Why do we still commemorate D-Day?
It’s not a rhetorical question. The event is more distant to us than Custer’s Last Stand was to the men who stormed the Normandy shore. Those men are nearly all gone. The tumultuous events that defined them, and which they defined in turn, are closed chapters in history books that are no longer widely read.
Nor do we believe any longer in the ideals for which they fought.
Oh, we sound as if we do. For once, Donald Trump hit the right notes in his speech last week at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, near Omaha Beach. He paid a fitting tribute to the veterans, to the fallen in their graves and to the institutions that the fallen and the living together made possible.
“To all of our friends and partners,” he said, “our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war and proven in the blessings of peace. Our bond is unbreakable.”
But Trump was only mouthing words. He repeatedly contemplated withdrawing the U.S. from NATO just last year. He considers our European partners to be freeloaders on defense (which they are) and rip-off artists on trade (which they are not). His America First-ism is the direct ideological descendant of those who would have let Britain fall to Hitler to keep America out of the war.
Trump isn’t alone. Most everyone agrees that defeating the Nazis and liberating those they enslaved was necessary and right. Fewer agree that free nations, led by the United States, have an obligation to oppose tyrannies and aid those they oppress and threaten. A Pew survey from November found that only 31% of Americans believed that “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” should be a leading foreign policy priority.
Promoting democracy? Seventeen percent.
Much of this is the hangover from Iraq, just as a previous generation’s disenchantment with foreign-policy idealism was a hangover from Vietnam. Americans have always wrestled with the question of whether we have the means, wisdom or moral right to be anyone’s liberator. Rightly so: Heady idealism untempered by realism can be as destructive in its consequences as a cold realism unmoved by humane sympathies.
But how long should the hangover last?
Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin have resumed their offensive in Syria’s holdout province of Idlib with another gruesome campaign of indiscriminate bombing. The world no longer winces. Trump says he and Kim Jong Un, the world’s most sinister dictator, “fell in love” over the latter’s “beautiful letters.” Conservatives shrug. The socialist catastrophe in Venezuela takes an ever-greater toll in lives and misery. Progressives can hardly seem to form a coherent thought about it other than that America should stay out.
The indifference takes an accumulating toll. Repeated and presumptive inaction in the face of humanitarian atrocities emboldens those who commit the atrocities. It exposes the language and legal architecture of human rights as feckless virtue signaling. And it desensitizes us to the suffering of others.
Who, other than a few journalists and activists, calls attention to the plight of dissidents in Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, or the political prisoners in China, Iran and North Korea? And who, among today’s Western leaders, is prepared to speak out on their behalf, much less act?
Looking at the leaders assembled for the D-Day commemoration – Trump, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau and the rest – it was hard to spot one. Trump practices a crass version of realpolitik, indifferent to human rights and adulterated by his personal inconstancy and obsession with “winning.” But his peers are hardly better. Merkel, supposedly the moral conscience of the West, has been more than happy to cut pipeline deals for Putin’s benefit.
This is the West almost as it looked in the 1930s: internally divided and inward looking, hesitant in the face of aggression, incanting political pieties in which it no longer believed – and so determined not to repeat the mistakes of the last war that it sleepwalked its way into the next. The only thing missing is a skillful political marauder – Trump isn’t him – ready to tear the whole thing down.
If we really wanted to honor the sacrifices of D-Day, we would do well to learn again what it is the Allies really fought for – not to save the United States or even Britain (which by 1944 could not be beaten) but to liberate Europe; not to defeat an aggressive nation-state but to eradicate a despicable ideology; not to enjoy the spoils as the victors but to lay the foundations of a just and enduring peace; not to subsume our values under our interests but to define our interests according to our values.
“The price of greatness is responsibility,” Winston Churchill told an audience at Harvard in 1943. The greatest generation was also the most responsible one. Will it be said of ours that we were the least?
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.