In his excellent book “Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order”, Timothy Andrews Sayle, an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto, offers a fascinating account of transatlantic policy-making.

Sayle devotes much attention to the formative phase of the North Atlantic Alliance in the late 1940s and early 1950s, stressing the sincere desire of Western leaders – many of whom had witnessed two world wars – to avoid yet another military conflagration in Europe. He also points out that the Soviet threat was perceived less in tanks rolling westward, but in subverting the weakened post-war societies of Western Europe. Against this background, NATO was not just a military bulwark against a Soviet invasion, but a means to provide Western Europe with the self-confidence needed to withstand Moscow’s salami tactics of subjugating one state after another.

The Alliance was founded at a time when empires still existed. Sayle convincingly demonstrates how France and the United Kingdom tried – and ultimately failed – to “use” NATO to help arrest the collapse of their colonial policies. For example, the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding treaty, initially included France’s Algerian departments. A few years later, France and the United Kingdom found themselves at loggerheads with the United States over their position on the Suez Crisis. Yet Washington remained firm in its belief that the age of empires was over and that the Alliance should not be perceived as supporting an idea that would alienate most of the rest of the world. Interestingly enough, a decade later, when the United States asked for support in Vietnam, its European Allies had lost all appetite for using NATO beyond its European borders.

Sayle persuasively explains the United Kingdom’s constant balancing act between being the preferred Ally of the United States, while also seeking access to the European Economic Community’s benefits. He also details the irritations caused by French leader Charles De Gaulle, who loathed NATO while at the same time demanding its support in French colonial affairs in Northern Africa. De Gaulle also made a pitch for a triumvirate of France, the United Kingdom and the United States to run the Alliance. Yet, after the easing of Cold War tensions in the wake of the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis and having vetoed Britain’s first application for membership in the European Economic Community, he took France out of NATO’s military arrangements in 1966. He believed that his country no longer needed the protection of the United States. Consequently, the Federal Republic of Germany started to play a more self-confident role in the Alliance. However, Sayle also shows the contradictory views held by some Allies about a rising West Germany: fears that the Germans might elect a revanchist government and seek to acquire nuclear weapons varied with fears that Bonn could seek accommodation with Moscow at the expense of Allied unity.

Sayle maintains that the Alliance, in the eyes of its leaders, had not one, but two adversaries: there was Moscow, to be sure, but there were also Western electorates. In the author’s narrative, the greatest challenge to NATO was the ballot box. Western leaders were constantly worried that the populations of the member countries would no longer support the Alliance, and that leaders might be pushed by their electorates into adopting policies that would undermine Western cohesion. To put it bluntly, what really could change the balance of power in Europe was not a Soviet invasion, but changing political alignments.

the Harmel Report only narrowly succeeded in giving “allied politicians a new argument for supporting NATO and the defense spending required of allies when hopes of détente made this spending seem frivolous.

There were also fears that Western Europe’s increasing economic clout, symbolised by the rise of the European Community, would lead to transatlantic trade disputes, which could cause the US Congress to push back by limiting the commitment of the United States to the Alliance. In a nutshell, time and again it seemed that the more secure Europe would become, the bleaker NATO’s future would be. Even the 1967 Harmel Report – which today is often hyped as a diplomatic master stroke that kept the Alliance relevant in an age of receding East-West tensions – was not the breakthrough it was supposed to be. According to Sayle, the Harmel Report only narrowly succeeded in giving “allied politicians a new argument for supporting NATO and the defense spending required of allies when hopes of détente made this spending seem frivolous.” The book is full of such short and clear-sighted observations.

The Allies’ attempts to deal with the rise of Soviet military power throughout the 1970s – in particular Moscow’s deployment of SS-20 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles – led to one of NATO’s most severe crises. Always fearful of being “decoupled” from the United States, Europeans demanded a response. However, once Washington suggested to deploy new nuclear weapons in Europe, some of the very Allies that had asked for an Allied answer got cold feet. Under pressure from a rising peace movement as well as a massive Soviet propaganda campaign, European governments were torn between showing Alliance solidarity and seeking political accommodation at home. Sayle demonstrates that nuclear weapons were both NATO’s military strength and political weakness.

