History matters. Not least in the Middle East, where very little is unrelated to what happened some time ago, and often needs to be interpreted in that light. The UK/US relationship is much the same. The week of the G7 summit in England began with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly saying that he disliked the term “special relationship,” which often accompanies commentary about the two nations, as he believed it suggested a “needy” friendship on the part of the UK. It ended with him and President Joe Biden signing a new “Atlantic Charter,” a reference to the historical agreement signed during the Second World War at a time when both needed each other in the fight for freedom at the time.
It doesn't really matter what you call it. Having been the UK’s minister for North America between 2010 and 2013, and a Foreign Office minister in the turbulent years between them of 2017 and 2019, I can tell you that the UK and the US share sufficient fundamentals that their relationship survives word play, the occasional difference, and the odd leader who throws a spanner in the works.
The background of history represented by the Atlantic Charter can sometimes be overplayed. The past matters. The graveyards of Europe bear testimony to the sons of the US who gave their lives for what my generation enjoys and will never be forgotten. But the present and the future matter also, each year increasingly so for those born since 1945. One million workers in each country work for companies owned by the other. Defense, security and intelligence friendships between senior commanders, fostered by shared training, exercises and combat experience, have a unique character.
So this new Atlantic Charter is worth a good look, to ensure it represents real progress, and not simply a showpiece for the purposes of the G7 meeting itself. It covers eight areas where the UK and the US will work together, in the same spirit as it evoked 80 years ago in dealing with the challenges facing the world of our time. It is a mixture of the conceptual — of liberal democracy and international order, no longer “motherhood and apple pie” phrases, but commitments reaffirmed based upon threats to both from those abroad, and, since Jan. 6, 2021, also from those in our backyard — and the practical. It references the importance of science and innovation and a determination to ensure their “innovative edge” to protect shared security, and it brings that sense of threat up to date in acknowledging the need to counter cyberattacks. And of course, it stresses the need for very contemporary awareness of threats to health and climate change.
The Charter lands in a world arguably more dangerous than that of the past, and undoubtedly more skeptical. It will be carefully scrutinized, and its deficiencies ruthlessly exposed. But I have little doubt that both leaders were aware of this, so deserve credit for putting their names to such a document and challenging the cynicism which is so destructive of modern politics. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must first reconvince those in its heartlands, by statement of principle, that it remains resolute against attack.
Both know that words are no longer enough. It is not cynical to demand that leaders and states live up to their commitments, so action in relation to climate change, global health security, and rights of the individual will be demanded, the first test being to what extent G7 leaders follow their lead in the days following the signing of the Charter. Further tests, such as responses to the international air piracy we have seen recently in Belarus, will undoubtedly follow.
There are challenges not mentioned in the Charter. For one, both the UK and the US also have history in the Middle East, and the recent depressing conflict in Gaza has surely re-awakened them to it. On the US side, the issue of the Middle East peace process cannot be relegated as it had hoped and, on the UK side, the clamor grows over its historical legacy to see both parts of the Balfour equation fulfilled. There has never been a better time to acknowledge that unless further efforts are attempted, the same depressing cycle will be repeated soon, with greater loss of life and yet more entrenched feelings of loss and bitterness. There is a new raft of Arab allies who have invested in a different Middle East via the Abraham Accords, with an imperative also to secure renewed determination from both Palestinian and Israeli leaderships, and surely to call on the UK and the US to work with them.
Shakespeare’s question “What’s in a name?” tells an eternal truth. However the UK and US describe it, their common interests suggest a relationship ahead for as long as we can see. Its value will be measured in how they live up to the ideals recently refreshed on a Cornish beach.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK MP who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as parliamentary undersecretary of state from 2010 to 2013, and as minister of state for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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