Did you know that Richard Nixon tried to turn NATO into an environmental organization? It was pretty baffling for the allies, who took the alliance seriously as a military organization, and also took seriously their scientific bodies devoted to environmental issues. But Nixon had a different agenda, to link environmental issues to American foreign policy and alliance politics. This little-known story is the subject of my article in Environmental History, issue 15:1 (2010).
by Jacob Darwin Hamblin
As new environmental programs, organizations, and laws proliferated in the late 1960s and 1970s, U.S. President Richard Nixon began using environmental cooperation as part of his foreign policy. But his decision to pair global environmental action with the most powerful military alliance in history—NATO—puzzled nearly everyone, including the NATO allies. Recently
scholars have pointed out the role of the Nixon administration in inaugurating “environmental diplomacy,” raising the status of environmental accords and winning approbation for global environmental leadership. But most studies have glossed over the role of NATO as Nixon’s principal vehicle for East-West cooperation, and have neglected entirely the views, resistance, and downright hostility of the allies to the American style of environmental leadership. In presenting these views, this essay provides a counterweight to existing studies on global environmental action in the years leading up to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The essay shows how Nixon’s use of NATO deepened political animosities between East and West, and between North and South, hastening the bloc-to-bloc politicization of global environmental issues.