Biden Says Democracy at Risk in Ukraine Fight as He Marks D-Day

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden delivered a pointed rebuke to two men he’s identified as present-day threats to democracy — Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump — as he marked one of the US’s greatest triumphs against authoritarianism.

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Biden did not mention Putin and Trump by name, but his remarks at an American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where he is marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy during World War II, linked the historic backdrop to Ukraine’s current struggles to repel Russia’s invasion and hailed the importance of alliances such as NATO to preserve democracy.

“We’re living in a time when democracy is more at risk across the world than any point since the end of World War II,” Biden said Thursday from Normandy, where world leaders gathered near beaches where allied soldiers battling Nazi Germany mounted the largest amphibious assault in history.

“Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago and is not the answer today,” Biden said, defending the role of US alliances such as NATO, which Trump has repeatedly criticized, as essential to preserving freedom.

Biden, who has warned of Russian President Putin’s grand designs for the continent, is expected to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy while in France. He warned that if the allies failed there, “Ukraine will be subjugated and it will not end there. Ukraine’s neighbors will be threatened, all of Europe will be threatened.

“To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators, is simply unthinkable. Were we to do that, it means we would be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches. Make no mistake: we will not bow down, we will not forget,” he added.

Biden’s speech capped an emotional ceremony, where leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, paid tribute to the veterans who stormed the beaches of Normandy 80 years ago.

Before his speech, Biden spoke with the veterans. One stood up out of his wheelchair and saluted him, saying: “Mr. President.” Another, who was struggling to get back into his chair, jokingly warned: “Don’t get old!”

Trump Contrast

The trip has given Biden the opportunity to draw an implicit contrast with Trump, his general election rival, who is vying to return to the White House.

On Friday, he’ll deliver a speech on democracy and freedom at Pointe du Hoc, echoing the famous election-year address by former President Ronald Reagan four decades earlier. By raising topics like the value of American allies and the need to combat tyrants, Biden can deliver a veiled critique of Trump’s leadership style and penchant for isolationism rather than explicitly campaign on foreign soil.

“You don’t have to be partisan to make your case for a free-world strategy and the alliance with Europe,” said Daniel Fried, a former US diplomat now at the Atlantic Council. “And the contrast with Trump, you don’t have to put into a partisan context.”

Then Biden will visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, the subject of a bombshell report about Trump during the last presidential election.

The Atlantic reported that Trump in 2018 canceled a visit to the graveyard - which serves as a final resting place for US troops killed in World War I - because he was concerned about the impact of heavy rain on his hair, and that he belittled Americans who died in the nation’s wars as “suckers” and “losers.”

Biden has frequently seized on the reporting to criticize Trump, who blamed logistical problems caused by the weather for the scheduling change and has denied disparaging US troops.

But even as Biden has declared his intention to revitalize alliances, his actions outside of Ukraine have strained some of those relationships. Steadfast support for Israel’s war against Hamas has isolated him from European leaders more willing to condemn the military campaign that killed thousands of Palestinian civilians.

The White House’s attempts to counter China and boost domestic manufacturing also come at the expense of European auto, technology, and green energy industries, causing friction with Macron.

That’s left US partners struggling to navigate the politics and economics of a post-pandemic world. And with ascendant developing nations more skeptical of the West, the liberal order established after World War II appears at its most vulnerable point in decades.

Macron and the Biden administration have been at odds at times over their approach to Putin. French organizers of the D-Day ceremonies initially said Russian officials would be invited to recognize the Soviet Union’s sacrifices fighting the Nazis. But last week, blowback led the French to reverse course.

Still, the White House is eager to use the president’s trip through France, the longest visit to a single country of his presidency, to evoke the past in hopes of rallying the world — and American voters.

Leaders including Macron, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are attending ceremonies to mark the allied invasion of Normandy.

In an op-ed published in regional French newspaper Ouest-France, Scholz said his presence shows how Europe is now united and underscores the endurance of the transatlantic partnership.

“My participation today also bears witness to the deep Franco-German bond that has continued to grow in the decades since the end of the war: enemies have become partners and ultimately friends, closest friends,” he said, adding: “All of this should and can give us courage in the face of the return of war and imperialism to Europe through Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”

The winning alliance helped form the backbone of the post-World War II global order through institutions like NATO.

Fresh US aid for Ukraine was held up by Republicans in the US Congress for months, which many Europeans took as a warning sign about what might happen if Trump wins.

The expression “politics stops at the water’s edge” was once a guidepost for US presidents traveling overseas, but not in this deeply polarized moment. With polls showing Biden struggling to gain traction — and European capitals rattled by the prospect of a second Trump term — the president is leaning into making the case that he is a bulwark of democracy.

“The world will be watching. More importantly, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, will be watching,” pollster Frank Luntz said Monday on Bloomberg Television’s Balance of Power.

Biden’s visit is poised to set the tone for how he tackles Trump and Putin ahead of Election Day. He departed Washington less than a week after Trump became the first former president convicted of a felony, injecting fresh turmoil into the election.

Biden began referring to Trump openly as a “convicted felon” Monday, signaling a new aggressiveness toward his opponent.

But Biden faces his own challenges, with his son Hunter on trial, accused of lying about drug abuse on a federal firearm document. And the president has not been immune to charges of insensitivity toward the nation’s war dead. He was photographed looking at his watch during a 2021 dignified transfer of troops killed during the evacuation from Afghanistan.

--With assistance from Skylar Woodhouse, Joe Mathieu, Kailey Leinz, Matt Shirley, Samy Adghirni, Josh Wingrove and James Regan.

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