Britain and America must rediscover the personal roots of their alliance, writes David Clark.
The official gift Theresa May gave to Donald Trump during his state visit to the UK this week was widely interpreted as subtle rebuke to the President’s strident ‘America First’ approach to international relations. It was a framed copy of Winston Churchill’s own personally amended draft of the Atlantic Charter signed with President Roosevelt at their historic meeting in Placentia Bay in August 1941. The Charter was both the founding document of the wartime Anglo-American alliance and a statement of war aims that anticipated the main features of the post-war order, including the United Nations, decolonisation, free trade and welfare capitalism.
If the intended message behind this gift was that the partnership between the UK and the US was founded on a shared commitment to enlightened internationalism and rules-based institutions, it is not one that this British government is well placed to deliver. The UK is in the process of turning its back on the European Union, a body that can justifiably claim to be the most ambitious attempt to fulfil the Atlantic Charter’s goal of replacing war with diplomacy and law in the affairs of nations. It is a policy that arises from the same narrow, resentful impulses that drive Trump’s populist nationalism. In that sense, the 2016 vote for Brexit and the election of Trump several months later should be understood as two acts of the same drama – the retreat of Anglo-America from the promise of 1941.
The implications of this are global. The achievement of building a liberal international order in the aftermath of the Second World War was the work of many countries, but the US and the UK remained at its core as joint custodians of the Atlantic Charter’s original vision. Both countries were willing to make sacrifices in the belief that the benefits of pursuing multilateral solutions would always outweigh the costs. The significance of Brexit and Trump is that an acceptance of that logic has been replaced by a rejection of it as the common denominator of Anglo-American politics. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic now preach the virtues of going it alone.
Can the liberal world order survive without the support of either of its original sponsors? Not easily. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are rhetorically committed to preserving as much of it as they can, but are poorly equipped to do so on their own. The recent decision of France and Germany to support a restoration of Russia’s voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also shows them to be weak and unreliable defenders of democratic standards. The EU is unable to replace the US as a counterweight to the rise of authoritarian populism, partly because several member states have already succumbed to it and partly because Brexit means the departure of a traditional advocate of liberalism. That’s why halting and reversing the Anglo-American slide towards isolationism remains an essential goal.
The starting point must be to understand that 2016 was the culmination of a process that had been decades in the making, involving policy mistakes made by many different leaders and governments. In part, the populist rejection of ‘globalism’ in the US and UK came as a reaction to the unilateralist excesses of the War on Terror and the loss of trust in political institutions that accompanied it. The global economic crisis of 2008 cemented the idea that politicians in Washington and London had spent too much time and money promoting grand geopolitical schemes abroad when they should have been fixing problems at home. Instead of demanding a return to a more restrained multilateralism, many voters drew the conclusion that foreign commitments per se were the problem.
Perhaps more fundamental to the growth of populism has been the gradual abandonment by the Anglo-American political elites of the generous social vision set out in the Atlantic Charter. This was the result of an alliance between American New Deal liberalism and British Labourism, with Clement Attlee supporting Roosevelt’s proposal to include “freedom from want” as a war aim in the face of Churchill’s objection. Attlee went further, insisting on the inclusion of a passage calling for “improved labour standards, economic advancement, and social security”. The post-war economic settlement agreed at Bretton Woods reflected these ambitions by combining free trade with exchange rate policies intended to maximise the ability of national governments to promote domestic welfare.
The Bretton Woods system was destroyed by Nixon’s monetary unilateralism in 1971 and the welfare capitalism it sustained was brutally repudiated by the Thatcher and Reagan governments a few years later. What followed was a sharp rise in inequality and an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a narrow elite. For all their talk of social inclusion, New Democrats and New Labour failed to reverse this legacy, leaving in place economic divisions that, in an era of severe financial stress, have proved to be greater than democracy can bear. Large numbers of voters have responded by putting their faith in leaders offering solutions based on hostility to outsiders and a rejection of foreign influence.
Trump and Brexit, of course, face problems of their own. The US President begins his re-election campaign with poor approval ratings, the prospect of new Congressional investigations and signs that the US economy is slowing. The British government is no closer to solving the conundrum of how to devise a version of Brexit that satisfies the desire to ‘take back control’ without doing immense harm to the national interest. One or both projects may collapse in the coming year, yet it would be an error to expect a return to business as usual. Without a convincing democratic alternative, populism will mutate and return, potentially in an even more destructive form. In framing that alternative, progressives should draw inspiration from an earlier generation that saw in the fight to defeat fascism the imperative to build a new and better society. Only a transformative politics on that scale will be equal to the challenge we now face.
About the author
David Clark was a Special Adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office 1997-2001 and is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Statecraft. He writes here in a personal capacity.
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