When the Soviet Union disintegrated, most Americans likely had never heard of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
Yet the ethnonationalism of these Asian peoples, boiling to the surface after centuries of tsarist and communist repression, helped tear apart one of the great empires of history.
There swiftly followed the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Yet, if one knew nothing of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires or the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, one would likely have been surprised by the sudden emergence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo on the map of Europe.
What the splintering of the Soviet Union and of a Yugoslavia whose baptismal certificate dated to the Paris peace conference of 1919 revealed was the accuracy of Arthur Schlesinger's insight in his 1991 "Dis-Uniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society":
"Nationalism remains after two centuries the most vital political emotion in the world -- far more vital than social ideologies such a communism or fascism or even democracy. ... Within nation-states, nationalism takes the form of ethnicity or tribalism."
Ethnic ties, Schlesinger wrote, might prove more powerful and historically important than the forces of globalism and democratism, which then seemed ascendant. He only neglected to mention religious faith as often a "far more vital" emotion than ideology.
And though the Iraq elections have been hailed as a triumph of democracy, they would seem to prove him right.
Kurds voted for Kurds, Shia for Shia, Sunni for Sunni on a slate led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia who campaigned on a unity ticket.
The election results resemble a national census.
In the struggle between Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to put together a government, both are courting the Kurds, whose near-term goal is Kirkuk, control of which would mean control of 40 percent of Iraq's oil reserves. If the Kurds, who have been forcing their way into Kirkuk and pushing Arabs out, can annex the city, they will have the economic base of a Kurdistan nation, the dream of a people whose kinfolk are spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The Kurds are using democratic means for ethnonational ends.
Maliki's strength is in the Shia south and the capital, Baghdad, that has been slowly cleansed of Sunni.