BERLIN — When President Trump returned from the Bastille Day military parade in France in July 2017, he was enamored of the display, calling it “one of the most beautiful parades I have ever seen.”
Months later, Trump made a decision: He wanted his own parade. Ideally, a bigger and better show than the one he had watched in Paris. “We’re going to have to try and top it,” he said.
On July 4, his plans to display military might will come to fruition during expanded Independence Day celebrations on the Mall, dubbed the “Salute to America” — complete with the deployment of tanks and fighter jet flyovers.
Trump’s plans have caused consternation in the United States, with some people calling the sight of tanks on Washington’s streets grotesque. Around the world, analysts and observers have recoiled at the suggestion that Trump’s spectacle is in line with other democracies that celebrate their military history with gravity and reflection on the horrors of war.
These analysts say the tenor of Trump’s Salute to America has more in common with the garish and muscular public ceremonies held by autocratic regimes such as Russia, North Korea and China.
“The U.S. president uses the anniversary of his country for his own propaganda,” Germany’s Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin said in a commentary Wednesday, which branded Trump’s plans as “shameless” and a “show of egoism.”
Trump’s military presentation, wrote Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, had triggered “a thousand controversies.”
The online edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel called Trump a “Sun King” on Wednesday, in a reference to Louis XIV, a pompous French monarch who reigned over 72 years until his death in 1715. Meanwhile, Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper suggested a new name for Thursday’s celebrations, wishing Americans a “Happy ‘Four of Trump.’ ”
Other European analysts said what distinguishes this year’s Fourth of July celebration in Washington from similar spectacles in other Western democracies is the apparent politicization of the event using military equipment.
“If [a parade is organized because of a] personal desire of Trump — because he sat at the Champs-Elysees — then it becomes political,” Nicholas Dungan, a France-based senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, said when initial plans for a parade were made public. “In France the parade isn’t political, though. It’s part of this nation.”
In Europe, parades are almost always supposed to be a reminder of the damage military might can cause. To avoid the impression of nationalistic muscle-flexing, European nations frequently invite soldiers from other countries to take part as well.
Over several years, France hosted troops from close allies such as Britain and the United States in its national day celebrations. But, more significant, it also extended the same offer to Germany, which once occupied parts of its territory under the Nazi regime, and its former colonies in Africa, such as Algeria, where France left a bloody colonial footprint. In 2010, parachuting soldiers dropped flags of former African colonies onto the Champs-Elysees.
While those parades can be interpreted as celebrating a history of imperialism, the French insist the message is very different: This is a celebration of the peace soldiers are supposed to preserve, rather than of the wars they could launch.
Trump’s framing of Thursday’s display as a celebration showcasing American strength bears some similarities with authoritarian nations such as Russia, China or Iran, which have all put a focus on high-tech arms as part of their intended projection of power. China and Russia often use the high-profile events to display to the world their newest and most sophisticated weapons, including ballistic-missile systems.
While Trump will not be parading intercontinental ballistic missiles on the streets of Washington, he did suggest that showing off U.S. technological advances would be among the goals of the July 4 event, referring to “incredible equipment, military equipment on display — brand new.”
“And we’re very proud of it,” he said.
For the United States’ image abroad, Trump’s exhibition might easily backfire.
Camilla T.N. Sorensen, a researcher in Denmark, studied China’s enormous 2015 military parade in Beijing as part of an analysis that found that hyper-nationalistic military parades featuring weapons often undercut national interests in other ways, mostly by weakening a country’s cultural influence and global prestige.
In China and other authoritarian nations, military parades also serve as an internal show of force, which is supposed to fuel patriotic sentiments and discourage dissent. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has used parades to stress the “high combat capability of our armed forces” under his leadership or to underline that “no force will be able to dominate our people.” In China, parades have similarly been used to portray the military and the country’s leadership as united — ready to fight both domestic and foreign enemies.
But as long as “what continues to count as ‘Chinese’ is defined in opposition to hostile ‘others’,” wrote Sorensen, of the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defense College in Copenhagen, China will struggle to gain strategic allies abroad.
By relying on “historical nationalist narratives” to rally people, the researcher argued, the country’s leadership was undermining its own efforts to be seen as an economic or cultural partner beyond its borders. China has invested heavily in the latter by opening cultural institutes around the world and by wooing other foreign investment.
In other words, a military parade too focused on a domestic audience can easily send a problematic message abroad.
Even North Korea appears carefully to weigh possible disadvantages of overly dramatic shows of force. After relations between the Trump administration and Pyongyang warmed last year, North Korea’s ballistic missiles were suddenly no longer part of the country’s major anniversary military parade.