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For the five million people of Scotland, and the many more who watched their referendum drama, the last few months have provided a lesson in the new realities of nationhood. What does it mean to be a country in a world where borders and nationalities don't mean what they used to?

Here, north of Hadrian's wall, was the perfect laboratory: an educated, diverse and secure population who had not, for centuries, suffered violence or persecution, and whose grievances were mainly economic and symbolic; a country, Scotland, that had voluntarily and peacefully joined another, three centuries earlier, and whose elected government sought to end that relationship democratically; a London-based No campaign and an Edinburgh-based Yes campaign that presented reasonable arguments and did not descend into ethnic, religious or linguistic jealousies; and a clear and unambiguous question.

In this petri dish, Scots observed the two crucial lessons of modern statehood:

First, that the cost of entry has never been lower. Becoming a sovereign country no longer needs to involve a bloody civil war in which you fight for the world's backing, overthrow a ruling regime and run your flag up the pole in front of the palace. In a great many cases, if you hold a fair majority vote to separate under accepted terms, most of the wider world will recognize you, and this will inevitably force the hand of your former master. Serbia and Indonesia may not be happy about the sovereignty of Montenegro and East Timor, but they have no choice but to accept it.

And being a sovereign nation – especially in the European Union – is no longer the expense it used to be. You don't need much of a military or a border-control regime, because these, in the Western world, tend to be collectivized and distributed. The old expensive trappings of nationhood – an airline, a postal system, a national currency – are no longer things anyone wants or needs.

The second lesson, and the one that tipped the balance in Scotland, is that the benefits of membership are fewer than ever before.

Here, it quickly became apparent that the Scottish precedent is not Norway – the one Alex Salmond's separatists preferred to mention, and a bit of a historical oddity – but Slovakia, another European country that had voluntarily joined a larger state (Czechoslovakia, in 1918) and had sought a peaceful, democratic "velvet divorce" from the larger Czech Republic in 1993. The Slovak separation, after the initial shock, proved to be no big deal for the Czechs – who have prospered – but devastating for the poorer and less developed Slovaks, who became isolated and fiscally troubled, plagued by sparse population and expensive social-spending challenges (things that also plague Scotland, whose steep social costs far exceed its oil revenues). When I was in Bratislava last year, I was repeatedly told that the most successful businesses and graduates had headed across the border to Vienna or Prague. "We won our independence," one Slovak professor told me, "but we lost our ability to do anything with it."

And so it often is: A newborn breakaway state becomes less effective economically, culturally and politically than it had been as a distinct region within a federal state.

Sovereignty no longer counts for much. Vladimir Putin knows this, as he manipulates independence movements to create ambiguous, unrecognized semi-states in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and eastern Ukraine; the goal is to sow chaos, not create new countries.

The European Union realized this, to its chagrin, when it struggled to negotiate the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada. European officials told me of their shock in realizing that the 10 Canadian provinces have a lot more sovereignty and autonomy and international negotiating power, in many fields, than the 28 sovereign states of the EU do. Some Canadians may wish their provinces to become independent states, but it's doubtful they'd be more influential or prosperous than they are under the current very province-dominated system.

A majority of Scots realized that this likely applies to them, too: Being part of the four-nation United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is probably worth more to Scots, in wealth and clout, than being a symbolically rewarding but practically empty independent country in the EU.

Most of the world's 196 countries came into being in the breakup – sometimes violent and occasionally peaceful – of Western, Asian or communist empires. Their citizens felt – usually rightly – that they were subject to discrimination and persecution at the hands of their imperial masters, and their country's birth was a liberation. Some of these have fared very well indeed; most have struggled. A few other countries – Armenia, Israel, East Timor, Kosovo – were created out of tragic necessity, to protect a people from mass atrocity. While better off than before, they rarely have an easy time.

Today's nationalist movements mainly are neither post-colonial liberation struggles nor reactions to inhumanity. Rather, they are calculated bids to trade the resources and protections of regional status for the symbolic "branding" victory of national autonomy. It's easier to make this trade than it ever has been; it's also less valuable. The Scots, like the Quebecois before, looked at this tradeoff, prudently weighed the balance of benefits, and walked away. Nationhood is easier now, but it's a lot less fun.