Politics·Analysis

75 years after D-Day, has the old alliance fallen apart?

A disjointed and politically distracted collection of Allied nations, including Canada, gathered in Britain on Wednesday to kick off a series of commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings.

The united front that cracked open Fortress Europe isn't what it used to be

Canadian soldiers land on a Normandy, France, beach during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (Department of National Defence/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A disjointed and politically distracted collection of Allied nations, including Canada, gathered in Britain on Wednesday to kick off a series of commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings.

The Queen and British Prime Minister Theresa May hosted representatives from each nation that fought in Normandy for a ceremony in the Southsea Common area of Portsmouth, where the vast majority of British, Canadian and American troops departed for the invasion.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there, as was U.S. President Donald Trump, whose state visit to Britain this week triggered massive protests and Twitter-storms of public outrage.

British media reported that some residents of Portsmouth, long known for their displays of hospitality to returning veterans, planned to skip the ceremony — partly to show their disapproval of the U.S. president and partly because of the extraordinary extent of security measures planned for the event, which include the erection of a high steel fence around the site.

One of the online fights picked by Trump during his visit has been with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who was described by the U.S. president as a "stone cold loser."

Trudeau is slated to meet with Khan on Wednesday and later in the evening with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

A man holds a banner depicting President Donald Trump kissing Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage during a protest against the state visit of President Donald Trump, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

With May about to step down as prime minister and Trudeau preoccupied with this fall's federal election, the gathering presents an interesting contrast to the steely image of unity in adversity that D-Day is supposed to represent.

Even still, there was a remarkable display of pageantry Wednesday under a gun-metal grey sky as British warships fired a salute and a parade of air power — including a Second World War Spifitre and Hurricane — conducted a flypast.  

The Queen spoke of the sacrifices of her generation and thanked the old soldiers who saluted her.

Each leader told their nation's story in different ways.

Trudeau, in his speech, paid tribute to Lt.-Col. Cecil Merritt, the former parliamentarian who as commander of the South Saskatchewan Regiment in the disastrous Dieppe raid, had won the Victoria Cross.

Many historians credit the raid with teaching Allies valuable lessons ahead of D-Day.

Trump quoted from Franklin Roosevelt and French President Emmanuel Macron read from a letter belonging to a French resistance fighter.

Paired with swing music, interviews with surviving veterans and a recording of Winston Churchill's wartime speech, it was all deeply nostalgic and harkened back to a time when everyone marched and even perhaps danced to the same beat.

The invasion of Hitler's 'fortress Europe' was not merely an extraordinary feat of arms, logistics and military planning. It was also a remarkable political achievement — one that has prompted historians and pundits over the decades to wonder whether it could ever be repeated.

To be sure, the allies were a rancorous lot in 1944, with Russian dictator Joseph Stalin's distrust of the western democracies and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's disdain for France's Charles DeGaulle.

What united them were common enemies.

Glimmers of unity

Marc Milner, director of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War at the University of New Brunswick, said we've seen flashes of that kind of unity during the interceding decades, notably in the first Gulf War against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"So yes, I suspect we could do something similar to D-Day again," said Milner, offering the caveat that nations would have to be properly galvanized into action.

What we likely won't see again, he said, is another total industrial war.

"The likelihood of an all-out and prolonged conventional war with mass mobilization of people and industry is, however, unlikely in the nuclear age," Milner said.

"In modern total war, our role is largely passive. We can stay at home and watch the missiles coming in on our TVs."

NATO as a political football

When the Allies planned D-Day, they had to invent and negotiate many of the structures and procedures necessary to carry out the invasion.

That kind of co-operation still exists in the "well-developed military structure" that is NATO, said Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

It's an institution that allies can plug into for major deployments and would make it easier today to politically organize a major multinational campaign.

But since the end of the Cold War, NATO has expanded to include 29 members with disparate interests. Many NATO partners squabble over both the alliance's decision-making process and the cost of maintaining the military alliance.

Trump has openly mused about pulling the U.S. out of NATO unless Allies continue to increase their defence spending, demanding that more of them meet the two per cent of GDP target that has become the alliance's benchmark.

Political paralysis

Dorn said political paralysis in domestic decision-making would make another D-Day difficult to stage these days.

He pointed to the unfulfilled peacekeeping promises made to the United Nations by the current Liberal government.

"The painfully slow progress of Canada to live up to its UN commitments in peacekeeping does make me wonder how fast the Canadian government could mobilize to meet other commitments, particularly ones involving high risk," he said  

"The Trudeau government has avoided risky commitments in peacekeeping and has left the heavy lifting to others. So in the case of a major outbreak of conflict, one would have to wonder how quick and dependable Canada would be."

Still, Canada proved to be a stalwart ally in Afghanistan and has taken leadership positions in both NATO's Iraq training mission and the Baltics, commanding a battle group there intended to deter Russian aggression.

Although both missions are risky, they represent safe political choices at a time when western democracies are unwilling to tolerate the casualties associated with modern conflicts.

And that — perhaps more than political and trade differences — would make another D-Day an unlikely proposition.

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