PM and President sign new Atlantic Charter

Theatre of power: The world leaders meet for the first time at the G7 summit.

Is symbolism important? Yesterday, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden agreed a new deal setting out their joint vision for future prosperity and the world's recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

It was an unlikely double act. In a hotel conference room in the tiny Cornish resort of Carbis Bay, Joe Biden and Boris Johnson sat and shared a joke. The socially distanced audience politely clapped as they signed a wad of paper, then shook hands.

Yesterday afternoon, the leaders signed a new version of the Atlantic Charter, an agreement signed in 1941 between Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. “Eighty years ago,” said Johnson, “the US President and British Prime Minister stood together promising a better future. Today we do the same”.

The allusion could not be clearer: two allies taking after their celebrated wartime predecessors, united to correct the world’s ills.

Biden and Johnson have used Roosevelt and Churchill as symbols to represent their renewed alliance in light of a crisis – even posing for a photo that imitated a famous shot of the wartime leaders. Never mind that Britain is no longer a superpower. Or that, earlier in the same day, the US government had slammed Johnson, accusing him of “inflaming” tensions over Northern Ireland.

Symbols have played an enormous role in political history. Medieval kings used to kiss to symbolise peace between their nations. And to symbolise his conception of states, Thomas Hobbes used the image of a giant man, built from individual citizens, with one ruler as its head.

Sometimes political symbols are people or objects. The French Revolution had sans-culottes and the cocarde tricolore. In fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini’s militias were nicknamed after their black shirts, while the gilets jaunes of contemporary France are named after their hi-vis vests.

Ideologies also often become identified with symbols, whether it is the hammer and sickle for communism, the red hand of Ulster for unionism or the raised fist for Black Lives Matter.

For some thinkers, symbols are important in public life. Political theorist Michael Walzer described it as: “an art of unification; from many, it makes one.” States are invisible. Symbols allow them to be given a form that can be known, shared – even loved.

They provide anchors amidst instability. “A week,” quipped British prime minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s, “is a long time in politics”. Today, things can change dramatically in hours. Symbolic gestures allow us to focus our attention on a particular moment, removing it from the muddle of politics.

But symbolism can also distort the importance of events. Former US president Donald Trump staged theatrical confrontations with Kim Jong-un. But despite the meetings, the North Korean dictator continued to develop nuclear weapons.

Worse, symbols can distract from the nitty-gritty of government. As Telegraph columnist Jeremy Warner writes of Johnson: “What’s needed are quick, practical fixes, not largely meaningless appeals to the spirit of FDR.”

Is symbolism important?

Words and deeds

Yes, say some. A world without symbols is a chaos of thoughts and deeds. Symbols might not always tell us the whole truth but they can indicate direction. Biden and Johnson may not see entirely eye-to-eye, but their charter reveals a general agreement. And symbolic gestures can become self-fulfilling: by making their commitment public, the two leaders might become obliged to honour it.

No, say others. They can create false expectations. “Symbols will always disappoint,” says writer Mychal Denzel Smith. They can also be dangerous, allowing leaders to paint over the ugly truths that characterise politics. Besides, as citizens, we have the right to know what is actually happening behind closed doors, rather than receiving a staged version designed to provide assurance.

You Decide

  1. Can a symbol associated with an evil regime, such as the swastika, ever be redeemed?
  2. Is a physical thing more real than an abstract idea or concept?

Activities

  1. In groups of three, choose two countries and draw up a post-Covid charter of collaboration between them.
  2. In pairs, write a short screenplay dramatising the meeting between Biden and Johnson.

Some People Say...

“Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are.”

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), Florentine diplomat, political philosopher and author of The Prince

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that symbols are crucial to how we perceive the world. Symbols are used to connect different concepts and experiences. All forms of communication are based on them: numerals are symbols for numbers, letters are symbols for sounds and names are symbols used to represent individuals. Symbols can gain effectiveness through shared recognition: hence the use of green to symbolise environmentalist parties globally. The study of symbols is called semiotics.
What do we not know?
Historians still debate the success of the Atlantic Charter. While it met some of both country’s slated aims — agreement on trade, welfare and labour standards and the restoration of self-government for countries occupied after the war — it failed to bring America into the war, a desired outcome for both leaders. For the British Empire, it arguably backfired: the acknowledgement that all peoples deserved self-determination later influenced the collapse of the Empire in 1947.

Word Watch

Franklin D Roosevelt
Nicknamed FDR, the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Polls have often placed him as the country’s most celebrated modern leader.
Allusion
An expression or act designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly.
Superpower
One of the world’s most powerful countries. The term was first used in 1944 to describe the United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
Thomas Hobbes
A major English political philosopher whose masterpiece Leviathan argued for a strong government to prevent a chaotic state of war.
Sans-culottes
“Without knee-breeches”, a reference to the revolutionaries’ habit of wearing long trousers. It was first used to mock revolutionaries, but they quickly adopted it to symbolise their working-class unpretentiousness.
Cocarde
A cockade is a rosette that revolutionaries wore on their hats. The cockade’s white and blue colouring inspired the French flag.
Gilets jaunes
Meaning yellow vests, is a contemporary populist protest movement which demonstrates for economic justice in France.
Unionism
Those who support the existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The Red Hand was historically a sign for the province of Ulster, part of which forms modern-day Northern Ireland.

Subjects

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