Reclaiming the Right to Fight: Global Britain and International Law

A flurry of diplomatic and military initiatives has recently heralded the implementation of the Global Britain strategy set out in March’s Integrated Review. Richard Reeve looks into the New Atlantic Charter between UK and US and finds a gaping hole where the commitment to delegitimise use of force once stood.

Global Britain is a much derided term that’s been kicking around since shortly after Boris Johnson became Foreign Secretary in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum. As Prime Minister, Johnson has had the responsibility of delivering a coherent Global Britain strategy to follow from the UK’s final exit from the EU last year. The drawn-out Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was his route towards this, with the Global Britain in a Competitive Age report being its long-awaited output in mid-March.

This was Global Britain in theory, and there was much to question and critique in its essentially populist proposition of the UK reasserting its global influence in the midst of a global power shift to Asia. Global Britain in practice had to wait a couple of months, during which much was revealed about the incompatibility of the Review’s grandiose ambitions to be a ‘Force for Good’ with massive cuts to the UK international aid budget. From protecting peaceful, open societies through promoting girls’ education to global health security, the deficit between the Review’s rhetorical and practical commitments was revealed.

However, hard cash advances have suggested that the Review’s many commitments to the military dimension of Britain’s global presence will be pushed further. A whirl of long-planned, highly publicised diplomatic and military initiatives launched this summer has given some substance to how the UK intends to play a greater role in the world.

This began with the dispatch of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the UK’s new aircraft carrier, at the head of a Global Britain Armada on 22 May. It proceeded via Johnson’s hosting of President Biden and the G7 Summit in Cornwall to the official opening of talks on joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade bloc late in June. And finally, this month, the Carrier Strike Group has crossed the South China and Philippine Seas to reach Guam, Japan and South Korea at the apogee of its global voyage.

The New Atlantic Charter

While the Asia-oriented set-piece actions of the carrier’s eastward progression and the G7 Summit have attracted far more headlines, it is well worth pausing to consider the New Atlantic Charter agreed on 10 June. The Charter was signed in Cornwall by Johnson and Biden in their first direct meeting on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the wartime Atlantic Charter. Signed by Churchill and FDR off Newfoundland, this brief document laid down the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ that in turn defined the post-war order.

Few have assumed that the New Charter represented more than a convenient opportunity for the two leaders to posture in the image of their idolised predecessors. For Johnson it aimed to draw a line under his previous courting of Atlantosceptic Donald Trump. And for Biden it seemed to tie in nicely with his ambitions to rally a global summit of democracies. Indeed, Johnson’s invitation to ‘Indo-Pacific’ leaders from Australia, India and South Korea to join the G7 Summit (increasingly mooted as a D10 of democracies) was far from incidental. Since both men agree that the world is pivoting from an Atlantic to a Pacific era, and that the trans-Atlantic relationship is not in question, surely the New Charter was merely convenient verbiage to caption a photoshoot?

It certainly reads as though drafted hastily. Non-sequitous, undeveloped clauses jostle one another in short-yet-rambling paragraphs. It is easy to miss what has been left out, while reeling at what has been crammed in.

Much of the Charter broadly mirrors the original document’s overview of the special role of the US and UK in promoting a “rules-based international order” that includes open markets, democracy and rule of law, and state sovereignty. Unlike the original, it adds on specific commitments to nuclear weapons and NATO (not yet invented in 1941) and – appearing at the end and without any specific actions– to promote health and tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

Abandoning future peace

More important than what is in the new text – not all of which we should take at face value – there is no reiteration of the eighth (and longest) article of the original Charter. This is worth quoting in full in light of the subsequent course of world history, during and after the Cold War:

“Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.”

The Atlantic Charter, 14 August 1941.

It is probable that FDR and Churchill had in mind Germany, Japan and their Axis allies when they drafted this article. Similar selective disarmament has come to define the Anglosphere allies’ approach to subsequent challengers from Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s via Libya and Iraq to contemporary Iran and North Korea. Yet, since their catastrophic invasion of Iraq, it must be clear even in Washington and London that such terminology can be and is applied to their own actions and approach. So perhaps it should not be surprising that such admonition to demilitarise has been omitted.

