From William Inboden, the German Marshall Fund: 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 paul-simpson.org)
Impact of the Atlantic Charter