09/18/2014 10:13 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Political Read: Scot-Free? Scotland, America and the World

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WASHINGTON -- I have walked in parts of the Scottish Highlands that not only don't look like England, they don't look like they are on this Earth.

There is no doubt that Scotland's story is primarily its own.

But Scotland's story is also America's story more than we tend to realize, and the Scots' decision today will say more about the world at large than we might think.

The forced union of England and Scotland in 1707 generated creative electricity that powered a global English-speaking industrial and commercial empire.

Scots from James Watt to Adam Smith and David Hume were key inventors of the technological and conceptual engines of modern democratic capitalism.

Scots and members of the Scottish Diaspora brought their fierce faith in freedom, shrewd practicality and gift for political philosophy with them to America.

Almost half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, as the academic John Haldane has pointed out.

Just as important, maybe more, that Diaspora formed the core of settlers in the mountains and valleys of Appalachia where, in woods far from the European-oriented East Coast, a purely American identity and politics was born.

The Scots and their descendents here -- from Scottish Enlightenment follower Thomas Jefferson to industrialist Andrew Carnegie -- powered the rise of a second English-speaking empire.

The sons (and now daughters) of Appalachia have always volunteered in disproportionately high numbers to fight in the armies that won America's wars.

But having helped knit together the world as we know it, the Scots are deciding today whether to help pull it apart -- and perhaps create something more relevant to our time.

We live in a paradoxical age. Technology is uniting the planet's people -- physically, digitally, economically -- whether they want to be united or not.

Individuals, in theory and often in fact, have been empowered in ways unimaginable only a few years ago.

But with globalization comes even greater concentrations of power and money, and new risks to freedom and identity and even dignity.

One natural human response is to protect your sense of self by asserting your claim to your own roots and heritage -- geographical, tribal, sectarian.

That, more than anything else, is what the Scots think they are doing. And also the Catalans, Kurds and Ukrainians, to name just a few (and not counting secessionist Texans!).

If the Scots decide to become independent from the United Kingdom, it may well presage a new centrifugal force in the world.

Let's hope it's a good thing. We do have reason to be optimistic. The Scots, after all, have taught the world a lot about freedom.