Despite a passing nod to the ‘peaceful resolution of disputes’, something vast has been signed away here. The two powers that defined the United Nations have here forsaken the principle that the use of force is illegitimate in international relations. True, the New Atlantic Charter has no force in international law, let alone to over-ride the UN Charter. True, the experience of implementing the last Charter’s more transformative clauses never got beyond crises in Berlin and Korea. Yet the ‘never again’ imperative was there for all to see. Lessons from two cataclysmic wars had to be learned.

Instead, the ‘indestructible relationship’ of US and UK has been defined by 70 years of constant military campaigning, persistent surveillance, political subversion and ‘forward presence’. These traditional Global British roles – widely known and documented, but rarely conceded officially – the Integrated Review presents as new and necessary. It seems that lessons from a myriad of inglorious small and forever wars that laid waste swathes of Africa and Asia without threatening the British or American mainland need not be heeded. The New Atlantic Charter signals a more aggressive age and seeks to relegitimise the use of force in international relations.

The retreat from law

This is entirely in keeping with the Integrated Review. The New Atlantic Charter is not exceptional in its efforts to row back on rights and relegitimise the use of force to uphold ‘national security’. The Integrated Review, its supporting documents and other contemporary UK legislation are replete with such intent.

Take, for example, the new Integrated Operating Concept (IOC, September 2020), which sets out the British Armed Forces’ understanding of their role in this decade. It gets to the point:

“The Integrated Operating Concept 2025 sets out a new approach to the utility of armed force in an era of persistent competition and a rapidly evolving character of warfare. It represents the most significant change in UK military thought in several generations. It will lead to a fundamental transformation in the military instrument and the way it is used.”

The Integrated Operating Concept (Ministry of Defence, Sept 2020), p.1.

And it’s not kidding. The IOC sets out to justify why UK military personnel need to be deployed more globally and more actively, citing its adversaries’ refusal to recognise the ‘rule of law’ and use of ‘lawfare’ to combat or constrain the UK and its allies. The military focus of the Integrated Review was duly very much on global ‘forward presence’ and ‘continuous campaigning’.

Presenting the IOC at one of the United States’ leading neo-conservative think tanks on 13 July, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace declared that “the notion of war and peace as binary states has given way to a continuum of conflict.” He continued that the armed forces must “compete below the threshold of open conflict” and “no longer be held as a force of last resort”. Yet negating this situation of generalised, normalised warfare is exactly what the post-1945 order under the UN Charter was supposed to ensure.

Many other examples of efforts to evade or undermine international law by the Johnson government can be cited. These include persistent attempts to indemnify UK military personnel against prosecutions for breaching international humanitarian law under the Overseas Operations Bill, its refusal to apply the strictures of the Arms Trade Treaty to its own lucrative trade with Saudi Arabia, and the current attempts to remove the UK’s obligations to asylum seekers under the 1951 Convention on Refugees. Likewise, the Integrated Review’s pledge to increase UK stockpiles of nuclear warheads is in contravention of its commitments to pursue disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The absence of any reference to such NPT undertakings in the New Atlantic Charter should be seen as deliberate within this context.

So when the Integrated Review says that the UK “will move from defending the status quo within the post-Cold War international system to dynamically shaping the post-COVID order”, we should be wary. While the Review’s explicit framing is of systemic challenge from China and opportunistic disruption by Russia, Iran and North Korea, its implicit message is that Global Britain is determined to restore its legal ‘right to fight’ to retain its privileges. History suggests that in such circumstances it is only a matter of time before the next big war begins. The straight-talking message from Mr Wallace’s Ministry of Continuous Campaigning seems to be that it already has.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Crown Copyright via Royal Navy: Boris Johnson and Joe Biden in Carbis Bay, Cornwall shortly after signing the New Atlantic Charter with the Royal Navy’s second new aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales in the background. An earlier battleship of the same name hosted negotiations for the original Atlantic Charter in 1941.

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