Why Is the World Pulling Itself Apart?

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a European Union leaders summit addressing Brexit and the migrants crisis, in Brussels on February 18. Marc Schulman writes that the idea of one world was sorely tested in the 2008 economic crisis. The interconnectivity that had promoted prosperity proved to be an economic Achilles' heel. Yves Herman/reuters

This article first appeared on Marc Schulman's site.

History is replete with examples of attempts to bring the world together.

In 1814, representatives of most of the nations of Europe met at the Congress of Vienna. They did not try to erase national borders, but they did try to bring peace to the countries of Europe after the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

One hundred and six years and two major wars later—including the horrors of World War I—and the League of Nations was born. The attempt at world government was the first embodiment of the utopian notion that mankind could bring unity to the world. That body, proved to be incapable of containing the winds of Nazism and a nationalist Japan.

Before the last shots were fired and the Nazi crematoria were discovered, the horrors of World War II convinced world leaders, under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that part of the answer was a new world organization. It was hoped this body might prove stronger and more resilient than the League of Nations.

This organization became the United Nations, which, while more effective than the League of Nations—thanks partially to the active participation of the United States—has had its limitations.

For Europe, the U.N. was only a partial solution. The devastated nations of postwar Europe needed a better way to compete in a world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, in 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community was born, to integrate the coal and steel industries of France and Germany. That was followed by the Treaty of the Rome that was signed in 1957 which established the Common Market, starting as a European Free Trade Zone.

In 1993, the free trade zone evolved, when the Treaty of Maastricht was signed establishing the European Union and common European citizenship. Nations maintained their own identities but ceded a certain part of their sovereignty to the union.

Soon French, Germans, Brits and eventually Poles and Croats all became common citizens. When the new millennium dawned, people who had fought for centuries were now forging a common identity.

Now, 16 years later, that new millennium is looking much less hopeful. Yesterday's decision by the people of Great Britain to exit from the world's most ambitious experiment in common citizenship is the latest and by far strongest blow to that vision.

Why did this happen? Why are the peoples of the world choosing to move apart instead of moving together?

It's a question I have been asking these past few months—long before the results of last night's vote were determined. While there are no absolute answers, the momentum toward unity came to a screeching halt in September 2001. On the day the towers in New York fell, it became clear that a fundamentalist strain of Islam that had widely been considered an aberration had the power to impact lives far and near.

What followed? The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq destabilized a vast part of the Muslim world and created a refugee crisis. That destabilization intensified with the destruction of Syria, combined with the rise of ISIS and spread what has become a massive refugee crisis to Europe.

This was certainly a contributing factor to yesterday's vote. But refugees are not the sole cause of the British vote, although their role should not be underestimated. Underlying this vote are economic, financial and social factors that cannot be ignored.

The idea of one world and one European economy was sorely tested in the economic crisis of 2008. Suddenly, the very interconnectivity that had made aspects of prosperity possible also proved to be the world's economy's Achilles' heel.

The subsequent Greek debt crisis proved simultaneously the strength and weakness of the EU, its ability to weather the short-term fiscal crisis, while not providing a solution to the underlying economic problem was not a good harbinger for the future of a United Europe.

In addition, the growing social and economic change brought about by the computer, smart phone and all of the future innovations have created a clear disquiet among parts of the population. It also presents a true challenge to find jobs and occupations for those who have been and will be replaced by computers, robots and self-driving cars.

In times like this, individuals receive comfort in their national identities—e.g. "We are British and not European" or "We will make America Great Again." People turn inward and blame the "other" for their problems, the "immigrants," the "migrants," the "Muslims" and I dare say in some cases the "Jews."

People believe their nationality, their ethnic identity, their religion is superior to that of the "other." When people are uncertain, they seek comfort in what they know. They believe promises even if they are based on lies or falsehoods.

It is a dangerous time. Of course, things are not always straightforward and membership in the EU was not always free of difficulties. That being said, there are few economist who do not believe that the British have shot themselves in the foot with this vote.

In 1966, when I was 11 years old, the legendary science fiction series Star Trek debuted. Star Trek depicted a future in which mankind had overcome petty nationalistic and religious divides and joined forces with other races from other solar systems for the common good.

Star Trek depicted an optimistic future, not one without its challenges but optimistic all the same. I became a fan—maybe not quite a "Trekkie," but a fan just the same.

At the same age I also became a Zionist. I guess as much as I hoped for the future Star Trek imagined, I feared that history had not been kind to those who put too much faith in the better nature of mankind—a reality that was doubly true for the Jewish people.

For most of my lifetime, I have watched a slow but steady march towards the Star Trek universe I first met in my youth. For the past 15 years, I have seen that march stop and reverse course.

Last night's Brexit vote was the clearest indication of that, and I fear that the future of my children and grandchildren will not be as bright as I once could have imagined.

Marc Schulman, who writes the Tel Aviv Diary for Newsweek, blogs at MarcSchulman.com.