Clay Shirky once claimed that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." I can think of no better way to explain the dogged survival of NATO more than twenty years after the fall of communism.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949. It created an alliance of European nations who (along with United States support) would prevent a communist takeover of what remained of "free Europe" at the end of the second world war.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it became clear that communism was no longer a major threat to free Europe. This suspicion was confirmed in 1991 when the United Soviet Socialist Republic or USSR collapsed and slowly morphed into what we now call (again) Russia.
After these events, NATO was left without a mandate. But rather than disband and declare victory, NATO found a new mission in the former Yugoslavia. Operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the one time defender against communist domination of Europe became a "peace-keeping" organization modeled along the lines of the United Nations.
This new mandate has remained essentially unchanged since the 1990s but has been expanded since September 11, 2001to include a role in the "global war on terror." NATO was (and remains) the major enforcer of the Bush Doctrine as it has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Libya.
NATO's history is worth noting as the organization that refuses to die makes an appearance in Chicago this weekend. Much has been made in the news about the protesters who will come and make trouble and the security measures being undertaken to make sure that Mayor Emanuel can show off his "world class city" to the NATO leaders. Yet no one in the media has addressed the key question of why NATO still exists.
EVERYTHING that NATO does is already possible in another venue--The United Nations. The only difference is one of scale and membership. Much larger than NATO, the United Nations clearly has greater difficulty passing resolutions than NATO. The United Nations also has a much less "white" membership that more closely represents the majority population of the globe.
In a climate where money is scarce for social programs and austerity is the word du jour, it makes no sense to have two organizations that possess the same mandate. The United States should either invest its time and money in the United Nations or admit what many of us already suspected. Namely, that they prefer the gated community of NATO to the scary inner-city neighborhood that is the UN.
As an undergraduate taking courses in foreign politics back in the late 90s, I argued that NATO was a waste of time and treasure. I still feel that way to day. Communism, pace Sarah Bachman, is no longer a serious threat. The only way my perspective on this issue would change is if Russia re-instituted it's Eastern European equivalent to NATO--the Warsaw Pact.
So if you think that NATO should still exist. I have one simple request: start working to bring back the Warsaw Pact.