Corner Office-Corporate Diplomats

Corner Office-Corporate Diplomats

Creating goodwill around the world.

I often muse about the characteristics of corporate leaders as visionaries, strategic thinkers, change managers, ethical leaders, and decision makers. Now I’d like to add one more role to that list: diplomats.

The time is now for corporate leaders in the United States to take stronger actions to improve economic, political, health, and standard-of-living conditions around the world for many reasons—the most urgent being the need to reverse anti-American sentiment.

Why should business leaders care? Well, an extreme anti-American attitude has led to terrorist attacks, of course, but have you considered other, less obvious consequences? A December 2004 survey done by GMI, a Seattle market-research firm, showed that 79 percent of European and Canadian consumers distrust the U.S. government. And although U.S. corporations didn’t initiate the Iraq war, international consumers don’t separate government from business. As a result, half of the survey respondents also don’t trust U.S. corporations, and 17 percent said they consciously avoid U.S. companies and products.

The world has changed and businesses have to respond by demonstrating global leadership.

Medical Diplomacy

I recently had dinner with my friend Tommy Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin and former health and human services secretary for the Bush administration. He spoke passionately about a project he is advocating: medical diplomacy, which is a blend of foreign policy and health policy. He understands why our leaders in Washington are fixated on fighting terrorism and the war in Iraq. But Thompson believes that along with, and sometimes in lieu of, the gunboat diplomacy of bombs and bullets, we need to employ the medical diplomacy of vaccinations and shared medical knowledge and care.

Thompson talked about the poor health conditions of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Because of Taliban control, doctors in Afghanistan do not have the training or technology to deliver quality health care, and Afghani women and children, in particular, are suffering. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein destroyed a world-class medical system; Baghdad used be a medical center of excellence for the Middle East, Thompson notes.

The United States should be helping to improve the health of people in these countries, not only for moral reasons, but also as a matter of foreign policy, he argues. A good start would be sending two Navy hospital ships that are currently dry-docked in U.S. ports to the Middle East. They could be used as training sites for health care providers, who will become advocates for the United States, he observes. Why not let the people of these countries see these ships, with red crosses on their sides and American flags flying on their masts, as a different picture of the United States?

Corporate Diplomacy

And how can corporate leaders contribute to international diplomacy? First, I want to recognize that some already do. Companies like Medtronic and St. Jude Medical donate money and medical technology to charities that work on a global basis. If your company isn’t already supporting global charities, that’s an obvious way to start making a difference.

But if we really want to change attitudes, we need to fundamentally change the way we conduct business. I believe that future generations will live in a more peaceful world if it’s knit together by strong business and personal relationships across the globe.

Corporate leaders must ensure that their organizations are socially responsible and keep their commitments. Our leading principle must be integrity, not earnings or imposing “the American way.” We must respect and understand other cultures, listening to international employees and letting business flow with the local culture, business practices, and legal systems, while maintaining corporate values.

Michael L. Eskew, chairman and CEO of UPS, is a model of corporate diplomacy. He chairs the U.S.–China Business Council and is a member of the President’s Export Council and the Business Roundtable. (Eskew has ties to Minnesota as a director of 3M.) He has said, “There is no greater agent working for sustained economic development, peace, and stability than the force of increased trade between nations. Because that bridge links more than commerce. It links cultures and people. It links lives.”

Eskew does more than talk about this. UPS facilities in Thailand often include Buddhist shrines; pictures of the Madonna are found in UPS facilities in Latin America. Of the company’s 40,000 employees at facilities outside the United States, fewer than 40 are Americans. The relationship that local workers have with this leading American corporation is stronger than any government policy can be.

It’s important in making efforts like these to understand that the current anti-Americanism is not just a European backlash against the American-led invasion of Iraq, or a recent outgrowth of Muslim extremism. Goodwill toward this country has been eroding over the past two decades. U.S. corporate scandals have contributed to that. So has what some in other countries see as an invasion of American popular culture, and the imposition of “the American way” as our companies have expanded overseas. Our businesses have been complicit in producing a growing anti-American feeling over many years. We can’t just blame the politicians for this one, folks!

Leaving a Legacy

One of the greatest foreign policy plans of the past century was the European Recovery Program, also known as the Marshall Plan, which was the primary plan of the United States for rebuilding post–World War II Europe and repelling communism.

Fifty years later, historians debate what the legacy of the Marshall Plan is. Some hail it as a success of American generosity. Others say the plan was simply “American economic imperialism,” with geopolitical goals, not generosity, at its core. Or they say that the plan simply benefited the U.S. economy by creating a market for its trade surpluses. Finally, some believe that the Marshall Plan didn’t contribute much to the rebuilding of Europe at all, and say that economic growth would have occurred anyway. Meanwhile, there are calls to reconstitute the plan as a new “International Marshall Plan” to help developing countries.

My point is that even 50 years later, there’s still political debate over one of the most significant foreign policy decisions in recent history. So don’t get sidelined by political debate over the current U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq war; recognize that debate is at the heart of democracy, and we should embrace it.

Focus on what you can change, not what you can’t. Start by taking actions personally and in your own business that will contribute to a legacy of peace for future generations. Through a blend of ethical international business leadership and foreign policy, you can become the type of leader our world needs: a corporate diplomat.

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