Analysis | The West’s liberal establishment clings to D-Day’s legacy

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President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and a troupe of Western leaders convened in Normandy on Thursday. They marked the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the landmark intervention that preceded the liberation of France and the eventual defeat of the Third Reich in World War II. Reenactors drove period-specific landing craft onto Normandy’s gray shores. Wreaths were laid, solemn speeches honoring the dead were intoned and veterans of that inexorably distant day were embraced by a phalanx of grateful heads of state.

No single battle looms larger in the Western imagination, 80 years on, than this. Generations of politicians have lauded the bravery of the soldiers who carried out the perilous amphibious landing, eventually overwhelming the Nazi defenses before embarking on the eastward push to Germany. The sacrifice made by the thousands of soldiers who died on the beaches — and the tens of thousands who fell as Allied forces fought their way through Normandy — is cast almost as a founding moment of the international order, the harrowing killing fields that secured an age of freedom and democracy.

At annual commemorations, American and European leaders have used the anniversary of D-Day to acknowledge the strength of the transatlantic alliance and the underlying righteousness that bound it together. “There is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest,” former president Ronald Reagan said in 1984, at the 40th anniversary ceremonies, speaking to a gathering of veterans. “You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.”


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Other analysts have pointed to the deeper structural symbolism of the day. Ten years after Reagan’s speech, Washington Post columnist George Will declared that Normandy was “where the United States stepped forward as the leader of the West.” Yes, the Soviets played their part in derailing the Nazi war machine, but the U.S. intervention and the subsequent postwar leadership and largesse that came from Washington laid the foundations for Europe’s political future — and, by extension, an age of liberal democracy flourishing in the West.

President Biden emphasized the importance of global alliances at the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 in Normandy, France. (Video: The Washington Post)

Eight decades after D-Day, Western leaders used the occasion to voice new warnings for the future. “In their generation, in their hour of trial, the Allied forces of D-Day did their duty,” Biden said, standing before dozens of World War II veterans at the Normandy American Cemetery. “Now the question for us is, in our hour of trial, will we do ours?”

He was implicitly firing a shot across the bow in a tense election year, as former president Donald Trump rides high in the polls. Without naming Trump, Biden seemed to call out his challenger’s skepticism of NATO and conspicuous affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was not invited to the ceremonies as the Kremlin continues its invasion of Ukraine. “To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable,” Biden said. “If we were to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches.”

Biden is scheduled to address an event Friday in Normandy where he will deliver remarks more pointedly directed at an American audience.

Macron used the occasion to hail the leadership and heroism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who traveled from a series of meetings in Asia to Normandy. “With the return of war on European soil … and in the face of those who want to change borders, let us be worthy of those who landed here,” Macron said at an event at Omaha Beach, with a dozen heads of state and government in attendance, including Zelensky. Macron later announced a transfer of French Mirage 2000 fighter jets to Kyiv’s forces, “to help Ukraine protect its skies.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also chimed in, gesturing both to Putin’s neo-imperialism and the illiberal factions in the ascendant across the West’s democracies. “Our way of life didn’t happen by accident, and it won’t continue without effort,” he said. “Democracy is still under threat today. It is threatened by aggressors who want to redraw borders. It is threatened by demagoguery, misinformation, disinformation, foreign interference.”

Such rhetoric marks an overriding anxiety. It’s likely the 80th anniversary will be the last major commemoration of D-Day where veterans of the day will still be alive. With their passing, myriad commentators fear, goes a memory of an age when democracy was on the line and fascism at the door.

The pall of geopolitical twilight hangs over the West. “American leadership must now come to terms with the power of China,” Le Monde columnist Sylvie Kauffmann wrote. “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky understood this when he went all the way to Singapore on June 2 to ask China to stop helping Russia to destroy his country. It’s as if the cycle that began on June 6, 1944 were drawing to a close.”

Kauffmann invoked Reagan’s speech in 1984, when the inveterate Cold Warrior declared that “isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” She contrasted Reagan’s D-Day conviction with Trump’s America First approach: “He was the anti-Reagan, from whom he kidnapped the Republican Party. Europe thinks it escaped this bad dream with the election of Joe Biden in 2020, but Trump hasn’t said his last word.”

In Europe, too, an embattled liberal establishment seems set to lose further ground. The European Union parliamentary elections taking place over the next few days seem set to mark significant gains, if not outright victories, for far-right parties, some of whose origins are directly anchored in post-World War II neo-fascist movements. Macron, in particular, looks poised for a humbling, with his centrist faction lagging considerably behind their far-right rivals in the polls.

European liberals see dark clouds on the horizon. “With populists promising easy solutions and calling for less solidarity, we must remember what the EU is doing for us every day,” wrote Nadia Calvino, president of the European Investment Bank. “A new geopolitical order is emerging, and the foundation of Europe’s success is being put to the test.”

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