“In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism. On the contrary they will consume these engines, and all who work them.”
— Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, September 12, 1821
When visiting Paris in July 2017, U.S. President Donald J. Trump witnessed the annual Bastille Day celebration along L’Avenue des Champs-Élysées alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. During the celebration, onlookers saw a busy display of 241 horses, 63 airplanes and 29 helicopters all advancing down and above the tree-lined avenue. Later, Trump remarked to The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman that the parade in France was one of the most beautiful parades he ever saw. He continued to state that this was something the United States should do one day down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The U.S. held similar parades— the latest occurring in 1991 to celebrate the end of the Gulf War — but usually framed them in the wake of a military victory or inauguration. To Trump’s credit, American University librarian James Heintze showed that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Martin Van Buren and James Polk all reviewed military parades on America’s independence day. Even further, critics see some merit to the decision: if Trump aims to express how much he honors our military, that’s a “wonderful thing” according to Michael Beschloss, presidential historian, who spoke to Michael D. Shear from The New York Times. However, he also showed that such a move may run contrary to national values. “If the idea is to mimic other countries’ military might, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” Beschloss countered.
“Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.” — George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” 1941
Hard power, as defined by Ernest J. Wilson III, is a focus on military intervention, coercive diplomacy, and economic sanctions to enforce national interests. Emphasis is placed on the usage of military force or influence. Conversely, Wilson III claims soft power is best defined as an attempt at diplomacy or statecraft. Emphasis here is placed on the ability to write the “rules of the game.” The U.S., in its international strategy, typically will focus on strategies inherent with the latter power approach. Thus, President Trump’s desire to exercise military might and “salute” the American troops runs against the grain. Despite Trump’s admiration for the parades and strongman politics in places like North Korea, China, or Russia, the United States largely avoids spectacle and hard power displays in the modern era. Of course, Trump is a huge image-focused individual. That’s obvious. Bill Clinton referred to him as a “master brander.” So, the bigger the pomp and circumstance, the better.
Not surprisingly, this means that a more subtle approach — the United States’ level of soft power — is disappearing in favor of hard power. In the latest rankings (2018) of the Soft Power 30, an annual measure of nations’ level of soft power (influence), the United States stands at 4th behind the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. This is due, in part, to the failure of America to look beyond its own interests in the country’s sudden foreign policy shift. Having fractured long-standing alliances, challenged global partners, and initiated unnecessary and often misguided trade policies, the United States undermined its credibility on the world stage and damaged its reputation as a result. Regardless, the new self-interest fits in with the idea of a parade. Though we and others around the world may know that we have the most powerful military in the world, we are determined to show it and “restore” what the Trump administration may see as lost leadership.
Regaining global influence is a partial goal. The military is also being used as a prop for political gain — far from a salute to their service. This claim is substantiated by retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, a veteran of Vietnam, the Gulf War, and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.
“The president is using the armed forces in a political ploy for his reelection campaign and I think it’s absolutely obscene,” he stated.
Among other concerns for critics are the hefty price tag, the lack of situational awareness on a traditionally non-political national holiday, and the pure absurdity of it all. They have a point, but the President isn’t buying.
The parade is estimated to cost taxpayers millions. However, the defense department was told to keep this a secret and the White House is silent. What is known is that this parade includes diverting 2.5 million dollars from the National Parks Service’s entrance and recreation fees for maintenance and upkeep of the parks across the country. For comparison, former National Park Service Deputy Director Denis Galvin shared that a traditional Fourth of July celebration usually costs the department around $2 million, granted this money is not diverted.
In addition, U.S. military officials provided various numbers to estimate the total cost — less than $1 million (highly doubtful). For reference, the cancelled 2018 Trump military parade was estimated to cost $92 million.
Trump took to Twitter to combat the rumors of large cost, citing donations and nationally owned resources while seemingly forgetting to include things like inherent costs of personnel, set up and tech, and musical talent acquisition. This is not to mention the costs of the flyovers and firework launch point changes that will ground flights at DCA for the first time in years and cause a potential 100 flight delays.
In keeping with the veil of silence and/or lack of information, military service members on hand for the parade were given various elements of training and cheat sheets to inform their behavior in and around the general public and media. Again, branding and image management to a T. However, some media, like MSNBC, will avoid a broadcast of the festivities in live time.
These festivities are estimated to include thousands on the National Mall in spite of severe thunderstorm threats. Nonetheless, all of those thousands are not expected to be on Trump’s side. Many protests are planned. These include a Trump baby balloon (grounded, unfortunately) from Code Pink and a two-team effort from VoteVets and Rags of Honor to hand out t-shirts honoring the late Senator John McCain. Still, Trump plans to give a speech amidst the mixed crowd— becoming the first president since Harry S. Truman to address the public during the celebration.
Whatever the event may become, the United States is great because it doesn’t have to prove that it’s a country that has a mighty military through such a hard power approach. The world already knows. It successfully uses soft power while realizing that hard power is sometimes necessary. Professor Joseph Nye of Tufts University explains that while soft power will never fully replace hard power, the U.S. could become more adept in the usage of soft power to counter the times they choose to subscribe to hard power tactics.
This event on July 4 is not one of those times. Hijacking a previously non-political and unifying event like this for political and self interest is contrary to the very purpose of what we are supposed to celebrate — our independence and ability to unify and extinguish despotism.
For a full schedule of festivities, you can see them here. I ask that you avoid attending, but implore that you be safe and cautious if you must go.