The Balance of Power

Why sexism is civilization's greatest shame.

If, after reading through the FP Power Map that is at the heart of this issue, you were to conclude that the most disturbing aspect of the list is that only 10 percent of the people on it are women, you would be right. If you were to conclude that this fact is merely a cultural anomaly, a troubling quirk, or only the concern of the politically correct, however, you would be deeply and dangerously wrong.

Because our list is admittedly imperfect and impressionistic, you might decide there was a problem with our process or our tabulation. But the 10 percent figure is consistent with other such lists, and in fact that's the point: It's culled from many of the lists and groupings that track and monitor global power, from the G-20 to the Fortune 500. Several years ago, when I wrote a book called Superclass focusing on the global power elite, I put together a list of the world's 6,000 most powerful people based on a fairly rigorous definition of global clout: Each person on the list influenced millions beyond his or her national borders on a regular basis. My list included religious, media, business, financial, military, cultural, and political leaders. Women represented 6 percent of the list. Today the 18 women who are chief executives of Fortune 500 companies constitute less than 4 percent of those 500 firms. And that latter percentage would be even lower if you were listing women in top positions in globally influential religious groups or military organizations.

The New York Times recently ran a story noting that women are flexing their muscle in the U.S. Senate because 20 of them now serve in that (largely inert) deliberative body. This was celebrated as a sign of progress, which, of course, given America's lamentable past, it is. But women are half the population. They are still grossly underrepresented. Worldwide, the numbers are much the same, with women making up approximately 20 percent of those at work in global legislatures. Representation proportional to their numbers would give them nearly three times as many seats.

Because these figures are so familiar to us, so broadly accepted, we end up celebrating the occasional story of progress or individual success as representing far greater gains than are actually being realized. For every legislature that manages to achieve a surprising gender balance, like Rwanda's, which leads the world with 56 percent female representation; for every corporate board with an equal number of women and men; for every balanced cabinet, like that of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet; for every powerful woman made good, whether world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or chief executives like Marissa Mayer of Yahoo!, Ursula Burns of Xerox, and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, literally hundreds of millions of women are denied equal protection under the law, the ability to pursue the careers they want, or even the right to count on the most basic freedoms that men take for granted.

In fact, the underrepresentation of women in positions of power is proof not so much that men still dominate the top of the pyramid as it is of a system of the most egregious, widespread, pernicious, destructive pattern of human rights abuses in the history of civilization. There is no genocide against any people that has produced more victims than the number of females who have lost their lives to discrimination against the birth of girl babies (in Pakistan alone, for instance, there is a culturally encouraged "shortage" of an estimated 6 million females), or who have died from the unwillingness of societies to provide the health care women need, or who die as a result of social customs that allow fathers to kill daughters for "shaming" families, husbands to kill wives for adultery, and men to perpetrate other horrific violence against women. That countless millions of women are also regularly raped, beaten, and abused by men only compounds these atrocities.

The systematic, persistent acceptance of women's second-class status is history's greatest shame. And for all our self-congratulations about how far we have come, we live in a world where even in the most advanced countries, deep injustices against women remain. These injustices, of course, have other costs beyond the purely human ones. Nothing would help societies grow more than educating and empowering women economically. Democracy is a sham until the planet's majority population actually achieves equitable representation in deliberative bodies and executive positions of government. And the absence of women in positions of power is also, of course, a guarantee that women's interests will continue to be minimized, ignored, or repressed.

We're talking about nothing less than an epoch-long war on a people here, an effort to hold back the economic -- and social -- progress of the majority of humanity. So how come the tough guys of the foreign-policy community continue to denigrate this as a "soft" issue, one of secondary importance at best?

Lists like Foreign Policy's should not simply be pored over to see who made it and who did not. They should be taken in instances like this one as evidence that we are so inured to abusing and undervaluing our mothers, sisters, and daughters that we have come to accept the unacceptable. Here's to the day when we no longer treat as customary that which, like slavery, ethnic slaughter, and religious inquisitions, must be seen as anathema to civilization.  

GAPS Fotografie/istock

David Rothkopf

The Ugly Choice in the Middle East

Permanent chaos, or a new generation of strongmen? Take your pick.

