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D-Day: allies are stuck between a time of commemoration and a world in transition

The evolving trans-Atlantic alliance is as important as ever, writes Guillaume Xavier-Bender

When your trans-Atlantic flight starts descending over Normandy a week away from the 70th anniversary of D-Day, with World War II veterans on board, and your pilot tells you to look out the window, the moment resonates differently than it would otherwise. “On the left side of the aircraft, you can see the beaches of Utah and Omaha, liberated on June 6, 1944 by the 1st, 4th, 29th, 79th, and 90th Infantry Divisions of the United States Army.” The word “commemoration” takes its true meaning: relating altogether; remembering together.

On June 6, to remember those who fought that day and the days after to liberate Europe — and the true value and cost of European peace and unity — 19 heads of state or government will gather in Ouistreham, France, on what will always be remembered as Sword Beach. At French President François Hollande’s invitation, U.S. President Barack Obama will co-chair the ceremonies. Other leaders joining them will include the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia, the ally of yesterday; Germany, the ally of today.

In this ongoing transformation of the post-Cold War era, allies, partners, and global challengers alike must never forget the values, principles and ideals that past generations fought for. But in the same way that military historian John Keegan asked “Why do men fight?,” it is as important to understand why we commemorate, and not just what we commemorate. In the collective memory, D-Day is one of the founding moments of the trans-Atlantic alliance, a day described by Winston Churchill as “a brotherhood in arms.”

As Philip Stevens noted in his introductory remarks to Brussels Forum 2014, in a world once again in transition, “the coherence and cohesion of the trans-Atlantic alliance is going to be more important than less.”

  • Coherence and cohesion among allies in Europe itself. The outcome of the EU elections late May might have indeed reflected an increase in anti-EU sentiment in Europe, confirming the rising trend of populist and nationalist movements on the continent. Its symbolic significance is far greater than the additional seats these groups will have in the European Parliament; they may contest some of the basic philosophies that have guided the transatlantic relationship so far.
  • Coherence and cohesion between Americans and Europeans as well, as they struggle to strengthen their economic and military alliances on new fronts. NATO, the creation of a European defense policy, aspirations from global challengers, perceptions of a trade and investment partnership, potential benefits — and fears — arising from new technologies, exacerbated social inequalities, are just a few of the challenges that will shape a new trans-Atlantic equilibrium.

Earlier in the week, G7 members will have held discussions in Brussels on “the situation in Ukraine and the relations with Russia as well as other foreign policy topics, the global economy, trade, energy security, climate change, and development.” On June 5, in Paris, Presidents Obama and Hollande will have addressed a range of pending issues straining their bilateral relations, such as the sale of French frigates to Russia, or the prospect of a guilty verdict in the United States against French bank BNP Paribas for alleged violations of US sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan.

A few hours after having dined with Obama, Hollande will dine again, but this time with Vladimir Putin, in what will be the Russian president’s first official encounter with a European leader since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. There is little or no chance that Putin will meet with either Obama or Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Porochenko, during his visit to France.

The times we are living through should not only be used exclusively for commemorations among allies, whether on the beaches of Normandy or in the fields of Ypres, on Wenceslas Square or under the Brandenburg Gate, even as far as the waters of Tonkin. They should also be the times when leaders on both sides of the Atlantic embrace and address the transitions that their nations and peoples are inevitably going through. They are the times for renewed trans-Atlantic vision, leadership, solidarity, trust, and partnership, the times for strategic patience, but also the times for decision.

As we look beyond commemorating the Longest Day, we are reminded of some of Churchill’s other words in front of the House of Commons on June 6, 1944: “It is, therefore, a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship.”

Guillaume Xavier-Bender is a trans-Atlantic fellow based in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.

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