Timothy Andrews Sayle. Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 360 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3550-9.
Reviewed by Andrea Chiampan (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Enduring Alliance offers an impressive tour d’horizon of the seventy-year-old history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). An engaging, well-researched, and beautifully written survey of this oft troubled but incredibly resilient institution, Enduring Alliance invites readers to reflect on both the past and future of NATO. It offers new insight on why NATO endured and overcame repeated challenges, not least the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Timothy Andrews Sayle’s book, however, is more than just a survey. It gives scholars, students, and policymakers a new framework for understanding why NATO was created, why it endured, and why it continues to be of value to its members. Most interestingly, Sayle suggests that we should surpass the reductionist view of NATO as a mere instrument of Soviet military containment and appreciate that the “allies did not maintain NATO because it was an alliance of democracies, but because it offered the best insurance against the dangers of democracy—a fickle electorate that, in seeking peace, might pave the way for war” (p. 2). In this light, Sayle pleads the case for the primacy of domestic politics. Yes, NATO was an instrument to preserve the balance of power in Europe by keeping, famously, the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out. Yet the principal threat, NATO officials continued to believe, “lay in the ballot box” (p. 4). Germany finds a central place in Sayle’s narrative too. Sayle maintains not only that fear of Germany motivated the early architects of NATO but also that the motivations the presidential administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson for supporting NATO had “little to do with the Soviet Union, and everything to do with fear that Germany would ‘return to the bottle’” (pp. 100-101).
NATO did not endure because of inertia, Sayle argues, but because successive American presidents and NATO officials recognized again and again that NATO’s value transcended the Cold War and the Soviet threat. President George H. Bush, in particular, was adamant that America should remain a “European power” indefinitely and that NATO was the best “vehicle for maintaining that position” (p. 223). As the debate on NATO’s role in the twenty-first century enrages and as a new president questions the future of NATO, Sayle’s book comes as a sober reminder that NATO—after all—was created, nourished, and supported by virtually all US presidents since 1949 because NATO was created and maintained to maximize and advance US interests.
The book is structured in chronological fashion, with summaries at the beginning of each chapter that help the reader navigate the myriad facts, names, acronyms, and events that populate the seventy-year-long history of the alliance. As a result, the elegance of Sayle’s prose is matched by remarkable clarity and organization in his narrative.
Chapter 1 throws a quick glance at the alliance’s foundational years, from the signing of the treaty in 1949 to the accession of West Germany, passing through the faltering process of military integration and nuclearization of the alliance. By 1955, Sayle concludes, NATO “had taken its essential form” (p. 26). Sayle here convincingly argues that the creation of NATO was not so much about deterring a Soviet invasion of Europe—a remote scenario even in the “hottest” years of the Cold War—as about preventing Soviet political blackmail. Domestic politics and psychology were more important. This insight echoes quite nicely the book’s main argument. In the eyes of NATO’s architects, the real threat lay in the electoral ballot where an impressionable European electorate could be swayed, persuaded, or coerced if Soviet military power in Eurasia was left unrivaled. Sayle also shows how economic constraints and the growth of the US nuclear arsenal prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to increase the alliance’s reliance on nuclear weapons and deterrence. The nuclearization of NATO, Sayle intelligently points out, “solved problems while creating more” (p. 24)—a teaser for what is to come in the following chapters. On the other hand, Sayle leaves the reader in no doubt that NATO was designed to perform a “dual containment” role by allowing the reintegration of German power in a way that was acceptable to the other Western powers (p. 15).
Chapters 2 to 7 form the core of the book and deal with several challenges and centrifugal forces that tormented NATO from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Most of these involved the eccentric French president Charles De Gaulle. Beyond the general’s capriciousness, Sayle shows how the thawing of the Cold War—particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis—represented a fundamental threat to NATO throughout this period and well into the 1970s. Having reintegrated West Germany and established a reasonable military deterrent against the Soviet Union, NATO “looked like it might have put itself out of business” (p. 28). The Suez Crisis exposed the underlying differences between Britain and France on the one hand, and the United States on the other, when it came to decolonization and the “globalization” of the Cold War. While the Anglo-American relationship recuperated soon thereafter, De Gaulle launched an unsuccessful eight-year battle to transform the Atlantic alliance into a global actor—directed by the “Big Three”—while at the same time diminishing the role of NATO as a military organization. Needless to say, Algeria loomed large in the general’s mind.
