The Atlantic Charter’s enduring relevance

AUSTIN, Texas — This Sunday, August 14, marks the 70th anniversary of the Atlantic Charter. Issued as a 376-word telegram by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill following their historic first meeting aboard the Augusta in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay, the Atlantic Charter established the blueprint for the transatlantic relationship, multilateral institutions, and international order that emerged in the postwar years and continue into the 21st century. In the words of historian Elizabeth Borgwardt, the Atlantic Charter “prefigured the rule-of-law orientation of the Nuremberg Charter, the collective security articulated in the United Nations Charter, and even the free-trade ideology of the Bretton Woods charters that established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.” To this list of Atlantic Charter-inspired ideals and institutions could be added the Marshall Plan, NATO, the G-8, the World Trade Organization, and even the European Union.


But better remembered today than the Charter itself are the evocative images of that first Atlantic Summit: FDR’s steel will in overcoming his polio to stand and greet Churchill; the transcendence of the Sunday shipboard hymns of faith and hope; and the almost instant forging of the Roosevelt-Churchill bond that would prove so essential in defeating Nazi tyranny. Such vignettes of history may inspire nostalgia, but do the Atlantic Charter’s principles themselves — of political and economic liberty, of open sea lanes and collective security, and of shared transatlantic values — still endure?


That question is all the more poignant considering that the Charter’s anniversary comes at what may seem an inauspicious time in transatlantic relations, as many of the institutions inspired by the Charter now appear feckless and besieged. The sovereign debt problems besetting Italy and Spain and imperiling the eurozone, the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating, the ongoing costs and challenges of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and the rioting in the United Kingdom all leave leaders on both sides of the Atlantic preoccupied with multiple crises and with little bandwidth and few resources for nurturing transatlantic ties.


Things may be hard today, but in the day of the Atlantic Charter they were much worse. Remembering the Charter’s 70th anniversary should remind us that the transatlantic alliance was forged not in a time of tranquility but in the crucible of trial. During the darkest days of the 20th century, Roosevelt and Churchill cast a vision of a peaceful, whole, prosperous, and free Europe even while the continent itself was torn asunder by fascist tyranny, Axis aggression advanced across the globe, and domestic sentiment strongly favored keeping the United States out of conflict and out of international affairs. That a robust vision for a transatlantic alliance could be cast even under those circumstances tells us much about the leadership of FDR and Churchill, and about the resilience of shared values.


It is, in fact, hard to think of a time when transatlantic relations did not confront some kind of turbulence. As historian James Sheehan has pointed out, throughout the Cold War, the Atlantic alliance “faced one crisis after another. Washington and its European allies had disagreed about German rearmament and French defection, the invasion of the Suez and the war in Vietnam, Kennedy’s missile crisis, Nixon’s détente and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.” To this litany could be added the continuing series of post-Cold War friction points: the first Iraq War, the Balkan crises, climate change negotiations, the second Iraq War, NATO’s role in Afghanistan, and the global financial crisis.


Yet, somehow, the transatlantic alliance has endured. And here the Atlantic Charter might help explain its past resilience and suggest ways of strengthening transatlantic cooperation in the years ahead. The Charter demonstrates that shared values must precede institutions, but that institutions are needed in turn to reinforce and promote values. It shows how the “Special Relationship” between Washington and London is not a barrier but rather a bridge to stronger ties between the United States and the European continent. It underscores the relationship between political liberty, economic liberty, prosperity, and peace. And it reinforces the fact that a flourishing transatlantic alliance serves not just the interests of the Atlantic community but of the globe.


William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin and a non-resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund.


Photo from

Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of FRANCE 24. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. FRANCE 24 is not liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • No HTML tags allowed

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.