The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the early 1950s in response to the consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and the “dropping” of Iron Curtain across the continent. It was designed to fight exactly one war — World War Three, the grand clash between the United States and the Soviet Union fought primarily in Europe and the North Atlantic (hence, I bet, the alliance’s name).
There were several different “scenarios” for such a war, and by the 1970s, it became institutionalized as beginning in the Fulda Gap, a place that was once between the Germanies* where Soviet motorized rifle divisions would first drive into Western Europe. But it would have been a global endeavor.
In any event, the USSR and its attached military “alliance,” the Warsaw Pact, went out of business in 1991. Kaput without any real kablooey. At that point, it would have been perfect for NATO, its one and only trained for war now an utter impossibility, to have had a great victory big party, invite the losers in a show of magnanimity and shower them with food, beer and wine, woken up the next morning and in the blurry headache of the hangover, gone right out of business. American troops should have permanently left Europe with a promise that, if needed, we’ll come back. And in order to prove that, we’ll practice coming back every now and again.
Instead, NATO did not go out of business. It found new things to do, focusing on stuff like international trade, climate change and the drugs trade. (I wonder how many good conservative American militarists know that U.S. money for NATO funds action on global climate change?)
And since that one-and-only war became an impossibility, NATO has waged four wars — in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya. NATO remains engaged in all of these places, with troops on the ground still maintaining peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, troops on the ground maintaining not much of anything in Afghanistan, and planes buzzing Libya bombing stuff with no sign the bombing is accomplishing much or that it will ever come to an end.
So this is what happens to obsolete military alliances — they just wage war until they are finally beaten (or exhausted, same thing) and only then can they truly go out of business. At some point, some people may begin to wonder: what was the point of winning the Cold War, anyway? Because I’m not sure I know.
*That just looks so strange, referring to Germany in the plural.