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.

NATO has, of course, shown remarkable tenacity. It should have disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact evaporated; its job was done. But then came the Balkans crises of the 1990s, culminating in the realization that only American military power could put a stop to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, making the “out of area or out of business” choice seem a no-brainer. So NATO remains in business, and in Afghanistan.

But NATO’s repeated demonstrations of resilience should not blind us to the fact that it no longer provides a healthy basis for the trans-Atlantic security relationship. As long as NATO’s raison d’etre was to keep the Russians out and the United States in, NATO’s internal dynamic of American leadership and European obeisance was both inevitable and appropriate.

This unbalanced relationship still has advantages for both parties. Americans may find their (old) European allies less pliable than before — but they can at least count on the absence of any serious alternatives for what NATO should become, or what it should do. Europeans can continue to avoid responsibility for their own security, and to invoke the catechism of “NATO, the cornerstone of our security” as a substitute for serious strategic thought.

But each now resents the behavior of the other. Americans find their patience tried by Europeans who are free with their advice and criticism yet reluctant to shoulder risks. Moreover, the U.S. learned from the Kosovo experience of “war by committee” to distrust NATO as a place to run operations, and now Afghanistan highlights the organization’s limitations as a mechanism for generating force contributions.

As for Europeans, they are unhappy about pressure to participate in a U.S.-led “global war on terror” that they regard as dangerous and misconceived, and to go along with policies seemingly designed to antagonize their more difficult neighbors like Russia and the Islamic world.

So what is to be done? None of the ideas for another dose of NATO rejuvenation looks like the answer. All the talk of an improved NATO-European Union partnership is mainly wasted breath. “Intensified strategic dialogue in Brussels” in practice boils down to the chilling specter of interminable joint committee meetings at which one nation’s ambassador to NATO explains his government’s position to a compatriot diplomat who is accredited to the EU, and vice versa.

The problem is not institutional relationships between the two organizations — except in the important but narrow case of Turkey and Cyprus — which remain bent on pursuing their bilateral feud without regard to the real risks to the personnel of their allies and partners deployed in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The real problem is relations between the U.S. and European countries, 21 of which belong to both organizations.

Nor does the answer lie in developing an EU “caucus” within NATO. The 1990s concept of a “European Defense Identity” within NATO proved to be unviable — and since then expansion of the alliance and proliferation of NATO “partners” has made the idea of a special collective role for EU members all the more improbable. A double layer of decision-making would only cause an already ponderous organization to seize up.

There is nothing more dramatic to be done than to focus on upgrading the EU-US strategic dialogue. The annual summits need to be made more substantial, and their focus shifted from trans-Atlantic, bilateral issues to aligning EU and U.S. global policies and actions. The U.S. president should keep an eye on the calendar of the European Council, which brings the EU presidents and prime ministers together four times a year, and solicit an occasional invitation. The U.S. mission to the EU should be scaled up, and EU representation in Washington turned into a proper embassy. The more seriously the Americans show that they are willing to take the EU collectively, the more seriously the Europeans will take themselves.

Winston Churchill once remarked that you could always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after having tried all the alternatives. In the same way, the Europeans will eventually find themselves having to speak with one voice and act as one body in the wider world, if only because a globalized world will not allow them the luxury of doing anything else. As Charles de Gaulle forecast: “It is not any European statesman who will unite Europe. Europe will be united by the Chinese.” Only collectively can Europeans be effective contributors to global security, or achieve a robust trans-Atlantic security partnership.

As NATO enters its twilight years, the U.S. should encourage the EU to grow into its global responsibilities. For, despite all their differences and mutual dissatisfactions, Europe and the U.S. know that each is the best friend either is likely to have for the foreseeable future.

Nick Witney, former chief executive of the European Defense Agency, is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). © 2008 Project Syndicate/Europe’s World

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