In conversations last week with Middle East experts from the U.S. government and from the region, a disturbing set of themes recurred. First, there was a growing sense that absent some major initiative that currently lacks a leader, concept, and resources, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria could hold on for years to come, perhaps even as long as another decade. Next, were that to be the case or even if Assad were to fall sooner, Syria would remain an open wound, an ever more desolate, violent, chaotic battleground. Finally, even in the wake of a conflict-ending settlement, if Syria were to land in the hands of extremists, the aftershocks would reverberate around the region, spreading outward from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

Combine all this with the growing sense of unease about the outcomes of "Arab Spring" upheavals in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and concerns regarding regimes in the Persian Gulf -- not to mention Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa -- and there is a credible scenario that calls for years of unending ebbing-and-flowing upheaval from Mali to Pakistan with few reliable pockets of stability in between. It is by no means a certainty, but one possibility is that we go from having been concerned about failed states to having to grapple with the harsh realities of a failed region.

We could be in the midst of what will someday be seen as decades of interconnected conflicts. For this reason and because most of the world's major powers fear this outcome and the potential costs it would pose for them, there is a growing sense that rather than focusing on democratic outcomes to all this upheaval, the United States and others will soon be contenting themselves with another generation of strongmen throughout the Greater Middle East. The U.S. willingness to embrace dubious "partners" like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai or Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. reluctance to publicly criticize leaders with questionable values such as Egypt's Mohamed Morsy are seen as signs of this growing predisposition.

Similarly, these analysts see U.S. reluctance to undertake policies that might meaningfully affect outcomes in some of these at-risk countries as a contributing factor both to the coming era of protracted instability and to the likely rise in our appetite for strongmen. Syria is again a signature case. While the United States has in recent weeks ratcheted up its rhetoric and its peripheral involvement in the situation there, America's inaction is still seen as more important to the situation on the ground as its action.

Sending 200 troops into Jordan, making a commitment to provide more night-vision goggles, or having the CIA sort through the opposition in the hopes of finding a leader we can live with are all positive steps. But they are offset, and their true character as symbolic or halfway measures is revealed, by articles such as that in April 23's New York Times once again noting that the Israelis (like others) have concluded that Assad has used chemical weapons in his own country, thus crossing U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line."

When the red line was established, it was hardly thought that the potential U.S. response would be sending over more body armor. But now that using a new tougher list of adjectives appears to be the prime change in U.S. behavior, an inadvertent message has been sent: America's bark is worse than its bite. This is a dangerous message to send to dangerous people. Thus, while drawing red lines is risky behavior, Obama appears now to be on a course toward demonstrating that ignoring them after the fact is even riskier.

It could be argued that the U.S. intelligence community is still evaluating the evidence of the chemical attacks. Perhaps it is doing much more behind the scenes than the public knows. The reality, however, is that the situation is deteriorating. Further, U.S. efforts to marshal others into a constructive role have produced mixed results. Some, like the government of Qatar and to a degree that of Turkey, stand accused of supporting extremists. Others, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have sought a different path but think that without stronger U.S. leadership, effective international action is not going to be possible.

The problem of course, is that the American people's appetite for further deep involvement in the region is near zero. Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be costly disasters. Americans have very serious problems at home. New energy resources in the United States have led to a sense that Americans will find it ever easier to distance themselves from the region's problems. America's European allies have no organized foreign policy to speak of, have less appetite than the United States does to be involved on the ground in the region, and have even greater problems at home. The Russians are being systematically unhelpful. The Chinese are only willing to get involved at the margins, essentially making the case themselves that they are not ready for prime time. Regional actors range from the malevolent in Iran to the relatively weak, at risk, motivationally questionable, or all of the above among most of the moderate states. And none of these factors seems likely to change anytime soon.

Thus, we face a region in which there are few effective external or regional stabilizing forces. At the same time, Syria has illustrated that even if the United States, Europe, or others are slow to take significant action, extremist groups seeking to capitalize on the action are moving quickly to take advantage of the void. Estimates have Syria's al-Nusra Front, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda, now surpassing 12,000 in strength, with foreign fighters drawn from every corner of Europe and the surrounding region.

This leaves a choice between protracted chaos and autocrats. It doesn't take an Einstein to do the math. In that equation, democracy and the hope for real political reform in the region seem likely to lose out.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images