Sayle’s account of the negotiations leading to a united Germany in NATO demonstrates the critical role of the United States in managing peaceful change in Europe. As he puts it bluntly: “NATO’s future at the end of the cold war was shaped largely by the United States and the other largest allies.” He also shows that the worries of Western leaders about a disinterested public resurfaced: when asked about who was now the enemy, President George H. W. Bush replied “apathy and unpredictability”. Once again, the Alliance looked like it was becoming the victim of its own success. And yet, NATO carried on.

the worries of Western leaders about a disinterested public resurfaced: when asked about who was now the enemy, President George H. W. Bush replied “apathy and unpredictability

Given that the book’s main focus is on the formative phase of the Alliance, NATO’s post-Cold War adaptation is dealt with in far less detail. Its military engagement in the Balkans and Afghanistan as well as its eastward enlargement are covered in only a few pages, yet even here Sayle offers interesting insights.

Throughout his book, Sayle documents Washington’s persistent attempts to adapt NATO to ensure its longevity. Notably for the State Department, the Alliance was more than a Cold War bulwark: it was a framework for maintaining European stability and a balance of power that favoured the United States. The first generation of leaders also had an ongoing fear that a new generation would not understand why NATO was so important. At the same time, however, some supporters of the Atlantic Alliance, such as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, unabashedly used it as a means to exert pressure on the European Allies, whenever they were seen to be at odds with the policies of the United States.

Sayle also suggests that there are limits to the role of the NATO Secretary General. In an Alliance of sovereign nation states, Sayle casts him as a secretary rather than a general, occasionally taking his own initiatives, but more often executing policies decided by the Allies.

Moreover, the author argues that, while the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) may be a high-ranking and respected US officer, it is the President of the United States who ultimately has the say on fundamental military issues. At the same time, he also offers persuasive examples of how Washington was “using” SACEUR to advance its NATO policy or work around the Alliance altogether – as in the case of the initial “Live Oak” military planning for the defence of West Berlin. In Sayle’s account, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, NATO’s first SACEUR and later President of the United States, emerges as a towering figure. A true believer in multinationality as well as in military integration, “Ike” regarded NATO as an indispensable framework for transatlantic security cooperation. Unfortunately, due to the book’s focus on the earlier days of the Alliance, the reader cannot benefit from similar observations on other, more contemporary personalities.

Although the book grew out of Sayle’s dissertation, it does not suffer from boring chapters on political theories or research methodology. Nor is the author overwhelmed by his sources. While he has ploughed through an impressive number of documents, he remains in firm control of the material. Indeed, one of book’s strengths is the elegance with which Sayle integrates hundreds of interesting quotes into his narrative, without sacrificing the flow of his prose. Even when retelling episodes of NATO’s history that have been well covered by others – such as, for example, the rise and fall of the ill-fated Multilateral Nuclear Force in the 1960s – Sayle’s narrative manages to breathe new life into them.

Only on very few occasions does the author miss the mark. For example, he argues that the 1986 US-Soviet Summit in Reykjavik essentially reflected the changed attitudes of both Reagan and Gorbachev vis-à-vis nuclear weapons. But this omits at least Gorbachev’s main rationale for offering nuclear abolition: Moscow needed to stop Washington’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI) and was willing to pay almost any price to achieve this goal. Indeed, although SDI remained a major challenge to the Soviet Union (and to NATO) throughout the 1980s, it does not figure in Sayle’s book. A second edition should address such omissions – and would also benefit from having an index.

For those who believe that the Alliance is currently going through a particularly difficult time, “Enduring Alliance” is a healthy reminder that ironing out major disagreements between Allies has been NATO’s modus operandi since its inception. Whether it was European fears in the early 1960s that the United States “had outgrown NATO” or, a few years later, Washington’s fears that the Europeans might strike separate deals with Moscow, Sayle shows that the Alliance was a permanent bargaining process. However, at the end of the day, the logic prevailed that it was better to live with NATO than without it.

Among the recent books on NATO, “Enduring Alliance” stands out as one of the best. It is not a NATO handbook, however. The author does not dwell on organisational structures but on politics. NATO – the large international organisation – is only the backdrop for a fascinating tale about multilateral politics: on the one hand, it is about seeking the lowest common denominator among diverging national interests; on the other, it is about shaping the strategic environment together. In explaining how the Allies kept on going despite sometimes serious disagreements, Sayle sends a reassuring message: an Atlantic Commonwealth does indeed exist.