A flickering foreign policy guide star
Why the "New Atlantic Charter" shows the promise and shortcomings of Biden's approach to foreign policy
It’s not hard to understand how otherwise-important statements and policy declarations can get lost amidst the rush of President Biden’s whirlwind European tour, a diplomatic expedition that included the annual G7 meeting in Cornwall, NATO and European Union summits in Brussels, and a tete-a-tete with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in Geneva. But the so-called New Atlantic Charter issued by President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last Thursday deserves greater attention. In form and substance, it neatly illustrates the promise and shortcomings of the Biden administration’s approach to U.S. foreign policy – and in particular its halting attempt to find a broadly appealing and easily understood strategic narrative.
As with other parts of President Biden’s foreign policy, the New Atlantic Charter represents an imperfect and flawed step in the right direction. While it demonstrates that the technocratic mindset remains alive and well when it comes to foreign policy, it also shows a recognition – however tentative and incomplete – that this mindset isn’t enough. The instinct to emulate President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the original Atlantic Charter is salutary, but the new document offered by Biden and Johnson takes its cues from its predecessor’s form more than its substance. Nevertheless, the very fact that the idea of a New Atlantic Charter – no matter its substantive deficiencies – received a warm enough welcome from the Biden administration remains a cause for optimism.
In its claim to revive the original Atlantic Charter agreed to by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in August 1941, the new document invites comparison with its illustrious predecessor. To start, the wider geopolitical contexts both declarations address couldn’t be more different. When Roosevelt and Churchill met at sea to forge the original Atlantic Charter, virtually all of Europe lay under Hitler’s boot and the outcome of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union remained undetermined. Though it had yet to take the offensive against the United States and Britain in the Pacific, moreover, Imperial Japan had waged a war in China for more than four years.
While Biden has been largely correct to frame contemporary geopolitics as a contest between democratic and autocratic systems of government and even more right to say that the outcome on the contest depends mainly on whether democratic governments can deliver on the things their people expect of them, neither he nor Johnson face a world that presents threats to democracy as severe as those faced by Roosevelt and Churchill. Nonetheless, the instinct to put forward a joint declaration of political principles remains an important advance over the technocratic and process-obsessed language we typically hear when political leaders talk about foreign policy.
That’s why the actual text of the New Atlantic Charter disappoints. Roosevelt and Churchill spoke in simple and eloquent terms about their desire
to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.
Biden and Johnson, on the other hand, speak the technocratic language like “the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international co-operation,” “building an inclusive, fair, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy for the 21st century,” and, of course, the “rules-based international order.” In short, the New Atlantic Charter put forward by Biden and Johnson serves less a concise statement of principles and goals than an overstuffed policy checklist.
Indeed, the very substance of the New Atlantic Charter evinces the preoccupation with process that animates many American and European foreign policy experts and officials. Distilled down to its essence, the New Atlantic Charter amounts to a call to use existing international institutions to address a wide variety of new problems ranging from climate change to emerging technologies. Its primary aim, it seems, is to reassert a faith in international institutions and mechanisms rather than outline any particular shared principles that will guide American and British foreign policy. All in all, the New Atlantic Charter works better as a joint communique than a declaration of shared principles that can ground a broader strategic narrative.
That makes the New Atlantic Charter by far the best of the communiques and proclamations issued during Biden’s European trip. While it can’t match the clarity and concision of its namesake, at a mere 600 words it’s a masterpiece of brevity when compared with the 4,500-word U.S.-EU Summit Statement or the mammoth 13,900-word and 14,400-word G7 and NATO summit communiques. To be fair, these documents serve much more functional purposes – NATO, for instance, must set a policy framework for a thirty-member political and military alliance whose overall purposes have already been stated in the North Atlantic Treaty. But that means that these heavily negotiated statements can’t possibly help weave together the strategic narrative that the Biden administration and its foreign policy need.
Moving forward, then, the Biden administration needs to offer a more compelling narrative for its foreign policy. The New Atlantic Charter represents one of several important threads the administration could weave together to produce such a narrative. President Biden’s repeated insistence that proving democracy works in our own society is critical to its worldwide appeal is another, as was his assertion that “universal rights and fundamental freedoms” will always be an integral part of American diplomacy. So far, however, the Biden administration has not pulled these threads together into a cohesive whole.
That’s understandable to a large degree. The Biden administration came into office during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic at home, relegating foreign policy to the back burner as the White House focused on vaccinations and the American Rescue Plan. But rather than build its own strategic narrative on foreign policy, the Biden administration outsourced this vital job to others with its early foreign policy decisions. It trumpeted its desire to end the war in Yemen and announced the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan with rhetoric that reinforced the “end endless wars” narrative offered by left-wing activists.
Nearly six months in, however, the Biden administration appears to be coalescing around its own foreign policy narrative. Still, this narrative remains largely unformed and ill-defined – the administration has its work cut out for it, to be sure. For all its limitations, though, the New Atlantic Charter represents a step in the right direction. President Biden and his administration would do well to keep this guide star in their sights.