The human drama, whether played out in history books or headlines, is often not just a confusing spectacle but a spectacle about confusion. The big question these days is, Which political forces will prevail, those stitching nations together or those tearing them apart?
Here is one optimist's reason for believing unity will prevail over disunity, integration over disintegration. In fact, I'll bet that within the next hundred years (I'm giving the world time for setbacks and myself time to be out of the betting game, just in case I lose this one), nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority. A phrase briefly fashionable in the mid-20th century -- "citizen of the world" -- will have assumed real meaning by the end of the 21st.
All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to changing circumstances. No matter how permanent and even sacred they may seem at any one time, in fact they are all artificial and temporary. Through the ages, there has been an overall trend toward larger units claiming sovereignty and, paradoxically, a gradual diminution of how much true sovereignty any one country actually has.
The forerunner of the nation was a prehistoric band clustered around a fire beside a river in a valley. Its members had a language, a set of supernatural beliefs and a repertoire of legends about their ancestors. Eventually they forged primitive weapons and set off over the mountain, mumbling phrases that could be loosely translated as having something to do with "vital national interests" and "manifest destiny." When they reached the next valley, they massacred and enslaved some weaker band of people they found clustered around some smaller fire and thus became the world's first imperialists.
Empires were a powerful force for obliterating natural and demographic barriers and forging connections among far-flung parts of the world. The British left their system of civil service in India, Kenya and Guyana, while the Spaniards, Portuguese and French spread Roman Catholicism to almost every continent.
Empire eventually yielded to the nation-state, made up primarily of a single tribe. China, France, Germany and Japan are surviving examples. Yet each of them too is the consequence of a centuries-long process of accretion. It took the shedding of much blood in many valleys for Normandy, Brittany and Gascony to become part of France.
Today fewer than 10% of the 186 countries on earth are ethnically homogeneous. The rest are multinational states. Most of them have pushed their ^ boundaries outward, often until they reached the sea. That's how California became part of the U.S. and the Kamchatka Peninsula part of Russia.
The main goal driving the process of political expansion and consolidation was conquest. The big absorbed the small, the strong the weak. National might made international right. Such a world was in a more or less constant state of war.
From time to time the best minds wondered whether this wasn't a hell of a way to run a planet; perhaps national sovereignty wasn't such a great idea after all. Dante in the 14th century, Erasmus in the 16th and Grotius in the 17th all envisioned international law as a means of overcoming the natural tendency of states to settle their differences by force.