Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol's ghosts of past, present and future Christmases have regularly appeared in this column at this time of year. If the ghosts embodied geostrategic spirits, this is what should haunt us. The question is whether or not the Ebeneezer Scrooges who lead us will be as chastened and transformed by these visitations as was Dickens' central character.
The geostrategic Ghost of Christmas Past would gaze over the 20th century, or at least the first nine decades, as a time of intense bipolar rivalries, producing instability and violence in Europe. The Hundred, Thirty, Napoleonic, Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars set the predicate. World War I culminated these centuries of strife in the battle between the Allies and Central Powers. World War II was fought and won by the Allies defeating the Axis Powers. And, fortunately, the Cold War never went hot as the West presided over the demise of the Soviet Union.
The last decade of the 20th century was however, less a "new world order" as President George H.W. Bush saw it and more a temporary respite from most of history described by Thomas Hobbes as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Unfortunately, Sept. 11 ended that lull. In its place, a new era that can be called destructively fragmented has arisen, driven by globalization and the diffusion of power.
Christmas Present's ghost would observe that the emergence of al-Qaida and other revolutionary groups was different in that while terror as a political weapon was far from new, globalization and the interconnectivity of states accelerated and magnified their effectiveness. New societal vulnerabilities were created in large part by the Internet and the frightening availability of dangerous technologies to individuals and non-state actors. And this diffusion of power continues to roil geopolitics as the United States focuses on coping with great power competition and rivalry principally with the "rise" of China and "the resurgence" of a revanchist Russia, while it also seems to signal retreat from its global leadership.
Societal disruption has returned. From the "#MeToo" movement in America to "yellow vests" in France; dangerous increases in populism and anti-immigration sentiments; Brexit that will have only bad outcomes for the U.K.; and a U.S. withdrawal from international responsibilities, a Hobbesian world seems to be re-emerging. Christmas Present would also observe that a common linkage among these disruptions is the failure of governments to govern, particularly evident in the West, although long a destructive factor in less-developed parts of the world.
In the United States, a perfect storm seems to be coalescing around President Donald Trump. Virtually every aspect of his life is being investigated. The Trump Corp., his foundation now shut down in a legal settlement; the campaign; the inaugural committee; his administration; and most importantly, possible wrongdoing regarding Russia and potential crimes relating to cover-ups, money laundering, conspiracy and other illegal activities are part of these examinations.
With a Democratic House of Representatives and a stock market having the worst December since the Depression, Christmas Present will not be showering good news among the gifts awaiting the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, The same ill will applies to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and French President Emmanuel Macron. Not much holiday spirit among the Western democracies this year.
But what about Christmas Future? What will be foretold? A worldwide recession is not out of the question. With Trump's "America First" and his embrace of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as North Korea's Kim Jong Un and China's Xi Jingping, will that lead to further disintegration? As Dickens' ghost portrayed the death of Tiny Tim, will today's Scrooges be as affected for the good?
Another Dickens line is a predictable guide to the future: the best and worst of times. That paradox surely fits. The advances of technology and the opportunities presented are unlimited. However, government seems generically incapable of successfully filling the public's need in most Western countries. And while China and Russia may appear in the ascent, both are consumed with immense domestic problems that for the moment are seemingly kept in check. But will that persist?
A prediction: The age of disintegration is upon us. This applies domestically and globally. An increasingly fragmented world seems inevitable. These are not presents one would normally like to receive in Christmas stockings or under the Christmas tree.
Is this specter of Christmas Future avoidable? The answer is twofold. Is Donald Trump a good or a bad Scrooge? If it is the latter, heaven help us. If it is the former, Merry Christmas to all!
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave distinguished columnist. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.