Channeling global capitalism.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
June 6 2002 1:15 PM

Channeling Global Capitalism

Some journalists go abroad and file dispatches about the "mood of Paris" or the "mood of London." I was just in Berlin, but I spent most of my waking hours inside my hotel, so I can't really speak for the city as a whole. (I know what you're thinking: That's never stopped other foreign correspondents.) Instead, I'd like to serve as a medium for the mood of global capitalism. Those waking hours were spent in the hotel ballroom with a few dozen executives—mostly CEOs—from corporations around the world, ranging from Mitsubishi to Saatchi and Saatchi.

This was the 10th annual meeting of the Global Business Policy Council, run by the consulting firm AT Kearney (which compiles Foreign Policy magazine's globalization index). The Kearney people like to think of their council as comparable to the famous World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, if on a boutiquier scale. But, to the connoisseur of global, big-think junkets, Berlin had at least one edge over Davos. As a Kearney "faculty member," I got paid (this is full disclosure), whereas at Davos they just cover expenses. Also, at Davos ­­I got a modest hotel room in Klosters, the out-of-the-way village where the beta males are housed, but in Berlin I stayed in the serotonin-boosting Hotel Adlon, where President Bush stayed last month and President Clinton stayed years ago. At the Adlon, every man is a king: After a couple of days of tossing my dirty clothes in a corner—too cheap to pay for laundry service—I returned to the room to find a little tower of meticulously folded dirty clothes, underwear included.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Anyway, as for the mood of global capitalism: If I were forced to say something positive about Osama Bin Laden, it would be that he has deepened capitalists' interest in the world outside of five-star hotels. A year ago, I suspect, the average CEO would have shown scanty enthusiasm for hearing Benjamin ("Jihad Versus McWorld") Barber hold forth on the discontents of the world's teeming masses. But these executives listened to Barber closely, even if they weren't wild about his take-home lesson: that global capitalism runs roughshod over the cultural landscape, subverting time-honored values and insidiously inducing innocent human beings to order Big Macs.

Naturally, the CEOs also indulged their interest in economic forecasting, listening raptly to a mildly downbeat assessment by the eminent Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf. Still, at the end of the conference, when the execs were polled on their biggest macro-concern in the coming year, terrorist-related political instability, not stalled economic recovery, topped the list. And, when asked how they hoped to address the challenge, a couple of executives mentioned correcting the underrepresentation of Muslims at the top of their corporate hierarchy.

That's my buried lead: Top Business Executives Embrace Global Affirmative Action! It raises two questions.

1) Would this help? Maybe a little, in the long run. It could, for example, attune corporations to cultural nuance in Islamic countries, reducing the backlash their business practices arouse.

2) Would this just be a cynical attempt by capitalism at self-preservation? Presumably—but what's wrong with that? It may well be that the best hope for preventing an endless replay of 9/11s lies with capitalism's powers of cynical self-preservation. After all, there are basically two ways to influence war-on-terrorism policy: public opinion (i.e., future votes) and money. So far, public opinion has done no great good that I can see. It was to please voters that Bush (and Congress) refused to open our textile markets to Pakistan—something we should have done both to reward Prime Minister Musharraf and because, in the long run, drawing Islamic countries into the global economy is a good way to dampen the appeal of radical Islam. And it was presumably fear of public opinion that shaped our casualty-averse strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that may have let Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. So, with public opinion doing little good, that leaves money as the main source of hope—and money, as you may have noticed, is sometimes brought to bear on the political process by capitalists.

Can capitalism use this lever wisely? History offers at least some encouragement. Commerce has often, one way or another, managed to make the world safe for itself. In the late Middle Ages, merchants in various German cities united to form the Hanseatic League in order to quell pirates and build shipwreck-preventing lighthouses. At about the same time, as kings across Europe grabbed power from local lords, paving the way for the nation-state, they did so as proxies for the incipient capitalist system. The conflicting regulations of the various lords had been impeding commerce, and, worse still, the lords fought one another and even marauded, making trade perilous. The emerging middle class of merchants gladly paid taxes to ascendant kings in exchange for peace and order.

Note that in both cases, commerce's drive for self-preservation carried governance to a higher level of organization—from the local to the regional. And in both cases, this was because commerce at that higher level was threatened. Regular readers may sense an impending Earthling sermon on how 9/11 underscores the need for global governance. Wrong! Having just tried to sell that argument to a bunch of CEOs, I'm too weary to rehash it and will settle for a link.

However, I would note that there's a precedent for converting CEOs to this cause. The one-worldism afoot around World War I, when the League of Nations was born, was largely a capitalist plot. Industrialists saw how bad war had been for business and were willing to give up some national sovereignty to avoid another war. (It didn't work, but it was a start.) Only later in the century did one-worldism come to connote lefty idealism.

Obviously, the 9/11 problem is a subtle mix of economics, culture, and technology. A tough Biological Weapons Convention—or BWC—plus another dozen transnational acronyms won't get us nearly all the way to a solution. My point is just that the considerable powers of capitalism have in the past embraced creative responses to forms of political instability that are bad for business. And blowing up world trade centers is bad for business.

While in Germany, I saw my friend John Judis, who is doing a stint at the American Academy of Berlin. In his book The Paradox of American Democracy, he argues that American government has worked best when elites strongly influenced policy. Judis isn't thinking so much of business elites, whose influence he sees as a given, but rather about counterbalancing elites, such as those who started the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. He calls these "disinterested elites" because they focus on the public good, not business interests (though someone to Judis' right might call them "liberal elites" who favor particular interest groups).

But when it comes to 9/11 policy, I'd argue, the distance between business elites and "disinterested" elites shrinks because the commercial good and the public good start to merge. For the public to be safe, terrorism must be subdued. For global capitalism to be safe, ditto. If it turns out that a bleeding-heart concern for the plight of poor and alienated Muslims around the world would help quell terrorism, global capitalism should in theory embrace that concern.

The big question is one of time horizons. The incentive structure in corporate America—including executive compensation packages—allegedly encourages myopia in the executive suite. And almost everyone I've talked to agrees that a successful war on terrorism will involve some very long-term strategy, such as figuring out how to benignly influence the evolution of politics and culture in faraway places and then sticking with the necessary policies.

In sum: The good news is that in order to save the world, we don't have to convince CEOs to think about something other than money. The bad news is that we have to get them to think very long-term—to think about earnings 10, even 20 or 30 years down the road.

I'm not sure how many of these executives in Berlin were thinking that long-term. But who knows? Maybe if they keep spending weekends locked up with evangelizing scholars and journalists (whose jobs don't depend on next week's stock price), their time horizons will grow. Of course, that might mean that people like me would have to spend more time in five-star hotels. But during wartime, I feel, we all have to do our part.

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