JUST THE other day, a distinguished American public servant of the World War II generation told a group of us about a little experiment. He had looked up "Lithuania" in the encyclopedia. And what seemed to him most striking was that, historically, the Lithuanians had pushed the Russians about militarily rather more than the Russians had the Lithuanians.

We Americans have never been celebrated for our patience (or profound acquaintance) with the little anomalies of history and geography -- not even, these days, our very own. These anomalies (for example, the fact that Vilnius, the scene and seedbed of the Lithuanian secessionist movement, was considered a Polish city during the interwar period) nonetheless matter acutely to someone, somewhere. But when they get in the way of our passions and enthusiasms of the moment, we tend to dismiss them impatiently. They rarely appear, for instance, in the great effusions of reporting and punditry that the current rebirth of nationalist ambitions has begotten.

After all, our great historical myth -- and our pattern and paradigm for judging all that is right and righteous -- is the original morality play of 1776: How 13 oppressed colonies, unjustly taxed without representation and denied their national sovereignty, told an imperious George III where to get off.

This primal myth was later elaborated and enforced, made into a sovereign blueprint for all the world's ills, by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points. On the wings of that great manifesto we soared off in 1917 to make the world safe for democracy on the basis of national self-determination. And still today (four days short of the 76th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo), these elements -- a nice blend of the Declaration of Independence and the Four-teen Points -- form our template for judging the correctness of alignments in the world.

But there is, after all, another and somewhat more complicated way to view these struggles, now that we have suddenly been transported, as if in an H.G. Wells time machine, from the nuclear dangers of 1988 to the nationalistic dangers of -- what? -- 1912?

An age or two ago, when I studied 19th-century European history at Oxford, I was forced to gain a meticulous, if temporary, mastery of that bewildering patchwork of petty nationalities (as many as 19 in all, if you credit that master-counter Sir Lewis Namier) without which the turmoil of those allegedly simpler times made no sense at all.

If you wanted to understand what Bismarck meant when he said that "the Eastern question" wasn't worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier, or the nature of the "Turkish atrocities," or what conflicting glues and fissions were at play in the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, you simply had to know a Bosnian from a Slovene, and a Serb from an echt-Austrian. I imagined that once I had satisfied the learned examiners and returned to the relative simplicity of the New World, I need never recall these tangles again. But there I was quite wrong. On a recent flying visit to Yugoslavia, I was not surprised (having read the newspapers) to find that the Balkans are once again doing what they do best -- balkanize; but I was shocked at the intensity and obsessiveness of it all.

The Slovenes and the Croats, as you may have noted, aren't getting along any better with the Serbs than they ever did. It now begins to seem that all these forgotten nationalisms, and the linguistic and religious and historic passions that fuel them, were merely slumbering in an unquiet grave, awaiting the trumpet call of that great Gabriel, Mikhail Gorbachev, to rise again.

All this has come as a rude shock to Americans. We had the good fortune to experience our age of "manifest destiny" in an empty continent inhabited by a few noble savages and militarily inferior Mexicans, and largely oblivious to the romantic nationalism that entered Europe with the French Revolution.

It is one of our national prejudices, moreover, that things historical and geographical, once fixed, ought in all conscience to stay fixed. Sure, we had our own adventure with secessionism and multi-nationality; but it failed. So as the Balkans and other realms of unsettled national ambition resume their role, we are inclined either to dismiss them (do we really care what happens to the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo?) or to measure their merits (Landsbergis vs. Gorbachev) by the good old reliable Wilsonian yardstick.

There was genuine consternation, late last year, when Larry Eagleburger, the deputy secretary of state, said in a speech at Georgetown University that the end of the Cold War might bring some momentary disadvantages. For say what one might of its obvious negative aspects, the Cold War relationship between the two superpowers had come to be characterized by a considerable stability -- a worked-out style of managing unsettling contingencies. Like the old rules of the balance of power in the Age of Metternich, it exhibited the features of a developed state system.

Eagleburger spoke no less than the truth, but he was impetuously attacked for expressing a misplaced "nostalgia" for the Cold War. That was the gist of a silly comment or two in the Senate, soon to be taken up by the connoisseurs of cliche on network television. But as I read Eagleburger, he was merely saying that when the world is locked in a global confrontation, and when that is the pattern to which all lesser conflicts are necessarily subordinate, it does greatly simplify matters. And, conversely, that when that great confrontation melts away, things may become a great deal more complicated.

So where are we now? Who really owns what piece of real estate over there, and who is to write the ultimate deed on the basis of what definitive geopolitical title search? If, for instance, the Lithuanians achieve their national independence, will the Poles then ask for their historic slice of Lithuania back? And if that slice were given back to Poland, would the Poles then have second thoughts about the Oder-Neisse line and, in a fit of generosity, give Silesia and Pomerania back to the Germans? And if the Germans got East Prussia back, would they . . . ? Ask questions like these -- and of course they are asked, implicitly, every time some ancient claim is revived -- and where does it all end? As in any crowded neighborhood, every deed and quit-claim implicates every other.

At the time of the English civil war, those primitive egalitarians, the Levelers, liked to ask:

If Adam delved, and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

The point of which was that at some stage of remotest prehistory, well before lords and ladies and courts and sumptuary laws ever were thought of, everyone had to have existed in a state of natural equality. But that kind of radical egalitarianism has never commended itself, in practice, as a satisfactory basis of human society. And no more, one imagines, can civilization itself rest easy upon a kind of infinitely regressive quarrel over land titles and nationalistic rights.

Maybe one of these days President Landsbergis of Lithuania or Pat Buchanan (Landsbergis's most passionate cheerleader in the press) will explain to us how everyone's nationalist passion can be satisfied without injury to someone else's; and what the new checkerboard will look like.

Meanwhile, pending that welcome revelation, I take my cue again from Sir Lewis Namier, one of the greatest of historians, who commenting on the tangle of 19th century European nationalisms advised as follows: "I refrain from inquiring into the sense of the envenomed struggles we have witnessed; for such inquiry would take us into inscrutable depths or into an airy void. Possibly there is no more sense in human history than in the changes of the seasons or the movement of the stars; or if sense there is, it escapes our penetration."

He went on to say that the best to be hoped for, taking the long view, is a grasp of the logic of events. And the key to that logic, for me at least, is that when dynasties and imperiums melt away -- as they have been doing rather steadily for the past 50 years, and even at long last the Soviet dynasty and empire itself -- the age of minuscule nationalisms will follow. It will be the age of, to coin a rather clumsy neologism, countrycules. It would be reassuring to think that the Millennium of perfect peace and equity is thereby at hand. But history, alas, suggests otherwise.

Edwin Yoder is a columnist based in Washington. His book, "The Unmaking of a Whig," will be published in the fall.