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LONDON — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose foreign ministers will meet later this week, is dying. Death, of course, comes to all living things. And, as NATO approaches its 60th birthday next spring, there seems no immediate urgency about writing its obituary; 60-year-olds may reasonably look forward to another decade, perhaps two or even three, of active and productive life. But perhaps it is now time for some discreet reflection on the fact that “the old man will not always be with us.”

Human institutions, like human beings, can collapse with surprising speed once they have outlived their usefulness. The dramatic dissolution of the Soviet Union stands as a reminder of what can happen to organizations when doubts take hold as to whether they still serve any real interests other than those of their own apparatchiks — and how suddenly such doubts can grow when they attempt to convert themselves into something they are not.

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