In the last decade, Western Europe’s two main systems of alliance – NATO and the EU – have both experienced crises that threatened their existence. From battles over economic austerity, to demands that some NATO partners increase their military spending, to the process of Brexit, the challenges confronting both alliances may seem unprecedented in their scope. The notion that anything is unprecedented, however, is too much for a historian to resist. The fallout within the EU from the financial crisis of 2008-2009 served as an inspiration for me to study alliances in an earlier period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My goal was to see what the dynamics of alliance during the era of the Reformation might reveal about Europe’s political development. What I discovered is that the crises facing Europe’s current alliances parallel in multiple ways the history of alliances from its early modern past.
Countless alliances existed across early modern Europe. They were particularly important in the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic, the subjects of my new book. Many of these alliances – such as the Schmalkaldic League, Protestant Union, Union of Utrecht, and League of Landsberg – are well known. Until now, however, no one has examined them comparatively to see how their operation influenced the development of states over long stretches of time. My book studies dozens of alliances from the mid-fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. It argues that leagues helped determine the course of state formation in the Empire and Low Countries by creating interdependencies based on the willingness of allies to share aspects of their sovereignty with each other. By binding members together in a cooperative structure, leagues offered larger states resources that they could not muster on their own. In exchange, the collective policy-making inherent to alliances gave increased political power to smaller states, who contributed substantial wealth to alliances. The politics of alliance therefore promoted solidarity through collective action in a way that both increased and constrained the power of individual authorities. This situation established new boundaries and opportunities for state formation across the continent.
My book argues that the exercise of shared sovereignty through alliances determined how specific states developed. It also influenced how entire political systems like the Empire and the Dutch Republic operated. By revealing how alliances shaped the evolution of European states, my research also indicates where Europe’s current alliances might go in the future. My book shows that many of the challenges facing NATO and the EU are in fact not new, but deeply rooted in how European alliances historically have operated. In the early modern period, alliances thrived when their participants agreed on a central shared vision that allowed all league members to feel they benefitted from sharing sovereignty. Conversely, they struggled and even collapsed when divisions emerged over the purpose of alliance that made some allies feel exploited. These same core challenges face the EU and NATO today. As Prince-bishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau of Salzburg remarked in 1598, “alliances are not forever.” If current political leaders wish to prolong the alliances they view as crucial to their future, they would do well to heed the lessons from past leagues revealed in my book.