At the end of The Pickwick Papers, Samuel Pickwick decides to retire. He had founded the Pickwick Club in order to mix “with different varieties and shades of human character … Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth.” His curiosity satisfied at last, he declares the club dissolved. The Pickwick Club then ceases to exist.
This is an unusual turn of events in human affairs. Clubs, societies, organizations, leagues, and alliances, once born, rarely die other than by violence. An uncle of mine was a pillar of a club called Toc H, founded on the Western Front during WWI for the wholesome relief and spiritual comfort of trench-weary Tommies. I am not very surprised to find Toc H still going strong, though it is extremely unlikely that any of their intended beneficiaries is still alive. (I am even less surprised to see that it seems to have succumbed to O’Sullivan’s Law that “all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.”) All over the world, in odd corners, you find the adherents of long-dead collective enthusiasms keeping the flame of fellowship alive. Is the Rudolph Valentino Fan Club still with us? Apparently it is.
Big international organizations are not exempt from this principle. Long after the purpose for which they were founded has, as the founder of National Review would have said, lapsed into desuetude, there they still are, busily meeting and deliberating and budgeting, all in pursuit of nobody quite knows what.
(Since every principle needs a name, I shall, honoring the late WFB Jr., christen this one the Principle of Desuetudinal Persistence.)
Someone once told me that the Hanseatic League was an exception to the PDP. The league, I was told, was founded by merchant cities around the Baltic to suppress piracy. That object achieved, the League politely wound itself up. I went on idly believing this for years, until an hour ago when, looking up the League in my 1911 Britannica, I see that I was misled. Says the author of the article, Professor of Economics E. F. Gay of Harvard University:
… after an effort to revive the League in the last general assembly of 1669, these three towns [i.e. Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg] were left alone to preserve the name and small inheritance of the Hansa which in Germany’s disunion had upheld the honour of her commerce. Under their protection, the three remaining counters lingered on until their buildings were sold at Bergen in 1775, at London in 1852 and at Antwerp in 1863.
(“The honour of her commerce.” There’s a phrase to savor! Or “savour.”)
There are a few counterexamples to the PDP. A notable 20th-century case was the League of Nations, which put itself out of business in April 1946, having failed much too indisputably in its foundational purpose: the prevention of world war. The League’s assets, however, and some of its sub-organizations, passed to the U.N., so perhaps this is not a definitive counterexample. SEATO and CENTO look a little better. The former was supposed to provide for collective defense against Communism in southeast Asia, but fell apart when member states could not agree on any concerted position towards the Vietnam War. The latter was meant to build a wall against Soviet influence in southwest Asia, but was soon undermined by anti-Western revolutions in key member states.
And so to NATO, than which a plainer instance of the Principle of Desuetudinal Persistence could hardly be found in international affairs. NATO was founded in 1949 to provide for collective defense against the USSR, which was at that time consolidating its little empire in eastern Europe. NATO gained a formal adversary with the founding of the mirror-image Warsaw Pact in 1955. The two leagues stared menacingly at each other across the Iron Curtain for a generation and a half.
The Warsaw Pact dissolved itself in July 1991; the USSR followed suit a few months later. NATO’s reason for existence melted away with them. The notion that the drunken, ragged, and demoralized army of Boris Yeltsin’s starving, depopulating Russia might sweep victoriously across western Europe to the Atlantic was plainly absurd. Nobody even pretended to believe it. So what did NATO do? Why, the organization set about expanding itself! The process of expansion continues today. From twelve original members in 1949, NATO has now reached 26, with formal invitations to two more nations, Albania and Croatia, issued just last week.
Nobody can tell me what purpose NATO serves, other than the unnecessary annoying of Russia, the only European nation with big fossil-fuel reserves. Nor can anyone explain to me the reason for maintaining, as of a year and a half ago, 64,319 active duty U.S. military personnel in Germany, 33,453 in Japan, 29,086 in South Korea, 10,449 in Italy, 10,331 in Britain, 1,810 in Turkey (a NATO member — surely you’ve noticed how helpful they have been to us in our Iraq project?), and 1,361 in Belgium. What exactly are we protecting ourselves against here? A world-threatening resurgence of Belgian fascism?
It is of course very nice to have troops based all over the place, just in case some threat to our nation should arise. It rather looks to me, though, that the particular distribution of those thousands and tens of thousands of American servicepersons is configured to respond to the threats likely to arise in 1948 or 1958. Here we are in 2008. Has the world threat pattern really changed so little in five or six decades? Having all those U.S. troops in Europe when Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars set about cutting each other’s throats was mighty handy ten years ago; or at least, it was might handy to those who thought that the Balkan beastliness was any of America’s business. (Count me out.) This is looking for your dropped keys where the light is best, though. When much worst beastliness erupted in Rwanda we were nowhere nearby and so could do nothing. Sorry, guys!
If you raise impertinent points of this kind among real political actors — congresscritters, Cabinet officers, think-tank panjandrums, and the like — you get harrumphed at. By “harrumphed” I mean, you get scolded for being ill-informed, irresponsible, and … what’s the word? Oh yes: simplistic. “We grown-ups” (you are given to understand) “take America’s role as guarantor of international stability seriously, while you plainly do not. You are not a serious person, you are a frivolous person. Do you really think we would be spending great scads of money on NATO and employing legions of bureaucrats to keep the thing running, if there were no point to it? For heaven’s sake! Don’t you know how important and wise we are? See what a big desk I’ve got!”
If you then press your case, and ask how international stability would be undermined if the number of U.S. troops in Germany were reduced by 50 percent to 32,000, or by 90 percent to 6,400, or by 100 percent, to zero; or if NATO ceased to exist at the stroke of midnight next Tuesday; then your serious, grown-up, responsible government employee or contractor rolls his eyes and walks away in disgust.
Government employee? Perhaps this is the key. For millennia philosophers have been trying to locate the ultimate springs of human history. Attraction to The Good? (Plato.) Faith? (The Scholastics.) Modes of production? (Marx.) Sexual repression? (Freud.) I sometimes suspect that the true answer is none of these. What keeps human beings pressing forward is the desire for a government job.
At any rate, I can come up with no other reason why NATO continues to exist, unless the Principle of Desuetudinal Persistence is a real physical organizing force in the cosmos, like gravitation or Dark Energy. Why else would we be entering into solemn mutual-assistance covenants with Albania and Croatia? If China makes a grab for Hawaii, how will Albania be able to help? Someone please tell me.