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Seeking solutions to Cold War divisions, in the mid-20th century NATO embraced environmentalism

Greening the Alliance: The Diplomacy of NATO's Science and Environmental Initiatives

Simone Turchetti
University of Chicago Press
263 pp.
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War and preparation for war have long led militaries to exploit, transform, and degrade environments. How ironic, then, that at the height of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—the most powerful military alliance ever assembled—emerged as a leading proponent of environmentalism. Simone Turchetti’s Greening the Alliance is the first book to explain the surprising rise, repeated revision, and possible decline of NATO’s environmental research program.

Turchetti organizes his book chronologically. After insightful passages on sources and methods, he traces the diplomatic tensions and maneuverings that, in 1958, led representatives of the United States and Britain to cooperate in securing support for a new NATO Science Committee. Supporting environmental research, they hoped, would promote parallel diplomacy to repair deepening divisions among the alliance’s 12 signatories. Yet because the committee sponsored research with obvious strategic applications, it actually exacerbated divisions among the allies.

In 1966, Turchetti argues, growing dissatisfaction with NATO’s science program came to a head. The rise of environmentalism, the sinking of the tanker SS Torrey Canyon, and the political opportunism of Richard Nixon all led to an American push for a new kind of environmental research at NATO. Enter the “Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society” (CCMS), established in 1969 to fund research into toxicology, devastated ecosystems, and environmental monitoring. Research pioneered by the committee steadily advanced a brand of environmentalism that prized scientific rationalism rather than the radical counterculture of the grassroots environmentalist movement.

Yet, Turchetti explains that European allies repeatedly stalled CCMS initiatives, which in any case never confronted the environmental impact of military activities. When the CCMS exposed new divisions within NATO, American support withered, and the alliance’s commitment to environmentalism seemed to fade. By that time, however, emerging weapons systems in the United States and the Soviet Union increasingly demanded constant environmental surveillance. This new reality encouraged another round of environmental research, with obvious strategic applications.

After the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led NATO to again de-emphasize environmental research, the collapse of the Soviet Union led the CCMS to support efforts to rehabilitate defunct Cold War military bases. Environmental research at NATO lives on but faces challenges amid the alliance’s increasing focus on the “cybersphere.”

In the end, Turchetti convincingly argues not only that militaries fostered the emergence of modern environmental sciences but also that they long set the agenda for major research programs in its disciplines. His analysis of the American role within NATO is especially compelling. Far from a Cold War hegemon, the United States in Greening the Alliance could only achieve its objectives with the cooperation of often-reluctant allies. Skeptics will note, however, that American officials repeatedly determined when, and how, NATO would pursue environmental research and policy.

The protagonists of Greening the Alliance are scientists in the upper echelons of Cold War military and diplomatic institutions. This focus makes for a richly detailed story of political maneuvering and high-minded ideals, yet it also deprives Turchetti’s narrative of context that might have given it greater significance. Politicians and military officers are rarely mentioned by name, and ordinary people who may have shaped the course of scientific research, such as North Sea fishermen resistant to early oceanographic surveys, rarely receive much attention.

Key scientific controversies discussed in Greening the Alliance—the possibility of nuclear winter, for example—frequently appear with little explanation, and Turchetti opts not to compare NATO’s environmental programs with similar and simultaneous efforts in other western institutions. (Neil Maher has recently revealed that NASA similarly struggled to implement an “environmental turn” in the 1970s, for example.) Moreover, because Turchetti rarely explains the scope and significance of NATO’s environmental science program within the broader development of 20th-century science, it is difficult for the reader to know just how important the activities of the CCMS really were.

Written in workmanlike prose, Greening the Alliance is therefore a book that will primarily appeal to a relatively small group of historians and political scientists. Yet for those specialists, it succeeds in telling a new and critically important story.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057, USA.