It is worth pointing out here how Sayle redresses our understanding of the Anglo-American reaction to De Gaulle’s demands. There was no firm rebuttal, as some have argued, but instead several attempts were made to assuage the general’s demands. Between 1959 and 1960, the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, in particular, prodded both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to hold tripartite talks. The ultimate rejection of these demands, the onset of détente, and the deterioration of the US commitment to nuclear retaliation in the early-to-mid-1960s (codified by the adoption of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “flexible response”) convinced De Gaulle that the interests of NATO and France no longer aligned, thus prompting France’s exit from the integrated command in 1966. Détente in international relations after the Berlin and Cuban crises played a major role in De Gaulle’s thinking. As Sayle puts it, “De Gaulle’s policy of withdrawal from the Alliance in the 1960s was premised not on a belief that France could not rely on the United States, but that war was so unlikely it need not” (p. 121).
Control of nuclear weapons and influence over the plans to use them were other concerns that De Gaulle made repeatedly clear. In these chapters, Sayle shows how both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations often recurred to nuclear weapons to reassure the allies that NATO was well and alive and the American commitment to the defense of Europe unabated. In response to the launch of Sputnik, Eisenhower deployed Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) in Turkey and Italy and created a nuclear stockpile of warheads permanently deployed in Europe. Years later, Sayle shows, some eager and vocal members of the Kennedy administration came to believe that creating a Multilateral Force (MLF)—a joint nuclear maritime force between Britain, Germany, and France—would be the only way to truly integrate West Germany into NATO and contain De Gaulle’s suspicions. The MLF project failed miserably, lacking the support of almost all the supposed participants and being at odds with McNamara’s new emphasis on conventional defense. Interestingly, Sayle presents the MLF experience not only as one of a “series of nuclear-political crises” that characterized the history of the alliance but also as an example of the “allies’ continued interest in using NATO to tie Germany to the West” (p. 118).
Enduring Alliance is at its best when presenting the “Offset Crisis” of 1966-67 as the prime example of the intricacies of domestic politics, economics, and alliance management. The challenge rising from congressional pressure to cut back defense spending—particularly in Europe—posed a continued test for the alliance well into the 1970s. Sayle correctly highlights how the plan proposed by the Johnson administration according to which West Germany would buy US bonds and abstain from converting dollars into gold as part of the offset deal brought the United States great gains. If the Kennedy administration consistently used NATO as a tool of American foreign policy rather than a multilateral forum, the Johnson administration found a way of transforming the “free-riding” problem into financial gains—something all-too-often forgotten.
Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the 1970s and 1980s, which significantly accelerates the speed of the narrative. Although the asymmetrical treatment of the first and second half of the Cold War is unexpected and perhaps difficult to justify, Sayle’s ability to render a precise and accurate picture of the last two decades of the Cold War while breezing at such high altitude and speed is remarkable. While the narrative might be a familiar one, Sayle offers a few interesting interpretations. Firstly, his emphasis on the “generational gap” is on point. Sayle argues that “the greatest threat to NATO in the [Richard] Nixon years was not friction between the national interests of the allied states, but that the citizens of NATO states would simply reject the necessity of the alliance” (p. 167). Against this background, for instance, the antinuclear movements of the 1980s were the result of an increasing generational gap between NATO governments and their citizens. Here, Sayle offers new insight. Since the beginning of détente, and in particular through the “Harmel report,” NATO officials came to believe that the survival of the alliance rested on the idea that NATO was more than a military organization. According to Sayle, this rhetoric had unintended consequences. “The antinuclear sentiment,” he explains, “was the legacy of decades of advertising NATO as an alliance of values and common heritage, rather than as an instrument of defense and deterrence” (p. 192). I have found this insight particularly novel, if underdeveloped. While this is an interesting reading of why the movements of the 1980s came to reject power politics, it seems to remain a suggestion rather than a refined argument.
Furthermore, in chapter 8, Sayle highlights the idiosyncrasies that characterized the Nixon administration toward European unity. On the one hand, as Congress continued to demand that the Europeans spend more on their defense budgets, the White House responded that NATO was paramount. On the other hand, Secretary McNamara too believed that NATO’s defenses should be reorganized with a stronger emphasis on flexibility and conventional forces—which naturally would entail increased European spending. At the same time, Sayle correctly points out, the Nixon administration, however, was worried that a stronger European pole would pose a danger to US grand strategy.
