What's the Atlantic Charter? Theresa May's gift to Trump, explained

Nicholas Wu

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has expressed skepticism about the value of international institutions like NATO that were set up after WWII. But the British government plans to give him a gift directly relating to the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom and the postwar world order. 

On Tuesday, the Twitter account for the British Prime Minister posted a picture of the gift that Theresa May plans to give Trump during his state visit — Winston Churchill's own typescript draft of the Atlantic Charter, a document dating back to 1941 that laid the foundations for the postwar diplomatic order. It includes Churchill's own revisions marked up on the document. 

Here's what the Atlantic Charter is, and why it's important. 

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What is the Atlantic Charter? 

The Atlantic Charter is a joint statement by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt that was not a treaty or a formal communique. However, it laid out "certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they based their hopes for a better future for the world.” It was released on August 14, 1941, four months before the United States entered the war when Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The Charter sets out eight different points, five of which are principles for international justice including the right to self-determination, free access to raw materials, and non-aggrandizement. 

The fifth clause of the Charter calls for economic cooperation, "with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security."

Two clauses relate to the way in which the two powers sought to arrange the world after the end of hostilities. 

The sixth clause of the Charter says that the United States and the United Kingdom "hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”

The seventh clause says that peace should allow for "all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance."

Why is it important?

It's a pivotal document, described by Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations as "the founding document of what today we call the 'liberal international order'" in a February 2019 CFR post

One month after the Charter was released, on September 24, 1941, while convened in London, representatives from ten other governments signed their support for the document's principles. These adherents later signed on to the Declaration by United Nations on January 1, 1942, which then laid down the principles by which those nations would fight WWII. This formalized the alliance of nations that beat the Axis powers and later evolved into the postwar United Nations. 

Additionally, the inclusion of a principle of self-determination helped to serve as an inspiration to colonial subjects who rebelled against Britain and France after the Second World War, as historian Elizabeth Borgwardt noted in "Race, Rights, and Nongovernmental Organizations at the UN San Francisco Conference: A Contested History of Human Rights....Without Discrimination."  

According to Borgwardt's essays, at the time, one of FDR's speechwriters wondered if "it was not long before the people of India, Burma, Malaya, and Indonesia were beginning to ask if the Atlantic Charter extended also to the Pacific and to Asia in general."

And indeed, it did inspire people. In 1941, a young South African lawyer named Nelson Mandela, after reading the Charter, said that it "reaffirmed faith in the dignity of each individual." 

The rest is history. 

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