NATO and the March of Dimes

Paul F. de Lespinasse

One of Vladimir Putin’s attempted justifications for Russia’s outrageous war is that if Ukraine were to become a member of NATO, it would pose an existential threat to neighboring Russia.

This argument ignores the fact that Ukraine was highly unlikely to become a member of NATO. The unanimous consent of all current members of NATO would be required and it is very difficult to obtain their unanimous consent for anything. It also ignores the fact that NATO was designed as a defensive alliance and is very poorly organized to engage in military aggression.

One wonders what excuses Putin could have used to invade Ukraine if it hadn’t been for NATO. Or was his argument just a pretext? Could he be paranoid enough to think that Ukraine, with its tiny population and military force compared to Russia, could be a real threat?

It is not impossible. American fears of atomic weapons in Iran or North Korea are also exaggerated, but few leaders in Washington would dare to point this out.

In fact, the continued existence of NATO since the breakup of the USSR could conceivably give Putin something to fear. NATO was designed to deter the USSR from attacking Western Europe. The demise of the USSR could have been a good time for NATO to declare victory, liquidate its affairs and abolish itself. But that was not the case.

Putin could be excused for giving the worst possible interpretation of this fact. After all, he is leading a country that is at risk of suffering from a serious form of collective PTSD due to its continual disasters since the Communists seized power in 1917.

In fact, however, there is a much more likely explanation for the pursuit of NATO, which poses no threat to Russia. To understand this, we have to look at the history, of all things, of the March of Dimes!

The March of Dimes was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 to fight polio. Roosevelt himself suffered from the after-effects of poliomyelitis and was very interested in eradicating this horrible disease.

After the development of polio vaccines in the 1950s, the disease was indeed wiped out in the United States. Mission accomplished! But did the March of Dimes accept this victory and proceed to its own liquidation?

He does not have! The people who worked for the March of Dimes were not interested in losing their jobs and instead sought to make this organization immortal. So they chose an ambitious new goal, to eliminate birth defects. This was a much more complicated goal since birth defects result from many different causes. There was little danger of another total victory!

This quest for organizational immortality has been crowned with success. The March of Dimes is still with us today.

Bureaucrats at NATO headquarters were undoubtedly not interested in destroying the organization that gave them status and income. The sudden disappearance of the country from which their organization was created to defend its members was an awkwardness, but not crushing.

It is well known that it is difficult to stop a train. Likewise, huge ocean liners cannot turn in no time. Organizations, by analogy, can have immense institutional inertia, a tendency to stay the same.

Institutional inertia combined with the self-interest of NATO bureaucrats is probably enough to explain NATO’s continued existence. And the United States, which like Russia likely suffers from domestic PTSD, could have supported NATO expansion into former parts of the Soviet Empire because of its own paranoia.

God help us if the mutual psychological problems of our two great countries lock us into policies that harm the legitimate interests of the peoples of both countries. The situation calls for patience and a little mutual sympathy rather than an escalation of rhetoric and hostility.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He can be reached at

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