It is no accident that when terrorists launched their assault on the United States last week they targeted not only symbols of the country’s political and military might, but also symbols of its economic power. When it comes to their hatred of America, they are motivated not only by their bitterness over what they see as American political imperialism—particularly this country’s support of Israel—but also by their resentment of what they see as American cultural imperialism, represented by the ubiquity of American corporate influence in developed and developing countries.
While the attention of the American public is understandably focused on the political and military response, the corporate response to the tragedy at the World Trade Center will be—in the long run—just as important. The military response will strike at the heart of the disease we know as terrorism. The corporate response can address some of the symptoms, and in so doing deprive those who despise this country of any sympathy or support.
The first step for American business must be to get back to business, as quickly as possible. While the devastation wrought by the attacks upon America this week is both heart breaking and horrifying, it is a minor victory for the terrorists who launched those attacks. The aim of terrorism is not the destruction of property or even the catastrophic loss of human life. The aim of terrorism is disruption and destabilization. Terrorists don’t succeed simply by blowing up buildings or murdering innocent civilians. They succeed by forcing people to live in fear, by persuading governments to deprive people of their freedoms, by inspiring in their victims the same kind of irrational hatred—based on religion or ethnicity or skin color—by which they themselves are driven.
In other words, they succeed only if we react to terror the way they hope we will react. They succeed only if we let them. That’s why it is so important for corporate America to return to business as swiftly as possible, for stock markets to open, for baseball and football players to return to the field.
At the same time, it would be a terrible mistake—a horrible missed opportunity—for American corporations return to business as usual. Corporate America needs to go further than that. It needs to recognize that the war against terrorism is likely to be a lengthy one—other nations, such have Israel and Northern Ireland, have found that such wars tend to be measured not in months or years but in decades—and that it must be fought on many fronts. One of those fronts is economic engagement.
In recent years, American companies have made an articulate case for corporate engagement, but often their zeal has been restricted to those countries where engagement offers an immediate or compelling economic payoff, such as China.
In its mission statement, USA*Engage says, “The engagement of Americans abroad is a powerful tool to promote freedom and peace. Economic activity—businesses and farmers exporting, investing, purchasing—is an important element of engagement. Democracy and human rights are strongly associated with free markets, open trade and investment, and rising living standards. American economic engagement helps increase incomes and empower the middle class. Americans also bring with them American values ­­ the inherent worth of the individual, freedom, and the rule of law.”
Companies need to recognize that this applies to the impoverished countries of the Islamic world as well as to the emerging economies of Southeast Asia. As one expert on Islam wrote this week, the ultimate cure for terrorism is “western culture in the form of music videos, KFC and swimsuit models. These are powerful forces for the insinuation of the real western values of individualism and secularism.”
Rather than bombing Afghani civilians in Kabul to punish the Taliban and Osama bin Laden—a move analogous to bombing Belsen and Auschwitz to punish Adolf Hitler—we should offer an alternative: American-owned factories, a McDonald’s on every corner, and U.S. oversight of free and open elections. (It’s doubtful the Taliban would accept, but that combination of free markets and a free society, prosperity and democracy, should be the ultimate objective of any war on terrorism.)
Some of corporate America’s critics—the ones who protest at World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, not the ones who fly jet liners into skyscrapers—are likely to resist the idea that accelerated globalization is any solution to the world crisis. They may even argue that globalization is one cause of the hatred that spawned this attack—and they may not be entirely wrong. Those who hate America do so because they are excluded or exploited by American prosperity—or because they enjoy the luxury of sympathizing with those who are excluded or exploited.
It may seem trite to invoke the laws of corporate conflict resolution in a crisis of such enormous proportions, but one of those laws applies in this case. It says that in order to neutralize one’s opponents one must marginalize them, and in order to marginalize them one must enter into dialogue with more reasonable critics, acknowledge their valid concerns, make concessions, and attempt to convert them into neutral observers at least, allies at best.
The solution to this problem is obvious, though not necessarily easy to implement. The nature of globalization, the nature of the relationship between U.S. companies and the societies where they conduct business, has to change. Exclusion and exploitation can no longer be part of the equation. The new globalization must be inclusive, in every sense. It must respect the dignity of workers and consumers and communities, in developing countries as well as in those closer to home. It must be a unifying force, not a divisive one.
When challenged about the ruthlessly Darwinian nature of American capitalism, its apologists will often invoke Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the theory that the pursuit of individual wealth leads inevitably to societal benefit. They point to the tremendous relative prosperity of capitalist economies and to the fact that even the poorest citizens in countries like America are nowhere near as impoverished as those in former communist countries like Russia.
But the transition from a controlled economy to a free market can be extraordinarily painful one, and during that transition the harsh meritocracy of capitalism can seem more uncomfortable than the accustomed yolk of oppression. If that is the case, a more compassionate brand of capitalism—one that sees social responsibility as more than a means of polishing a corporate reputation—is needed.
Clearly, there is an enormous role for public relations in this process: not the slick, self-congratulatory public relations that has been practiced by too many companies too long, but the sincere, substantive public relations that understands how perceptions are rooted in reality, how images are formed by behavior. Public relations professionals must help companies engage, and understand and meet the expectations of diverse constituencies in diverse societies.
If America is to win the war its president announced last week, it must change the world—and American business must help. Is this an ambitious agenda? It is. Do we believe America’s corporate leadership is capable or rising to such a challenge? We do.