- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and contributor to Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog.
D-Day is a hallowed day and, fittingly, follows close after Memorial Day, when we Americans grieve and celebrate our war dead. On June 6, 1944, 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops took the beachhead at Normandy against withering fire and fought their way into Nazi-occupied Europe. The young men who defeated Hitler’s Wehrmacht are now old men, and we haven’t much longer to thank them for the world they bequeathed us. We all ought to take the opportunity to shake the hands and kiss the cheeks of the men who really did make the world safe for democracy.
This solemn day gives rise to two other reflections about warfare: one about the demands of fighting wars we might actually lose and the other about the United States as an ally. Some considerable time has elapsed since the United States actually fought an enemy that could impose a defeat that would affect the lives of Americans. Our wars since World War II have actually all been wars of choice — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They have been wars that we could tire of and retreat from without it too much denting our security. Even when al Qaeda achieved something that no state had since 1941 — an attack on United States territory — we had a range of choices about how to punish them and prevent recurrence. Terrorist and criminal organizations have ambitions to harm us that we are currently underrating, both in their determination and their capabilities.
But it has been a very long time since the United States fought a military that we actually risked losing to in the way that Eisenhower and the Allied command feared: If the D-Day landings were turned back, they might thereafter lack the means to challenge Nazi control of all Europe. No military since at least the end of the Cold War (and probably 15 years before that) could hope to fight against the American military and win. Our tactical, operational, and technological dominance has been so pervasive that it has driven enemy adaptation to the margins of the conflict spectrum: They seek nuclear weapons or conduct terrorist attacks and insurgencies because they cannot realistically expect to take on the United States military in its strong suits and prevail.
To its great and lasting credit, our military has found ways even at its weakest points to adapt to these challenges and prevent our enemies from succeeding militarily. It genuinely dominates the entire spectrum of conflict.
That may be about to change. States — or at least one state — have arisen with the ambition and resources to contest us as peers. A rising China needn’t be an adversary, and there are significant domestic and economic pressures that may prevent China’s continued success and change its political direction. But the rising China we are currently facing sure looks like a state that wants to contest American power, at least in its region, and is making the kinds of military investments that will challenge U.S. dominance in several domains of warfare, and with at least a military (if not a Communist Party leadership) that aspires to hold American territory at risk to achieve their aims.
China has fostered a new generation of military officers who take more initiative and are more aggressive than their predecessors. They are early adapters to cyberattacks and have none of the inhibitions we do about unleashing their military to conduct offensive operations in peacetime. Their government is shoveling resources into defense and utilizing gray commercial companies as adjuncts. They begin to excel at technological challenges that will bring our easy assumptions of air dominance, safe transit, and reliable communications into doubt. The United States is not yet bringing an equivalent effort into maintaining our advantages.
It is not just the rise of a potential peer that could impose these problems. Technologies are proliferating that will not require the resources of a great country to surge past U.S. abilities and impose strategic losses. The day may soon be upon us when we cannot land troops because we cannot get aircraft into contested airspace, we cannot supply them because our ships are being sunk en route, where we cannot tell enemy from friend on the battlefield because the enemy has compromised our information and communications systems. These threats are not confined to our military alone, either: We may lose our ability to shield our population from the fight. We have been a military at war these last 13 years — going forward we may once again have to fight with the resources of our whole country, because they will be targeted in ways we cannot protect them from.
The second reflection D-Day occasions is about the United States as an ally. Being part of the ancien regime, my reflexes still encompass preemption, and I am preemptively cringing at the braggadocio I fear President Obama will unleash at the Normandy commemoration. He is on a bender about American exceptionalism, and it is unattractive. It is especially so in light of what we look like to our World War II allies, who suffered for years before we consented to join the war effort.
Among friends, Brits will eventually admit that, courageous and essential as we were, we sure took our time about it. Britain was at war nearly two and a half years before Hitler foolishly declared war on the United States and Roosevelt took our country to war in Europe. Our narrative of the war is of ourselves as the indispensable nation. That is part of Europeans’ version, but theirs also includes a chapter on our reticence to be drawn in, and the obstacles Roosevelt had to surmount to get public support.
We congratulate ourselves on our stalwart commitment; it looks more tenuous to those who suffered the viciousness of Nazi attacks and occupation while we remained safe. And it colors how they look at our reticence now to honor the Budapest Agreement committing to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, our skating backwards from the president’s red line on Syria, our hesitation to call a coup the Egyptian military’s overthrow of their elected government, and our proclamations about a common defense with our allies. Given how important allies are in warfare, we ought to give some considerable thought to being a better ally to the countries that are willing to stand alongside us. And the very least we owe our European allies on D-Day is the humility to respect all they suffered that we did not in the war that we won together.