this broad and potentially interventionist principle.
- Collective Action: The Declaration closes by “affirm[ing] the right of all people to cooperate in support of these principles and to work together to advance them.” Whether governments will avail themselves of this “right” is an open question. The world is confronting a crisis of multilateralism, as many legacy institutions—some dating from the 1940s—struggle to adapt to emerging threats, shifting power dynamics, and demands for accountability. The authors provide some grounds for hope, by advocating cooperation not only within formal bodies like the United Nations but also within more flexible “partnerships, coalitions, and alliances that bring together likeminded governments,” as well as multistakeholder arrangements that unite governments with private actors in resolving complex global challenges. Multilateralism, the authors are saying, comes in many forms.
Skeptics may well discount this weekend’s Declaration as a “high-minded” exercise divorced from the ugly realities of world politics. They would be wrong. The success of the liberal world order has always rested on a combination of power and idealism.
This was something that Roosevelt realized instinctively in 1941. Questioned by reporters, the president conceded that the Atlantic Charter did “not provide rules of easy application.” Nevertheless, he insisted, “it was a good thing to have principles,” so that humanity has something to aim for. He hoped that the charter would take its place beside the Magna Carta and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, “as a step toward a better life of the people of the world.”
In the same vein, the authors of this weekend’s Declaration acknowledge that “principles are not self-executing.” Accordingly, they propose to “develop a plan of action to implement these principles and advance our common goals.” The ultimate goal is to “create a more effective and responsive set of global rules” tailored to modern realities and grounded in international law. This will be a difficult journey. But the authors of the Declaration have taken the essential first step, by delimiting the destination.