Fifty years ago this month, Sir Winston Churchill died. Queen Elizabeth II ordered a state funeral, a rare honor, for the great war hero.
Six days later, 110 world leaders attended his funeral. At the time, the number of countries in the world was not much greater.
Notably absent was the US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It wasn’t just that the president failed to attend, citing illness. The Vice President Hubert Humphrey was not sent in his place. Even the Chief Justice failed to turn up.
Former President Dwight Eisenhower attended as a private citizen, honoring his old friend and comrade from the dark days of World War II. Looking back, Eisenhower could have been sent as the official representative of the United States, but he wasn’t.
This was a serious diplomatic blunder at a time when the Cold War was at its height and America needed its European allies, particularly Britain. It may, or many not, have been a factor in Britain’s continual refusal to send troops to Vietnam, the only US conflict the British have not supported since the end of the Second World War.
The same mistake was made just under two years ago when only a low ranking official was sent to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
Now, the Obama Administration has made a similar error of judgment, for which it has apologized.
This time, the failure was not to attend the demonstration of unity in Paris held on Sunday. 3.7 million people were in attendance throughout the country, most of them in the capital, Paris.
The British, German and Spanish prime ministers were all present; as were the prime minister of Israel and the Palestinian leader, two men who would not normally want to be seen with each other.
Neither the US president nor the Vice-President were there. And nor was the Secretary of State, John Kerry. In contrast, the President of France, Jacques Chirac, was the first world leader to visit Washington after 9/11.
Diplomatic gaffes like this can lead to serious problems. I don’t think the Atlantic Alliance is going to disintegrate because the US president failed to turn up in France for the Unity rally, but repeated blunders like this one send a message, that Europe is now of little importance to the US. The announced closure of 15 US military bases in Europe last week also sent a negative message, that America is losing interest in Europe. The announcement came just after the Paris terror attacks. That was also insensitive – at a time when Europe clearly needs some help, the US is withdrawing!
Washington should remember that only once has NATO’s Clause 5 ever been invoked. This is the clause that states if one member country is attacked, the others must come to its aid. The one time it was invoked was immediately after September 11th, 2001, when other NATO countries came to America’s aid.
Alliances, like friendship, work both ways. If friends don’t support friends in times of trouble, the friendship could just fizzle out and die.