WASHINGTON -- Imagine a world in which Scotland gains independence from Britain and Italy divides in half. Russia and China both fragment into a dizzying array of new states, while Canada disappears altogether. Along the way, a host of new states -- including Samiland, Pushtunistan, and Zululand -- are born.
Those are only a few of the possibilities that a panel of eminent political geographers predicted for the next decade as the world map is redrawn. The scope of changes in the world's frontiers will be among the most profound in history, they said. And the pace may set a record.
"What we're dealing with is the re-creation of countries," said William B. Wood, the State Department's chief geographer.
Over the next 25 to 30 years, the world roster may increase by 50 percent or more. "There'll be more than 300 countries," predicted Saul B. Cohen, past president of the Association of American Geographers.
Some changes these geographers foresee may seem logical while others appear to be outlandish conjectures. But they are made by people whose profession is studying the relationships of physical geography and national borders to political culture, sociology and history.
Moreover, in context, their forecasts for the turn of the century are hardly out of line. Even before the Barcelona Games were over and the 172 teams that competed there headed for home, for example, Olympic planners had started preparing for more than 200 participating states at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The political geographers do not agree on all the details of the future world map. But they do agree that recharting the globe will be the byproduct of several concurrent trends, ranging from the powerful pull of ethnicity and the spread of democracy to changes in the very concept of a modern state.
First, some borders will be altered as nations break away from traditional states, as has happened painfully in Yugoslavia over the past year and peacefully in Czechoslovakia this year.
"Borders of present countries or so-called natural boundaries will increasingly lose their importance when they do not correspond to well-recognized linguistic and territorial identities," said Fabrizio Eva, an Italian geographer.
Second, other new countries will be added as the last colonies become independent countries -- the dominant trend during the second half of the 20th century and evident most recently when the Soviet empire's collapse spawned 15 new states.
"We are now in a major new phase of demands for 'self-determination' -- demands which, if all are acceded to, will result in significant changes to the world's political map at both state and sub-state levels," said David B. Knight, chairman of a special Commission on the World Political Map of the International Geographical Union, or the IGU.
On a third and more sweeping level, the new lines on a map will be produced by fundamental changes in the role of states, largely in response to economic and social pressures and political alienation.
Commented George Demko, a geographer and director of the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, "The current changes in the political and economic geography of the world are as significant as what the world went through after the Treaty of Westphalia," the 1648 peace accord ending Europe's Thirty Years War and a turning point in the rise of modern states.
"As we're challenging the traditional ideas of state sovereignty, globalizing economies and communications, and breaking up the last empires, the geography of the world is unhooking old connections and hooking up new ones. Along with borders, the dynamics and functions of states will change too."
While much of the first two phases in the global reconfiguration may take place within the next decade, this part of the process is likely to last well into the 21st century, the geographers said.
And the countries that emerge from the process may bear little resemblance to today's states. For example, "Many states won't have armies, only police. And some [new] states will allow dual citizenship with former host countries, as in the Baltics with the Russian population, or ethnic groups with their place of origin," Mr. Cohen said.
A stratified system of governance and power is likely to replace traditional states. "At the top will be a stronger United Nations or an equivalent body responsible for peace, environment and other global issues," explained Julian Minghi, U.S. representative to the IGU Commission on the World Political Map. He places regional groupings such as the European Community on the second tier, while the tiny ethnically and linguistically based mini-states of the future will be the lowest level.
Already, at least 17 regional blocs -- from Latin America's Southern Cone Common Market to Central Asia's Economic Cooperation Organization -- are reshaping the globe. The latest is the new continental pact forming the North American Free Trade Agreement, completed earlier this month among the United States, Canada and Mexico and awaiting confirmation by those countries' legislatures.
"It's a bit radical," Mr. Minghi conceded of the idea that today's large countries will break up to become tomorrow's tiny states. "But it's what we're evolving toward."
Since up to a third of the world's current states face border challenges either from neighboring nations or from minorities at home, geographers are already urging steps to prevent repetitions of the bloody conflict in what used to be Yugoslavia.
"What we will need is a U.N. commission on border modification to adjudicate and initiate negotiations before fighting erupts," said H.J. de Blij of Georgetown University.
In the longer term, the political geographers think the importance of borders will actually wane, as economic and technological interdependence span not only states, but continents.
"The notion of boundaries as we've known them, in terms of absolute sovereignty and legalities, will in time dwindle," Mr. Minghi said.
In the meantime, however, the number of states will grow.
Some fragmented worlds
* In Europe, the long-rebellious Basque and Catalan regions formally leave Spain. Brittany splits from France. Belgium disintegrates into the new states of Wallonia and Flanders. And Samiland is carved from the northern Lapp-populated areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland, then joins the northern regions of Canada and Russia in the new Circumpolar Arctic Confederation.
* In Asia, India loses Punjab and part of Kashmir. Afghanistan breaks into at least three ethnic pieces. The Philippines loses Muslim-dominated Mindanao. And a large part of Kazakhstan secedes to join Russia.
* In the Americas, Canada, as it has been known, disappears altogether; Mexico separates into four or more distinct pieces, and over time, even the United States takes on different form, disintegrating into economic regions.