'Tis the morning after Christmas. In a cozy, atlas-lined study at the North Pole sits a bearded, rotund figure. He rises from a vast easy chair with a steaming mug of cocoa in hand. He walks downstage as if in a daze. Slowly, quizzically, Santa speaks:

The state of the world, as seen from an airborne sleigh? I've been up all night pondering that. Look, my vision was hampered this year by the fog of pre-war and the low-hanging clouds of financial gloom. But one thing did hit this old pilot: Culture still makes the world's politics go 'round, globalization or no.

Take my first ports of call, in Asia. Twenty years ago the one thing everybody "knew" was that Japan would reshape and dominate the region through its economic power. But largely for cultural reasons, Japan is nowhere as a transforming power today. Its own economy stinks. It will take real pain and a raging financial crisis to produce consensus among the Japanese to cast off the shackles of their rotten credit system. They're working on it. Producing the crisis, I mean.

So Asia remains a nebulous geographical label rather than a meaningful political entity. Henry Kissinger derisively asked for Europe's telephone number. Asia does not even have a telephone, in Henry terms.

Speaking of Super K, where are his notorious secret back channels when we need them? I could see that both Koreas have the White House tied in a knot. The problems with Seoul seem rooted in a long-buried culture of fearing and despising foreigners. With Pyongyang it's that, plus an imposed Stalinist gangster culture of blackmail.

As in Germany in September, a candidate willing to challenge Uncle Sam's assertiveness won favor from an electorate that has hosted American troops and bases for more than half a century. Roh Moo Hyun's underwhelming margin of victory in South Korea owed much to emotionalism stirred up by Washington's refusal to let a local court try two soldiers who were accused of killing two Korean girls in an accident while on an armored patrol. The Americans were acquitted by U.S. court-martial.

I know. Wearily sips cocoa and nibbles on stale fruit cake. Campaign techniques, overhanging geopolitical questions and personal chemistry also went into the victory mix.

But all politics is cultural, as the man should have said. The gangsters in North Korea understand this is the moment to stir the pot in the South. A weariness -- perhaps not with Americans but with the militarization of significant parts of the U.S.-South Korea relationship -- has taken root. That plays in a land historically known as "the hermit kingdom." The North seeks to stir that up with its nuclear blackmail. And it tries to get Uncle Sam to say uncle in front of the world by extending diplomatic relations.

President Bush resists formal talks with these lying, cheating, unstable paranoids. You can understand why. But the impasse does make you nostalgic for the supple, manipulative personal shadow diplomacy of the Nixon era. Pauses. Now there was a president who understood lying, cheating, unstable paranoids. Back channels to the new South Korean president -- to prevent putting him on the spot publicly, as Bush did with Kim Dae Jung two years ago -- would also help.

Russia? Uneven transition there. Russia is part of the West intellectually, but not culturally. Vladimir Putin is a pure expression of that continuity. He deals shrewdly with Bush and with Europe to strengthen the economy. But he is the czar when it comes to Chechnya.

I flew high and wide over the Middle East. What to say, or do, about cultures that are incapable of creating skyscrapers, jet airliners and modern financial systems on their own, but produce bands of people who use and destroy such inventions to murder others and then laugh? This cultural imbalance can destabilize everything.

Africa is different. Yes, disease and poverty deepen. But there is among its peoples a sense of wonderment and common humanity, of inclusion, that I find nowhere else. Europe was visible, coping unevenly with the success that has made it a magnet but not a beacon for the poor lands on its periphery.

Tony Blair asked me for a new U.K. opposition. The Conservatives have disappeared. The tabloid press fills the vacuum in a harrying, spiteful fashion. And America? Ah. Look at all the gifts I have given it and how those columnists, politicians and academics keep on complaining. Lumps of coal to them, and to them a good night.

Santa tries to frown, but lacks those facial muscles. He turns with a final muffled chuckle. Exit Santa, for 364 days.