Globalist Perspective

Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Atlantic Charter

Why does the new global era demand a new global charter?

Why does the new global era demand a new global charter?


  • While celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Atlantic Charter, the new global era demands a new global charter.
  • While globalization has brought down barriers and opened the world, it has not brought about a spirit of collaboration among states.
  • The Mexican city of Cancún may stand out as the symbolic capital of the futility of efforts to advance global governance.

On August 14, 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met (for the first time!) aboard the USS Augusta in Placentia Bay off the southeast coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Britain had been at war with Germany for two years.

Japan had been at war with China since 1937. It would still be a few months before it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States fully into World War II.

At the end of their meeting, the two heads of government issued a “Joint Declaration by the President and the Prime Minister,” soon afterwards entitled the “Atlantic Charter.” It is a magnificent document. It is succinct, profound, inspiring and actionable. It covers no more than a page, containing eight “common principles” on which “hopes for a better world” should be based. It was endorsed by all the allies and — after their defeat — by Italy, Germany and Japan.

Whereas the aims of the victors after World War I had been to punish and weaken the vanquished, this document sets out a vision for a future for all. In the fourth common principle, which became the cornerstone of the subsequent postwar world trade regime, they committed “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.”

The Atlantic Charter sets out both to close certain chapters of history — thus in the first and second common principles, they renounce territorial aggrandizement and, in the third, they recognize “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”

They are also open to new ones, by urging all nations “to bring about the fullest collaboration in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.”

The Atlantic Charter is very much about freedoms, including that “all men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want” and that all men should have the freedom “to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.”

The post-World War II world, even to this day, can hardly be described as utopic. Hundreds of millions of men and women remain deprived of many freedoms, while hundreds of millions continue to suffer from “fear and want.”

However, when comparing the catastrophic tragedies of the first half of the 20th century — two world wars, countless civil wars, famine, genocide and economic depression — with the second half of the 20th century, there can be no doubt that the latter was infinitely better.
Furthermore, while things got progressively worse in the decades of the early 20th century, things got progressively much better in the post-World War II decades.

This was especially the case in the 1990s, which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire and its ideology, the opening of China, economic and political reforms in many countries throughout the world, an unprecedented reduction in poverty — and a much greater enjoyment by a much greater number of people of the freedoms the Atlantic Charter proclaimed.

While all this may be true, there is a sense of anxiety that trends may have reversed. There is a depressing feeling, especially among the youth of the world — such a high proportion of whom are unemployed — that things may be getting worse and the future looking bleaker.

The world has made no real progress with respect to the three most vital priorities on the global policy agenda: nuclear non-proliferation, trade and climate change. While globalization in the last two decades has brought down multiple barriers and opened the world to an unprecedented degree, it has not brought about a spirit of collaboration among states.

The Mexican city of Cancún, where World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial negotiations collapsed in 2003 and climate change talks turned into farce in 2010, may stand out as the symbolic capital of the futility of efforts to advance global governance that may epitomize the post-Atlantic Charter era.

The Atlantic Charter set a framework and a set of principles that the powers of the Atlantic, by and large, adhered to. The Atlantic Peace also extended to other parts of the world. The institutions set up by the postwar Atlantic powers became universal. Virtually every country in the world, regardless of political regime or cultural heritage, is a member of the WTO, thus committing themselves to adhere to the core WTO principle of non-discrimination.

However, the transformations of the last two decades, especially the rise of the new powers of China, India, Brazil and others, bring to an end the “Atlantic era.” While celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Atlantic Charter, the new global era demands a new global charter.

Globalizing the charter will make it more complex, as will the fact that in contrast to the two authors of the Atlantic Charter, the new charter will probably require a minimum of eight — Brazil, China, EU, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa and the United States. No war is acting as Damocles’ sword, and it has already been seen that the urgencies of the trade and climate change threats are not succeeding in focusing minds.

So it will take time. Arguably, that could be an advantage. The charter should be prepared by eminent scholars representing the eight governments, quietly and out of the limelight, with a mandate to present a first draft within a year.

Global governance at the moment is very reminiscent of the ethos in a play written by the Italian surrealist writer Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Today, we have actors on the global stage, both old and new, but they have no common script to which they can refer. A post-Atlantic Global Charter setting out core common principles to which all nations should adhere will not by itself save the planet — but it could provide a basis for hopes for a better world in the 21st century.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann (1946-2017) was emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland]

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