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Remembering History, or Not

Ambassador (ret) Mark Bellamy, Warburg Professor

Ambassador Mark Bellamy, Warburg Professor in International RelationsThis past week we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the beginning of the West's "Great Crusade" to end Nazi tyranny in Europe. As the number of surviving veterans dwindles, it is well to remember the importance of this commemoration. D-Day is not just one heroic moment among others. It endures as a powerful symbol of our place in the world. It signals America's readiness to rescue and lead other nations in pursuit of a better, more just, more peaceful world order. That is what my father’s generation was called to do.

Today the United States faces no immediate challenge comparable to defeating Nazi Germany or winning the Cold War. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that our nation should give up the position of global leadership it has occupied for 70 years. However much Americans want to reduce our global commitments—and polls confirm that large majorities of Americans want exactly that—withdrawal is not a safe option for the United States, or for the world.

I remember an earlier, even more iconic D-Day commemoration—the 50th, in 1994. I was the political counselor in our embassy in Paris. My boss was Ambassador Pamela Harriman. As Winston Churchill’s young daughter-in-law, Harriman had spent much of the war at 10 Downing Street. She had her own views about D-Day, and President Clinton wanted to hear them before he set out for the ceremonies in Normandy and Paris. "No Germans," was her private counsel to Clinton about the controversy then underway over whether to invite Germany to the celebrations.

In 1994, relations between the United States and its oldest European allies were strained. France and Britain had a peacekeeping force in the Balkans, where the worst fighting in Europe since World War II was underway. That force was pitifully ineffective. Washington wanted a tougher response to Serbian aggression but was unwilling itself to put U.S. boots on the ground.

The prickliness extended even to arrangements for President Clinton’s speech to the French National Assembly. One of my jobs was to negotiate the details of this event, down to the exact placement of the President’s teleprompters and the precise number of minutes he would spend hobnobbing with French lawmakers following the speech. Inconceivable was the French response to my request that they accommodate Clinton's fancy new teleprompters. Complètement impossible was the reply when I warned that Clinton would limit his post-speech mix-and-mingle to 10 minutes.

Somehow, it usually comes out right with our oldest allies. During the thunderous standing ovation that followed Clinton’s speech, journalists overheard French lawmakers marveling, "how did he do that without using any notes?" In their pursuit of Clinton, French deputies literally jammed the doorways leading to the reception rooms.

That night, at the conclusion of a state dinner at the elegant presidential palace, President Mitterrand suggested an impromptu midnight tour of the Louvre museum. Within minutes, the motorcades formed and set off. Ours halted for 10 minutes near a footbridge across the Seine to allow Mitterrand to get to the Louvre first. Bill and Hillary used the interlude to stroll alone in the night, hand-in-hand, across the river and back. I could almost hear Mitterrand saying, "yes, this is the way old friends party at the highest level."

It took another year, but the United States, United Kingdom, and France finally took concerted military action to stop the atrocities and end the war in Bosnia. Thereafter, both the European Union and NATO continued to expand, raising Europe to new levels of prosperity and security. Globalization, with its new trade, financial and communication linkages, drew Europeans and Americans into an even closer embrace. As the world's sole remaining superpower and self-styled "indispensable" nation, the U.S. prospered both from its global position but also from reliable friendships with like-minded European allies. When the U.S. was attacked by Al-Qaeda on 9/11, NATO states were the first to rally around America and first to the join the global campaign to defeat Al-Qaeda.

Today there are signs that this spirit of togetherness is eroding. On both sides of the Atlantic, populist movements are questioning the value of international institutions and of cooperation across borders. The most dangerous forms of conservative nationalism emanate from Russia. European elites, anxious about economic ties to Moscow, downplay this threat. Some hard-core nationalists in Western Europe actually appear sympathetic to President Putin’s repressive domestic policies and his bullying of weaker neighbors. That he was invited to the D-Day celebrations and treated with the same honors as President Obama and other leaders tells us that this year’s ceremonies were as much about forgetting history as remembering it.

Echoes of the 1930s surround us and grow louder by the day:  the rise of extreme forms of conservative nationalism in the wake of a global economic collapse, the hesitations of weak liberal democracies to confront this threat or defend the values they believe in and a mistaken belief in the U.S. that Europe's problems have little to do with our prosperity or security.

Our forgetfulness comforts dictators like Putin. I can only imagine what Pamela Harriman would have said had someone asked: "Should we set a place at the table in Normandy for Vladimir?"


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