By Gwynne Dyer
All the countries whose troops fought in Normandy 60 years ago-the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and Poland-are sending their leaders there on June 6 for the last big commemoration of D-Day. The soldiers who fought there and survived are entering their eighties now, and not many will be left in another decade. But it feels like the last time for a lot of other things as well.
The D-Day landings were the biggest amphibious operation in history, but the battle for Normandy was not all that big by 1944 standards. Total losses for the Western allies down to the break-out from Normandy were 32,807 killed, while the simultaneous Soviet offensive in Belorussia on the eastern front cost about 250,000 Soviet lives. And despite the film Saving Private Ryan, less than a third of the Allied dead in Normandy were Americans.
It was British and Canadian troops who fought their way through a German killing zone 20 miles (30 km.) deep, drawing German resources to the east of the beach-head so that General Patton’s American tanks could break out from the western end and race for Paris. A total of 17,769 British and 5,002 Canadian soldiers (and 650 Free Poles) died in the Normandy battle, compared to 9,386 Americans.
Yet Normandy really was an American battle above all, and an important one. The war against Hitler was already won by June, 1944: the Soviet army was less than a year away from entering Berlin. The D-Day landings were really about where the Soviet army would stop, and their success meant that the armistice line would be drawn down the middle of Germany, not at the English Chanel. The result was a half-century in which the United States and western Europe became so deeply entwined that people talked about “The West” as if it were a permanent political phenomenon. It isn’t.
There never was a “West” politically before 1945: just countries inhabited mostly by people of European descent, sharing the same broad cultural and religious heritage, who fought one another regularly and built competing empires around the planet. After 1945, however, the threat of Soviet troops permanently stationed in the middle of Germany made all the Western European powers implore America to stay in the continent militarily-and Washington, which had identified the Soviet Union as its main post-war rival for global power, was ready to comply.
The creation of the NATO alliance in 1949 sealed the deal: the interests of Western Europe and the United States were now the same, and so “The West” (aka the “Free World”) was born. The alliance thrived for almost half a century, but it was bound to go into a slow decline once its reason for being, the Soviet threat, ceased to exist at the beginning of the 1990s.
Strategic concerns diverged: official Washington sees China as a potential challenge to America’s status as sole superpower, Europeans see it mainly as a trading partner. Social and political values were already far apart, and getting further: Europeans tend to see Americans as religious and ideological zealots living in a raw capitalist society where the poorest tenth might as well be in the Third World; Americans see Europeans as feckless, free-loading socialists who don’t understand that the world is a dangerous place.
Nine-eleven didn’t cause this rift, but it added another layer: Europeans see terrorism as a long-term problem that can do considerable damage and must be contained; Americans (or at least those who set the terms of the public debate) see it as an apocalyptic threat that must be destroyed at any cost. This mind-set fed the Bush administration’s instinctive unilateralism and provided a saleable political rationale for the neo-conservatives’ project of pax americana. The resulting wars have accomplished in three years what might otherwise have taken 15: the Western alliance has been gutted, although the shell remains.
Exactly one year ago Condoleezza Rice, US National Security Adviser, mournfully told journalists at the G-8 summit how disappointed she was with the French, the Germans and even the Canadians: “There were times when it appeared that American power was seen to be more dangerous than Saddam Hussein. I’ll just put it very bluntly. We just don’t understand it.” Maybe she understands it a bit better now, but probably not.
No matter. The West, as a coherent political and military influence in the world, is breaking apart and this is not necessarily a tragedy. The unique and temporary circumstances that summoned it into existence have vanished, and so it was bound to follow. It fulfilled a useful role when Soviet power had to be contained and when all the large democratic states in the world, apart from India and Japan, were on the western and eastern shores of the North Atlantic. The world isn’t like that any more.
The world is a far safer and better place than in the depths of the Cold War, and democracies are now in the majority. If democratic values need to be defended, then Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia and South Korea need to be involved just as much as the “Atlantic” democracies, and the appropriate forum to do it in is not the moribund NATO alliance but the United Nations. Which is, by no coincidence at all, the institution that the governments who sent those young men charging up the Normandy beaches in 1944 were designing even as their soldiers died.
(Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries)