by Robert E. Hunter
In the midst of D-Day oratory this last week, it was left to Queen Elizabeth II at the Buckingham Palace state dinner to preach the lesson that most mattered, not about the past, but about the present and the future:
After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace.
These lines—directed at least in part to President Donald Trump—were all the more remarkable given that the sovereign is required to be above politics. Anything straying into that territory would have had to be vetted by the prime minister’s office. That, of course would be ironic, given that the hardline Brexiteers, including the likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson, are bent on pulling apart one of the most important of “these structures.”
Few Americans will have noted the passage in the queen’s toast given that the U.S. electronic media only posted part of her comments—and not the one cited above—while so much of the mainstream media was preoccupied with other matters such as the public protests at Trump’s visit. The president also stepped on his own state visit with his belittling comments about London Mayor Sadiq Khan—a “stone cold loser”—which were heralded by Khan’s comments on Trump: “one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat.” Trump also openly intervened in British politics by virtually endorsing Johnson to succeed Prime Minister Teresa May, who is stepping down amidst a brutal struggle for power.
This recitation is useful to set against the wisdom in Queen Elizabeth’s toast. At the time of D-Day, the world was lucky to have America’s greatest generation of leaders on the world stage. Even before the war ended, they brought together the best from the Allied world to begin fashioning new institutions to help prevent the reemergence of conditions that had led to the great conflict. Remarkably, these institutions have not just survived but prospered. Indeed, they’ve created habits of behavior with broad international application and helped expand the rule of law, most notably in economic relations among states.
After the collapse of the Soviet internal and external empires, along with European communism, these institutions and habits of behavior spread more widely across the continent, but not evenly so or in a steady progression. It is not just Russia that has retreated from its initial promise of a quarter-century ago. It is also happening elsewhere in Europe, notably in Hungary and, to a lesser degree, in Poland, as well as in some other countries. In terms of promoting the strength of institutions, the United States has also been falling short of what it could do or what others expect of it, not only or even primarily with respect to the application of military force but in providing a political, economic, and moral example. This falling short began even before Trump became president.
Queen Elizabeth put her admonition in the context “of the original purpose of these structures: nations safeguard[ing} the hard won peace.” But as she implied, that is not limited just to Europe. It also means dealing with other developments “to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated.” Whether she had the following in mind, that surely includes finally resolving the mess in the Middle East (and Afghanistan), dealing with the long-term relationship with Russia, and perhaps most consequential in conventional terms (leaving aside climate change, the world’s number one challenge), addressing the rise of China.
The World War II leadership that produced the Atlantic Charter, Bretton Woods, Dumbarton Oaks, and the United Nations is sorely needed but is palpably absent virtually everywhere. So, too, is the depth of analysis that led to the creation of those great institutions. Since the end of the Cold War, Western research institutions have fallen short of the strategic thought and planning needed to deal with the future: among other things, to see if it is possible to avoid confrontation and conflict in this century, especially with China and, to a lesser degree, Russia.
This seventy-fifth anniversary commemoration of D-Day may be the last of any note. Today’s handful of veterans will soon pass from the scene. For the younger generation, it is becoming ancient history if it is remembered at all. That has not been true of an earlier “greatest generation” of Americans, who fought in the War of independence. Fifty years after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of “the shot heard round the world” at Concord bridge—in a poem still taught to American schoolchildren. Seventy years after that event, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of Paul Revere’s Ride, which 244 years later is commemorated on Patriots’ Day (and in the Boston Marathon.) These memories endure in part because the promise of the American Revolution is still being pursued, though ofttimes by fits and starts.
In her toast, Queen Elizabeth did not speak poetry. But what she said needs to be taken to heart, not just by President Trump but by other leaders who otherwise risk a repeat of dangers if not catastrophes, as well as by those responsible for civic education, which is also fading, at least in America.
Seventy years ago, a future U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, reflected on the future following the war where he had been the Supreme Allied Commander in producing victory. Concluding his account, Crusade in Europe, he also wrote something worth recalling:
Physical means and skillful organization may see [democracy] safely through a crisis, but only if basically the democracy of our day satisfies the mental, moral, and physical wants of the masses living under it can it continue to exist. We believe individual liberty, rooted in human dignity, is man’s greatest treasure.”
The words of these two World War II veterans, truck mechanic Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor and Ike, are needed to help rule out the necessity of another D-Day or its equivalent in major conflict.