In August 1941, Winston Churchill climbed aboard the USS Augusta, anchored off the southeast coast of Newfoundland, ready to talk with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who awaited him on deck. The British and American leaders began lengthy discussions about the shape of a postwar world. Their eight principles for “a better future” included self-determination, open trade, freedom of the seas, and a rejection of territorial aggression. The Atlantic Charter, as the statement was eventually called, was a precursor to many collective arrangements, including the United Nations, NATO, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The Atlantic Charter may have seemed quite premature. After all, the United States was not even at war in August 1941, and Pearl Harbor was still four months away. Yet FDR and his team could feel the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting. As war spread across the globe, they sought to wrest a better future.
Hopefully, the coronavirus pandemic will prove far less destructive and disruptive than world war. Yet UN Secretary-General António Guterres has already called the coronavirus the most challenging crisis since World War II. Henry Kissinger has written that once the pandemic has run its course, the world will never be the same. If such predictions are even partially correct, we are living through extremely rapid, possibly epochal change. This moment presents a once-in-a-century opportunity for American leaders to wrest, as in 1941, a better future: We need an Atlantic Charter for the pandemic. And as FDR and Churchill demonstrated, the time to think and plan is not at the end of a crisis, but as it unfolds.
In the short term, COVID-19 has shut down most of the planet, interrupting billions of lives. It has already produced an every-country-for-itself approach, with border closures, export controls, competition for medical resources, and other restrictions. Supply chains and trade relationships have been rattled, relations with allies have been strained, and even liberal countries have welcomed intrusive technological surveillance measures to fight the virus. Autocrats have seized more power at home, and China has launched a major charm offensive abroad. Current government intervention to prop up economies is unprecedented in speed and magnitude.
Long-term, the pandemic will likely affect population movements, work and travel patterns, trade and finance restrictions, the scope or lack of international cooperation, the role of public health in the pantheon of global threats, the trend toward nationalism and autocracy—and that's just a short list. Some of these effects will revert after the pandemic ebbs, while others won’t.
At a minimum, however, the pandemic will accelerate geopolitical changes already in progress. At a maximum, it will usher in a new global era, with as-yet-undefined characteristics. American leaders should be not bystanders as this new world unfolds, but its visionaries.
Donald Trump conjuring an especially expansive vision of a post-pandemic world is difficult to imagine, based on how he’s handled the crisis so far. But the mindset the Atlantic Charter represents is one needed today. American leaders—the Trump administration, even if its vision may be limited; certainly Joe Biden; and members of Congress—should each begin planning now for the institutions, initiatives, relationships, and movements that should rise in the trauma’s aftermath. This forward-thinking effort must begin at home, and ultimately include like-minded partners—the countries that can play a constructive role after 2020, akin to Britain’s after 1941.
How should leaders get started? Again, the Atlantic Charter offers a guide. In 1941, the principles addressed deeper issues that had led to war. Now the systemic problems America faces that demand solutions include a decline in globalization and international cooperation, creeping illiberalism, and the shifting U.S.-China balance of power. Leaders should not simply accept that those problems will be the same after the pandemic. The crisis presents an opportunity to catalyze new approaches to governance and geopolitics. While policy makers focus on the current crisis, they should start asking the bigger questions.
The pandemic, for instance, has prompted strikingly little international cooperation. Governments have made decisions about borders, entry protocols, export bans, and population-control measures largely on their own. Key multilateral groupings, such as the UN Security Council, the G7, and the G20, haven’t accomplished much. Instead, nations have thrown up walls to travelers and trade. Even if many coronavirus-era barriers eventually fall, the world passed peak globalization roughly a decade ago, and key populations around the world have grown skeptical of international engagement. Are more effective responses to transnational threats possible, and how can countries generate the will to implement them? Is a new social contract needed for countries to more broadly share the benefits of globalization?
The world’s leading democracies feel the effects of creeping illiberalism. A debate now rages over whether democracy or dictatorship is better suited to beat back pandemics, but the ideological competition is nothing new. A democratic recession, the rise of tech-fueled autocracies, the willingness of some to undermine democratic practice, and declining faith in liberalism all preexisted the coronavirus. The initially befuddled response of the United States and other key democracies may end up adding fuel to the fire. Are new institutions and efforts required to push back against political and ideological threats?
China’s attempt to recast the coronavirus narrative—portraying itself as decisive, ruthlessly effective, and generous to other countries—demonstrates just how competitive the U.S.-China relationship has become. Despite a few recent indications, such as Beijing’s provision of medical supplies to New York, the coronavirus has emerged not as a commons for bilateral cooperation but as one more vector of bitter competition. The balance of power is shifting; is it possible for the United States and China to both compete and cooperate?
Other issues to consider should include how to prioritize national-security challenges and deploy resources against them, whether to cooperate with Russia against mutual threats, how to manage a possible post-pandemic debt crisis, and what the next global catastrophe might look like.
Postwar planning in the first half of the 1940s sought to answer similarly fundamental questions. It also flowed from principles that Americans hoped would undergird the world to come. Principles on which to base planning for the post-coronavirus world could include: that all people share in the economic benefits of globalization; that democracies remain free of foreign political interference; that countries work in common cause against shared threats such as pandemics, terrorism, and climate change; that the United States and its allies seek to prevail in a long-term competition with China and Russia, ensuring that the world remains conducive to a liberal-democratic way of life; and that as rising powers such as China grow more powerful, they do so in a world where the United States and its friends are strong and working together. These are broad ideas, but the Atlantic Charter also started with abstract principles. They also go beyond the crisis of the day to address key trends that have preceded this moment in history.
The world has changed a great deal since 1941. The Atlantic Charter, in form and substance, was the right response to a particular moment in world history. And its spirit and fundamental optimism endure today. We do not know the full shape of a post-pandemic world. We do know that its contours will depend in part on how hard America and its partners work to shape them. The idea that animated FDR and Churchill held that free nations should be the authors of history, not merely its subjects. Even eight decades later, that is not a bad starting point.