As memories are lost it becomes the role of commemorations to shape our view of history. The 40th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings in 1984 brought Ronald Reagan to Pointe du Hoc, where US Army Rangers had scaled a 130-foot cliff to capture German positions. Reagan’s speech, regarded as one of the best of his presidency, turned American popular opinion in favour of the ageing actor, reversed a slide in support since the disastrous bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and positioned Reagan for the fight of his political life to bring down the Soviet Union. The 50th anniversary commemorations in 1994 were heavily focussed on the old soldiers who attended in large numbers in their 70s along with Queen Elizabeth, Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand. The French declined to invite Germany’s Helmut Kohl that year, but Chancellor Gerhard Schroder attended the 60th anniversary, invited by Jacques Chirac. Time heals most things.
The political theatre of this year’s 70th anniversary commemorations will be somewhat lower-key than Reagan’s triumph. Barack Obama will attend, fresh from the maudlin capitulations of his West Point speech on American foreign policy. Vladimir Putin will be there, showing that populist militarism isn’t dead yet on Europe’s periphery. Queen Elizabeth will be the only head of state to have attended the 40th, 50th, 60th and 70th anniversary commemorations. In another mark of continuity, the British press are happily attacking French President François Hollande, for charging media outlets to broadcast the event. Regrettably few veterans are left to participate.
Australia’s direct role in the D Day landings was, on the scale of the operation, quite limited. Around 3000 Australians were serving in RAAF squadrons and as individuals in British units. In our own region, the last remaining Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Service combat aircraft were destroyed in dogfights in June 1944 over Papua New Guinea. Australia was gearing for the costly amphibious operations in Borneo. Tony Abbott’s participation at the 70th commemoration is important though, to recognise the service of a generation who won’t be with us for the 80th anniversary. As always happens at gatherings of international leaders, Abbott will also have the opportunity to build contacts and pursue current Australian interests. What should be on the PM’s check-list of things to do at Normandy?
Abbott should promote the message that Australia is a consequential power with the GNP, large defence budget and activist foreign policy that well merits our temporary seat on the UN Security Council, membership of the G-20, and membership of the East Asia Summit, APEC and the rest. Our military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor show we’re prepared to do heavy lifting on international security tasks. The PM should dispel the notion that our strategic interests are limited to Asia and emphasise that we’re looking for substantive engagement with European countries as like-minded partners.
Second, Abbott should stress to his French hosts that this particular bilateral relationship has been underdone in recent years. We should use the forthcoming hundredth anniversary commemorations of the First World War not just to remember our history but also to develop a modern Franco-Australian strategic relationship. I argued for closer Australia-French defence relations back in February; the essence of the case is here:
In many respects French defence policy showcases what Australia would like more of: highly capable deployable forces and a willingness to use them; a shrinking but sustainable industry base; growing credibility and respect in Washington and bipartisan popular support for a strong military. France has more than its share of economic woes, but in terms of strategic policy settings it has a good hand. That’s a good basis to think about closer cooperation with Australia.
If he has the opportunity, Mr Abbott should pull François Hollande and Barack Obama into a huddle to ask if it’s really the case—or just a self-serving myth—that the US wouldn’t contemplate allowing its weapons systems to be fitted into a French-designed submarine hull. France is currently the most effective of the major European defence powers; is a NATO ally in good standing; backed the US to the hilt in Libya; and is doing strategic heavy-lifting in Africa. France and the UK can jointly operate aircraft off a carrier, but we’re supposed to believe that the ultimate no-go zone in alliance cooperation is to provide Australia with an effective submarine capability. Come off it! It’s time for the political leaders of the three countries to offer some adult supervision.
A French solution to Australia’s future submarine requirement is one of a limited number of possible ways forward for the Collins-replacement program. Given the money and risk involved, it’s in Australia’s interests to at least test the waters of that possibility. Progress here could transform the Australia-France industrial relationship and provide a solid basis for defence cooperation into the future. Seek and you may find, Prime Minister.
Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.