Chapter 10 is a strong one and joins the burgeoning historiography on NATO survival and expansion in the 1990s. Why did NATO not only survive the Cold War but also expand after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Sayle here unveils new materials and shows convincingly how the George H. W. Bush administration and its allies never doubted that NATO was and should remain the “essential guarantor of security for Europe and the United States” (p. 217). Sayle argues that the Bush administration took an assertive role to ensure the continuation of NATO and that Germany would continue to remain tied to the West. Realism and historical analogy reigned supreme. The administration’s support for NATO was based on the assumption that peace in Europe could not be given for granted and that Russia would continue to prioritize the security of its borders. Interestingly, Sayle argues that one of the security concerns for the United States was that an integrated and expanded European Economic Community (EEC) might soon enough devise its own security and defense policies. In a way, the continuation of NATO was also an instrument to prevent this scenario. When contemporary critics of NATO lambast European freeriding, it is worth remembering that the United States continuously acted to prevent the EEC from subsuming competing competences that could hinder NATO. Finally, Sayle shows how the logic for NATO expansion was laid out clearly already by the Bush administration in order to control the shape of European security, by keeping in check both the expanding EEC and by preventing Eastern European states from seeking alternative arrangements. But ultimately NATO expansion began when it did, Sayle argues, because of the idealistic policy preferences of the Bill Clinton administration.
Given its broad scope it would be unfair to criticize Enduring Alliance for reducing certain events while magnifying others. For instance, the reader may be left with the erroneous impression that crucial challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s—for example, Poland, Afghanistan—carried less weight in transatlantic relations than the dispute over contingency plans over the defense of Berlin and the relationship between Live Oak and NATO in the early 1960s. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear that the choice of the case studies is in step with the domestic politics trope. For instance, if one was to make the argument of European electorates constituting a powerful force in driving NATO politics, the challenges coming from the disintegration of the Cold War consensus in the European social-democratic parties in the 1970s and 1980s would constitute a more—or at least equally—interesting story than De Gaulle’s memorandum, the Offset Crisis, or Suez that receive much wider attention.
My main critique, however, concerns the connection between introduction, conclusion, and the main body. Sayle sets out some clear themes in his introduction, chiefly the preeminence of domestic politics, the centrality of West Germany and “dual containment,” and the state of semi-permanent “crisis” that the alliance incorporated since the outset. These are themes that appear continuously in the following chapters but not always consistently. In other words, there is constant tension between an argument-driven analysis that the introduction promises and the narrative that sometimes follows events in a chronological order without a clear tie to any of the main argumentations. This is hardly a major shortcoming in such a broad survey study, but the underpinning temptation to cover a bit of everything somewhat dilutes and disperses the strength of the author’s argument. The conclusion, instead, pulls the reader in entirely different directions with reasoning over out-of-area NATO operations, speculations about what might have led the Clinton administration to embrace expansion, recent US-Russian tensions, and President Donald Trump’s uncertain trumpeting. Finally, for a book that gives centrality to West Germany and that emphasizes the primacy of domestic politics, I would have liked to see more about German party politics and perhaps more German sources. For instance, a crucial figure in shaping West Germany’s relationship with NATO, politician Egon Bahr, who helped create Ostpolitik, receives only cursory mentions.
To be sure, none of this detracts from an outstanding account of the enduring and resilient alliance that is NATO. Because of its ability to offer a clear, engaging, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking analysis, Enduring Alliance is quite simply the best overview of the alliance’s history that scholars, students, and practitioners have now at their disposal. Sayle takes on an ambitious project but delivers a much-needed book that will no doubt become the reference point for any student interested in NATO and transatlantic relations.
. On President Donald Trump’s grievances about burden sharing, see Ashley Parker, “Donald Trump Says NATO Is Obsolete,” The New York Times, April 2, 2016; David Sherfinski, “Donald Trump Questions NATO’s Usefulness in Post-Cold War Era,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2016; and Krishnadev Calamur, “Trump’s Message to NATO: ‘We’re the Schmucks Paying for the Whole Thing,’” The Atlantic, July 8, 2018. Recent critiques of NATO’s purpose and allies’ freeriding are, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2016): 70-83; and Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).
. Previous studies on US reaction to De Gaulle’s memorandum include Sebastian Reyn, Atlantis Lost: The American Experience with De Gaulle (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), esp. 221-24; Frank Costigliola, France and the United States: The Cold Alliance since World War II (Woodbridge, CT: Twayne, 1992); Frederique Bozo, “France, ‘Gaullism,’ and the Cold War,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, vol. 2, ed. Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 165-67; and Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), esp. 242-44.
. For instance, Kristina Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting? The ‘NATO Enlargement Question’ in the Triangular Bonn-Washington-Moscow Diplomacy of 1990-1991,” Journal of Cold War Studies 14, no. 4 (2012): 4-54; Mary E. Sarotte, “How to Enlarge NATO: The Debate inside the Clinton Administration, 1993-95,” International Security 44, no. 1 (2019): 7-41; and Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion,” International Security 40, no. 4 (2016): 7-44.
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Andrea Chiampan. Review of Sayle, Timothy Andrews, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order.
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