For centuries, Christianity often fought Islam in the mountainous, war-torn crossroads of the Balkans. And from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the ethnic cleansing campaign of Slobodan Milosevic, the Balkans remain Europe's powder keg. Now with rioting and unrest in Athens, a financial earthquake that started in tiny Balkan Greece is shaking up some 500 million people in the European Union.
America is not exempt from such stereotyping. Every so often Americans reluctantly get involved abroad, grandly seek to remake the world in our image, become frustrated that we cannot, then start to disengage and disarm, retreat home and promise to stay there -- before starting the cycle over.
After World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, our wars in the Middle East, we said "never again" -- only to lecture others and, in schizophrenic fashion, intervene once more. At times, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush all thought they could make the world safe for democracy. Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama assumed we had neither the money nor the virtue to try.
New cure-all ideologies and organizations likewise have come and gone. Fascism, communism, socialism and the Keynesian redistributive state all promised a sort of new, better man. But mostly they ended up bringing neither peace nor prosperity.
In response to all this depressing predictability, technocratic elites still dream up international solutions. The League of Nations was a noble idea that proved to be an irrelevant hothouse. No one still believes the pretentious United Nations is much more than a collective debating society. The non-democratic European Union is going the way of the past megalomaniac and failed dreams of Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler of one united European continent, one system, one ideology.
What, then, are we left with? Only the humility that human nature does not change much.
That unpleasant fact means that about all we can do is to keep muddling through, stay vigilant, and hope for the best while preparing for the worst. For all the problems of national pride, democracy, free markets, alliances and military preparedness, the alternatives seem far worse.