Calgary Beacon | 8.4.11
By Alan W. Dowd
Winston Churchill called it “a great hour to live.” Franklin Roosevelt described it as a summer “cruise.” The White House told the press it was just a “fishing holiday.”
It was the Atlantic Conference, one of the most consequential summits in history. It transpired 70 years ago this month, just off the coast of Newfoundland. And in the dark hours of World War II, it gave us a roadmap to a better world.
First and foremost, FDR and Churchill vowed “no territorial changes that do not accord with the…wishes of the peoples concerned” and endorsed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”
This stood in stark contrast to what their enemies and their chief ally sought. After all, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia gobbled up territory from the outset of the war; the Soviets kept gobbling at the end of the war.
Mindful of Versailles’ failures, FDR and Churchill wanted the postwar peace to encourage “economic advancement,” improve labour standards, and tear down barriers to trade. If economic nationalism and closed-off markets helped sow the seeds of war, they reasoned, then a postwar world characterized by free trade, freedom of the seas, and a more liberal economic system would help sow the seeds of peace.
“One of the preconditions of any lasting peace will have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade,” FDR told Churchill.
Likewise, if the military defeat of Germany was incomplete in 1918, the Atlantic Charter called for “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny” and the disarmament of aggressive nations.
Related, the Charter envisioned the “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” Therein lay the seeds of the UN. Two global wars in the span of 20 years convinced FDR and Churchill that they had an obligation to try to check mankind’s destructive impulses.
These war aims gave the Allies something to fight for: “a better future for the world,” in the words of the Charter.
Long before that better future could be realized, the summit signaled to Churchill that help was on the way. With his country besieged, Churchill wanted the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. But given the American public’s wariness, U.S. entry was not possible in August 1941. So FDR vowed, as Churchill put it, to “wage war but not declare it.”
In other words, it was during the Atlantic Conference that FDR quietly pulled the plug on American isolationism.
Likewise, it was during the Atlantic Conference that Britain began to hand off its global responsibilities to America. Thus was born what Churchill later called the “special relationship.” Ever since, these two partners have stood together, from Berlin to Baghdad to Benghazi. It’s no accident that the U.S. has developed bonds with Canada and Australia—two other pieces of the British Empire—that are as strong as the U.S.-UK alliance.
After the summit, Churchill told the House of Commons that Britain and the United States “will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage.”
Thus, they commanded each other’s troops during the war; forged permanent partnerships on trade, intelligence, armaments, military basing, and strategic military doctrine after the war; and continue to deepen their alliance today. Consider the new U.S.-UK National Security Strategy Board. Co-chaired by each country’s national security advisor, it will develop a common approach to emerging security challenges.
Much about the postwar world flows from the Charter: shared responsibility, free trade, and free government—all buttressed by a widening circle of free nations. It pays to recall that the Berlin Airlift was an Anglo-American operation. Britain, America and fellow Anglo-sphere partner Canada built NATO; defended Korea at the beginning of the Cold War; liberated Kuwait at the end; and faced down Moscow in the years between. After the Cold War, they stabilized the Balkans and reunited Europe. And today, they are dismantling al Qaeda, rebuilding Afghanistan, and giving Libya a chance at “a better future.”
Indeed, in today’s Arab Spring, we hear echoes of the Atlantic Charter: “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Ever the visionary, Churchill knew the Charter would “remain a guide…for other peoples of the world.”
The Charter’s enduring relevance is just one measure of its success. Another is found in Germany and Japan. Seventy years ago, they were predator nations. Today, they are peaceful, prosperous and free. Likewise, the wider world—even with the troubles in the Middle East, the ongoing financial crisis, and the threat of terrorism—is more peaceful, prosperous and free than it was before the Charter.
To be sure, the world is still afflicted by tyrants and wars. FDR and Churchill were not so naive as to think they could remedy the world’s ills with a piece of paper. But owing to their declaration of peace, great-power disagreements haven’t triggered a global war in nearly 75 years, the zone of partnership and prosperity is larger today than it has ever been, and we have a roadmap for enlarging it.
Not bad for a three-day fishing trip.