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Why the world needs a post Atlantic charter

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Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Fung Global Institute, 16 de agosto de 2011

Editor’s note: With many global institutions in a moribund state, what the world needs now is a mission statement, says Fung Global Institute Senior Fellow Jean-Pierre Lehmann, who is also Professor of International Political Economy at IMD. He looks to one of modern history’s most extraordinary meetings for inspiration.

Seventy years ago this month, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met (for the first time!) aboard the USS Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. The outcome of their meeting was a document that became known as the Atlantic Charter. For pithiness, depth and impact, it ranks among the most remarkable in history. In what would today be called a “one-pager”, Roosevelt and Churchill set out eight “common principles” on which they would “base their hopes for a better future for the world”.

The principles were subsequently endorsed by all the Allies and officially adopted in the Declaration by United Nations of January 1, 1942. The Charter both closed the door on the past – specifically in the first principle, that nations should no longer seek territorial aggrandisement, hence seeking to end centuries of colonialism, and enabling decolonisation – and opened the door to a new future where much emphasis was given to the word “freedom”. This included the idealistic freedoms from want and fear, but also, and, indeed, especially, the more concrete freedoms of the seas, of access to raw materials, and to trade by lowering barriers. The spirit of the Atlantic Charter gave birth in 1947 to the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), with its key principle of non-discrimination, which in turn became the World Trade Organisation in 1995.

When one considers what the world was like 70 years ago and what it is like now, the improvement in humankind’s condition, while still far from perfect, is remarkable and would have been unimaginable back then. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of virtually all countries to trade and membership of the WTO marked the ultimate success of the Atlantic Charter. While the world has still not completely fulfilled the charter’s spirit it has come a very long way from the days of extremist ideologies, incessant cross-border and civil wars, and trade wars.

All these achievements notwithstanding, the world could hardly be described as a happy, well-governed place. Beyond the concrete challenges – climate change, water and food scarcity, unemployment, sovereign debt and bankruptcy crises, trade, migration, gender discrimination, poverty and disease – there is a profound malaise that results more in mistrust than collaboration between nations.

We have institutions that are supposed to address these issues. For the most part, however, they are moribund. More than that, there is no coherence between them. In fact, “incoherent” pretty much sums up the contemporary state of global governance. Hence, after 10 years of negotiation the WTO’s Doha Round is nowhere near being concluded, while climate change talks wallow. The G20 was supposed to provide the world with a top management team that would set out global policies at summits and ensure their execution. But it, too, has descended into a cacophonous series of photo ops.

In contrast to the eight principles set out in the Atlantic Charter that guided global governance after the Second World War, today there is no “mission statement”, no agreed shared common values and goals. There is no vision: hence the drift through turbulent waters without a compass.

It has become reasonably clear that the perennial meetings convened with heads of state, where accusations and admonitions fly in respect of who should be doing what, whether for trade or climate change, are leading nowhere. In fact the atmosphere becomes more venomous.

Thus, in looking at the state of the world, it seems apparent that it needs a new charter – a document that, like the Atlantic Charter, sets out the basic principles on which national decision- makers will base their hopes for a better world.

The responsibility for authoring this document should lie with the G20 – not because it is ideal but because of the lack of alternatives. There is no doubt that it will be immensely difficult. For starters, Roosevelt and Churchill were just two leaders. Now we have 20. Even if the EU could be whittled down from five members (France, Germany, Italy, UK and the EU Commission) to one, that is still a lot of cooks for a complex broth. Furthermore, while Roosevelt and Churchill basically shared a common philosophical heritage and their countries shared a common level of national development, the G20 is an extraordinary mixture of cultures, populations and standards of living.

For example, the US, with 310 million people, and Indonesia, with 250 million, are the world’s third- and fourth-largest countries, respectively. The fact that the US is in ninth position in terms of GDP per capita, at $47,284, and Indonesia is in 109th, at $3,000, clearly means their needs and priorities vary greatly. Beyond the numbers, there are profound potential philosophical polarities. As one very important example, what in the West might be called “freedom”, in other cultures might be termed “licence”. There is also a more-than-subtle gap between the Western priority on individual choice and the primacy of consensus and collective responsibility in other societies. The “pursuit of happiness” may appear in some societies to be an inalienable right, but sheer selfishness in others.

As difficult as it appears, however, do we have a choice? Can the planet continue down this rudderless trajectory as threats aggregate and our delays in tackling them make things worse? There is a pressing need for a broadly-accepted definition of common global public goods and global public goals. In short, for a new global vision that properly reflects the challenges and hopes of our times.

While there is great urgency, composing such a document over a weekend meeting in Bali, for example, is clearly impossible. A group of eminent persons – comprising scholars, distinguished former political leaders and high-ranking officials, and representatives from civil society - drawn from the G20 countries should be tasked to draft and submit this “post-Atlantic Charter” and given a deadline of August 2014. Not only will that coincide with the 73rd anniversary of the Atlantic Charter but also the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The publication of this new Charter could usher in a new global dawn, as was the case with the Atlantic Charter. It may be difficult, indeed very difficult. But the world really, really does need a “post-Atlantic Charter”.

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