Leaders from countries including the United States, Britain and France met Wednesday in Portsmouth, England, on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. On Thursday, those leaders headed to Normandy to commemorate the assault on Nazi-occupied France in June 1944.
Representatives of the countries that formed that World War II alliance were slated to be in attendance, as well as envoys from Germany.
The leaders of Russia and China, two countries that made their own sacrifices to the Allied war effort, will not be present, however. They are meeting on their own, beyond the eastern edge of Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow on Wednesday for the start of his three-day visit to Russia. An event on Wednesday marked the 70 years of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Beijing, and both sides claim the relationship is better than ever. Putin “is my best and bosom friend,” Xi told Russian state news agency Tass ahead of his visit.
The two international gatherings stand in stark contrast: old and new, East and West, democratic and autocratic. But these differences weren’t always so obvious. The Russian president first attended D-Day ceremonies in 2004. Although Moscow was not directly involved in the invasion, Soviet soldiers played the most significant role in defeating Nazi Germany, on the Eastern Front, and paid a deadly cost for it.
Putin’s later presence at D-Day commemorations in 2014 was tense and came amid attempts by world leaders to isolate Moscow after its annexation of Crimea. The Russian leader was not invited this year: The French said this was because heads of government, rather than heads of state, were invited.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry this week dismissed the importance of D-Day, describing the Normandy landings as “not a game-changer.”
So the Kremlin organized its own bilateral summit. And the awkward guest in Normandy this year is not Putin, but President Trump.
If the D-Day ceremonies celebrate the past glories of one historical alliance, Putin and Xi may be hoping to emphasize a new one. Xi said this week that Putin is his closest foreign colleague. According to the Kremlin, the two have met 29 times since 2013.
This is something of a change for both nations, which were at loggerheads for much of the 20th century after diverging interpretations of communism caused China and the Soviet Union to cut diplomatic ties.
They are neighbors, sharing borders and regional interests in Asia, and they both have made turns away from 20th-century communism to contemporary authoritarianism.
But most importantly, they find themselves increasingly at odds with the United States. Russia and China are simultaneously mired in economic conflicts with America. Moscow is facing down a barrage of sanctions from Washington, while Beijing is in the midst of an economically damaging trade war.
“If America assumes that Russia and China are a threat and decides to confront the two countries at the same time, then a temporary alliance between them becomes inevitable,” Bruno Maçães, a Beijing-based analyst and author, wrote for the Moscow Times.
Putin and Xi present themselves as champions of free trade and opponents of protectionism, and both believe their export-driven economies are under threat. In Russia, the Chinese president will be the guest of honor at an international economic forum in St. Petersburg — a meeting the U.S. ambassador is boycotting over the detention of an American investment banker.
The two sides signed an agreement that pledges to move away from the U.S. dollar using trade with the ruble and the yuan, and to move to allow Chinese telecom giant Huawei to develop a 5G network in Russia — despite U.S. warnings that the company’s products present a security threat.
The Financial Times reported Wednesday that the Putin and Xi are expected to release a number of statements during their visit, including one that denounces “hegemonic dominance of the international system.”
It isn’t hard to guess what that hegemony is. A mutual animosity toward Washington may be the biggest tie between Beijing and Moscow. Putin made a conscious turn eastward after he became isolated in the West in 2014. And although this new Cold War remains primarily in the economic sphere, the Pentagon has warned that the United States needs to prepare for the possibility of conflict with China and Russia.
As President Trump mulls over this future this week, he should consider the past in Normandy. D-Day often is remembered as a primarily American enterprise, but the reality was that it was an international effort — Brits, Canadians, Poles, New Zealanders and others all participated in the landing 75 years ago.
A poll conducted in 1945 found that only 20 percent of French people believed the United States had contributed the most to winning the war, compared with 57 percent who named Russia.
This kind of multilateral approach does not fit well with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, nor the American president’s habit of waging verbal and economic war against foes as well as allies. Presidential historian Jon Meacham told The Washington Post’s James McAuley this week that D-Day could be read as a reminder that this America-against-the-world approach will not work. The beaches in Normandy, Meacham said, “should be perennial reminders that we cannot escape history.”
Yet the American president remains at odds with French President Emmanuel Macron, and most of Europe, over policy issues from Iran to climate change.
Despite administration policies, Trump still seems to favor Putin and other autocrats like him. Later this month, he will meet with the Russian president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an unusual trilateral meeting — Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, has argued that Russia may use the meeting to push for a reduction in U.S. sanctions in exchange for withdrawing support for Iran.
Rather than rallying its allies, the Trump administration risks alienating them or, at worst, turning them into foes. At the same time, its foes are realizing that the enemy of their enemy might as well be their friend.
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