This week marks the seventieth anniversary of one of history’s most consequential rendezvous—a secret maritime meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and UK prime minister Winston Churchill. That August 1941 summit produced the short but profoundly influential Atlantic Charter. Barely 300 words long, it would shape the course of the twentieth century.
The leaders met at a time of extraordinary peril. In Western Europe, only valiant Britain had withstood the Nazi onslaught. Hitler had turned east, hoping to devastate Stalin’s Soviet Union. The United States, where isolationist sentiment ran high, clung to tenuous neutrality.
The summit’s purpose was avowedly political. FDR believed that the two nations should “jointly bind themselves to a new world order based on those [liberal international] principles” to resist the spread of a ruthless fascism, and encourage others to do so. Over the longer term, the document would provide the foundation for an open postwar world based on those principles—including sovereign equality, self-determination and democracy, collective security and international law, and equal commercial access and treatment.
The Atlantic Charter was not a formal treaty. It was not even signed. Rather, it was a statement of principles for a just, peaceful, and prosperous world. The Charter (which I discuss in my book The Best Laid Plans: The Origins of American Multilateralism and the Dawn of the Cold War) proclaimed eight essential points:
- First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;
- Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;
- Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;
- Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;
- Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;
- Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;
- Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;
- Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of collective security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.
Although the United States had not yet entered the war, the Atlantic Charter embodied U.S. preferences for an open post-war order based on multilateral principles. It included a commitment to collective security, albeit an imprecise “system of general security” supported by multilateral disarmament. It called on all nations to eliminate trade barriers and collaborate to improve labor standards and social welfare. The Charter repeated the historic U.S. support for absolute freedom of the seas.
Several of its clauses also touched on democratic self-determination, including insistence that territorial changes be contingent on the “freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned,” that sovereign rights be restored to victims of aggression, and that all peoples have the liberty to choose their own form of government. (These clauses would soon cause heartburn in Britain, which faced growing opposition to its colonial rule in India, Burma, and elsewhere.) The document also echoed FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech of the previous January, explicitly advocating secure borders within which peoples might find “freedom from fear and freedom from want.”
Two clauses generated substantial controversy during the drafting. The British objected to a proposed non-discrimination clause in point four, citing their commitment to imperial preference under the Ottawa agreements. Churchill’s obstinacy on this point meant that the eventual Charter clause included the qualifying phrase, "with due respect for existing obligations."
On the eighth point, the British were actually more forward leaning than the Americans, seeking as an explicit postwar objective the creation of an “effective international organization.” FDR shied from such Wilsonian language, leery of outpacing congressional and popular sentiment and (as he told Churchill) of creating domestic “suspicions and oppositions.” He told Churchill, he trusted a U.S. and British “international police force” more, and would only accept an oblique reference to a future world body. (Roosevelt would change his tune by 1944, when he endorsed the United Nations.)
Some historians dismiss the Atlantic Charter as a rhetorical flourish—a press release, in effect—devoid of practical import. But the Charter set down principles which had real impact. FDR did not intend for the Charter to provide “rules of easy application.” Nevertheless, it mapped a U.S. foreign policy that blended idealism and realism, and sought to harness U.S. power to achieve American principles with international help. FDR expressed confidence that the Charter would take its place beside the Magna Carta and Wilson’s Fourteen Points as “a step toward a better life for the people of the world.” Indeed, following U.S. entry into the war, the Charter became a statement of allied war aims. On January 3, 1942, twenty-six allied countries signed a “Joint Declaration of the United Nations,” endorsing the Charter’s common program of purposes and principles.”
More practically, the Atlantic Charter provided broader inspiration to draft blueprints of future international bodies, including the UN, Bretton Woods Institutions, and an International Trade Organization, as Harley Notter describes.
These institutions haven’t always succeeded in creating a forum for nation states to calibrate foreign policy and achieve a more peaceful and prosperous world. But for the past seven decades, the United States and its Western partners have lived in an Atlantic Charter world.
Now the question is whether those open world principles will survive the dramatic geopolitical transformations today—or whether we will need, instead, a Pacific Charter for an Asian Century. Stay tuned…