What must Angela Merkel be thinking? What must Xi Jinping be thinking? What must Vladimir Putin be thinking?
In the wake of America's withdrawal from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and the Paris Accord on climate change, to say nothing of Washington's alienation of NATO allies, there lurks a mix of fear, bafflement, anger… and opportunity. Isn't there a little more room on the world stage now that one of its major players has shuffled off into the wings?
Merkel announced to a beer hall rally, "The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over." With the United States out of the TPP, the influence of Xi's China in Asia and across the globe can only increase. As for Putin, as former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers put it on CNN when another commentator suggested they would be "giggling" in the Kremlin, "I don't think they're giggling. I think they are consuming large volumes of vodka in celebration," over Trump's troubles with a special prosecutor.
So how are the great powers going to seize this opportunity? And how will lesser powers adapt to a new geopolitical regime? These are not just questions about trade blocs like NAFTA, the European Union and the TPP; these are questions about how we human beings relate to one another.
There once was a time when even the wisest among the Greeks regarded slavery as entirely acceptable. Today even the least sophisticated among us takes for granted that slavery is a moral abomination. As a species, we seem to have made some progress in how we relate to one another. For an uplift in troubled times, I cannot recommend strongly enough Steven Pinker's very big book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Whereas Pinker's book spans millennia, if we zoom in to just the past century, there are further grounds for believing in real progress. During the seven decades since the end of World War II, and under the leadership of a series of American presidents working with the leaders of other nations in institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, human beings have established an international order, a system in which liberal democracy has prevailed over fascism and communism.
Francis Fukuyama may have slightly overstated the case when he borrowed the phrase, "the end of history," but his main point was correct: When you look at the growing number of democracies during the last half of the 20th century, you see the obvious prevalence of democracy over its ideological rivals.
Progress on Hold
But as I pointed out in my last column, that decadeslong, one-way path toward greater democracy has reversed itself since the turn of the millennium, with approximately 25 fewer countries qualifying as full-fledged democracies today. Strongmen are back: Look at the management styles and public personas of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Taking the long view, and appreciating the long-term prevalence of democracy and its recent recession, it's worth asking: What does this recent rollback of democracy say about the state of our progress as social beings? The very idea of progress seems hostage to the recession of democracy.
Just as there was once a time when masters ruled over slaves with impunity, so there was a time much more recently when men ruled over women with unabashed sexism, and whites ruled over people of color with unconcealed racism. Does the rollback of democracy correlate with a retreat on these fronts as well?
In his 2008 book, The Post-American World, a prescient Fareed Zakaria argued that elections alone aren't enough to qualify a country as a democracy. In addition, the protection of liberty and human rights is necessary. You can't lock up the losers when the election is over. Such behavior led Zakaria to coin the phrase "illiberal democracy."
In his Washington Post review of The Post-American World, Parag Khanna was generally favorable toward Zakaria's thesis about "the rise of the rest." But he tempers Zakaria's preoccupation with economics in language that could come straight from a Stratfor analyst:
"But geopolitics is about more than growth rates. It matters that China borders a dozen more countries than India does, isn't hemmed in by a vast ocean and the world's tallest mountains, has a loyal diaspora twice the size of India's and enjoys a head start in Asian and African marketplaces."
Yes, geopolitics is about more than growth rates and trade pacts. In addition to the geographic and demographic factors Khanna cites, geopolitics is also about values and the way we treat one another as human beings. Are more people today than at the turn of the millennium willing to tolerate slavery in the few places it remains? Are more people willing to tolerate sexism? Are more people today willing to tolerate racism? Certainly there's more than a whiff of it in anti-immigration movements advocating everything from the Brexit to a border wall.
Stamping Out Rankism
In a series of books and online posts, Robert Fuller groups sexism, racism and several other –isms under an umbrella he calls rankism, which he defines as "abuses of power associated with rank." Whether one pulls rank on the basis of race, gender, age or accent, there's a universal phenomenon associated with all such abuses of power: a violation of the dignity of the abused. For over a decade now, Fuller has been calling for a grassroots dignitarian movement to oppose all forms of rankism.
Of course, charges of rankism can fly in many directions. The spread of populism in both Europe and America can be attributed in part to the injured dignity of many in the middle class. Respect for their dignity must appreciate that there are limits to our capacity for cosmopolitanism. Isn't it perfectly normal for people to care more about their own families and friends than for people in far-off lands they've never seen?
Fuller doesn't deny the need for some forms of rank, some lines of authority, some chains of command. It is the abuse of power associated with rank that rankles him. In one of his posts, Fuller writes:
"Eradicating rankism doesn't require eliminating rank any more than overcoming racism means getting rid of race or delegitimizing sexism means eliminating gender. Rank can be a useful organizational tool that, used respectfully, helps facilitate cooperation.
"The abuse of rank, however, is invariably an affront to human dignity. Rankism stifles initiative, taxes productivity, harms health, and stokes revenge."
The price of the abuse of power called rankism is high.
The Right to Dignity
Rankism is related to the spread of populism in Europe and the United States as both cause and effect. As cause because the injured dignity of a defeated middle class leads to calls for a strongman who will take on the corrupt elite. As effect because the strongman then tends to abuse power in ways associated with rank.
"Once you have a name for it, you realize that rankism is everywhere in plain sight. Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement — these are all manifestations of rankism. The sooner we pin a generic name on them, the sooner we'll be able to show them all the door."
Geopolitics is not just about economic growth. Nor is it just about politics and political institutions. It is also about the ways we interact with one another as human beings. And with the recession of democracy since the turn of the millennium, we risk a rollback of those human virtues that grant dignity to each and every citizen.