Ironic as it may sound, Europe--the Old World--is now behaving like North America in the middle of the 19th century.
The whole continent is in flux. Nobody knows what its political borders will be. Nobody knows what parts of the continent will eventually be included in the European Union, its main political and economic institution, and which will be left out.
"Europe has a moving frontier, like the old American frontier," observes Poland's foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek. The ultimate fear, he asserts, is that some day Europe will come to have its own version of the Rio Grande, a dividing line with wealth on one side and poverty on the other.
Geremek has good reason to be thinking about such matters. Although his country is on the verge of winning membership in NATO, the Western military alliance, it is waiting on line with several other countries for admission to the European Union. The promise of free trade with the rest of Europe would mean far more for the Polish economy than does NATO membership.
In other words, just as Texas and California rushed to join the United States in the mid-1800s, countries like Poland are now pleading to get into the EU and the other institutions that will govern an increasingly unified Europe.
At a conference of American and European leaders here last weekend, one of the liveliest subjects for discussion was the question: "Where does Europe end?"
That seems so simple. The geographer's answer is that Europe ends at the Ural Mountains. But if you're trying to define European political institutions, geography obviously isn't the only, or even the decisive, factor.
The Yugoslavia of President Slobodan Milosevic lies west of the Urals. So does Albania. Yet these countries stand about as much chance of being brought into the European Union as Haiti does of winning admission to the United States. The conflicts in Kosovo or, before it, Bosnia, are exactly what the Europeans want to build a fence around.
So if Europe as a political institution isn't defined by geography, then what are the criteria for membership?
Some suggest the need for a democratic government. Some talk of adherence to a common European culture. Others throw up their hands and talk of Europe the way that Justice Potter Stewart once spoke of obscenity: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
The problems in setting the political borders for Europe are illustrated by a single example: Turkey.
Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. If you're talking about security, Turkey has stronger ties to Western European institutions than do, say, the Hungarians or the Czechs.
And yet last December, the members of the European Union left Turkey off the list when they decided who will next be admitted into their ranks.
Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus were all put on a fast track for EU membership. Another five countries (Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia) were told they would have to wait in line longer, but can at least start talking about the idea. Only the Turks were rejected.
It wasn't just geography. Sure, Turkey lies outside Europe's geographical borders--but then so does Cyprus, which is on its way into the EU.
The Turks think they know the answer, and it isn't a pretty one: religious discrimination against a Muslim country.
"There are still those who believe that Europe is and should remain a 'Christian club,' " observes Bulent Eczacibasi, one of Turkey's most prominent business leaders. He says that "restricting Europe to those who share a common religion would be a grave mistake and a source of conflict for the next century."
Some Europeans insist that there were other reasons for excluding Turkey: Its democratic government isn't firmly established. Its military engages in serious human rights abuses, and it has been enmeshed in a dirty little civil war against the Kurds in southeastern Turkey.
Those explanations seem questionable. Turkey is more democratic than, say, Slovakia, which was put on the EU's list for possible admission some day. As for civil wars, Britain had one for years in Northern Ireland, yet this didn't keep it out of the EU.
Beyond Turkey, the EU faces once again Europe's historic problem of how to deal with Russia. Should Moscow be offered eventual membership in Europe's political institutions?
"I will never say to my Russian friends that they cannot dream of [joining] Europe," says Geremek, who a decade ago spent time in jail as a leader of the Solidarity movement fighting Poland's Soviet-backed Communist regime.
Many other Europeans are considerably more cautious. Russia is too big and too populous, they say. It could never be absorbed into Europe's political and economic institutions.
For Americans 150 years ago, the idea of forging a continent-wide political union carried fewer of these conflicts. It was all a matter of manifest destiny, Americans told themselves.
Europe's destiny, by contrast, is anything but manifest. Nobody is sure how many countries and how much territory should be included in Europe's political institutions. Nobody knows yet where the boundaries of Europe should end.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.