The European Union and the United Nations, as well as globalization and advanced technology, were all supposed to trump age-old cultural, geographical and national differences and bring people together.
But for all the high-tech veneer of the 21st century, the world still looks a lot like it did during the last hundred years and well before that.
After the Greek financial meltdown and the emergence of German financial dominance, Europe once more obsesses over the so-called German problem. Should Europeans admire the industry of the German people, or fear that such competency and drive -- as in 1870, 1914 and 1939 -- will eventually translate into German political and military supremacy? The division of Germany, the common Soviet threat, the NATO alliance, the European Union and German war guilt for the last half-century all repressed German singularity.
But the first two realities have disappeared. The latter three soon might. Once again, no one quite knows how to deal with German exceptionalism. Apparently, the borders and the currency of Germany change, but the unrivaled work ethic and productivity of the German people do not.
Examine the violence of the world today more than a decade after 9/11. Much of it is still in the Middle East in general, and concerns Islam in particular. The protests of the Arab Spring may well turn into the repression of the Arab Autumn. Syria is aflame. Bombs go off almost daily in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Rockets are poised in Gaza and Lebanon. Iran either threatens to get a bomb or to use it once they get it. Fascism, communism, Baathism, Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism and various dictators come and go. But the tribal nature of the Middle East and the unease of Islam with other religions, with a modernizing world and with a rival West somehow seem to remain the same -- whether at Lepanto in the 16th century or at the Strait of Hormuz in the 21st century.
There are autocrats in Russia again. From the czars to the Soviet communists to Vladimir Putin's cronies, there is something about constitutional government or liberal rule that bothers Mother Russia. The more that progressive outsiders seek to lecture or reform Russians, the more likely they are to bristle and push back with left-wing or right-wing nationalist strongmen. At present, we do not know whether there will be a Czar Vladimir, Comrade Putin or Putin Inc. in charge, but we fear it does not matter much.
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.