I recently traveled to Washington D.C. to join a group of academics, business executives, foundation representatives and policymakers to work on an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that aims to increase knowledge about world affairs and advance American diplomacy and strategic communication efforts.
This is one of several Wilson Center initiatives since 2001 designed to ramp up efforts to promote international understanding. Our charge is to create a business plan for the creation of an independent organization that will work closely with, and receive seed funding from, the U.S. government to forge collaboration and support of public diplomacy, as well as private and NGO actors around the world, through grant-making. The diverse and non-partisan working group includes expertise from such organizations as Microsoft, Yahoo, Sesame Workshop, Gallup, Brookings, Heritage, CSIS, CNAS, MIT, Harvard, Boston College, MIT, and congressional staff.
The Wilson Center meeting and my conversations with cab drivers from Pakistan, Somalia, and Ethiopia during that trip made me think about 21st century diplomacy. How was the aspiration to come to the U.S. initiated in the minds of those individuals? It was not from direct interaction with U.S. government diplomats, but through interactions with private enterprise.
One conversation was with “Rocky” from Pakistan. He revealed in the first minutes of our hour-long drive from the airport that he was a proud and devoted family man. As a youngster he aspired to come to the United States so that he could earn money for his family of 12. He was 18 when he arrived here via Germany, uneducated, and alone. Living in a car while he worked his way up from dishwasher to line cook in a D.C. hotel, Rocky ultimately earned his GED and started coursework toward his bachelor’s degree. He married, had two children, and continues to be the primary source of financial support for his family in Pakistan, including the dowries for two of his sisters’ weddings there.
How did he know that the U.S. was his destination? He saw the prosperity of other families who had sons working in the U.S. or the especially lucky few who were working for U.S. or European companies in Pakistan. He wanted to go to a place where you could earn money for your labor and give your children a better life. Today Rocky and his family live in extremely modest circumstances. We might consider them to be among the working poor, but they are grateful for the opportunity to earn a living, and for many other things that we take for granted in industrialized economies including accessible public education, central heat, clean water, and sanitation.
The opportunities for individual prosperity that Rocky and the others saw being generated by global businesses, both in their homelands and on the other side of the world, project a powerful image. Certainly public diplomatic work is critical to successful international engagement, but perhaps the most effective carriers of culture are the individuals from multiple countries and cultures who work in corporations side by side, day after day. This includes almost 5.2 million Americans estimated by the state department to be living and working abroad who are not engaged officially in diplomatic or military service.
While public diplomacy has been considered the exclusive domain of government in recent times, business plays an increasingly important role in promoting international understanding and cooperation. Whether via employees, products, advertising, global operating standards, or supply chain activities, participation in enterprise and human interactions with responsible businesses enable prosperity and create value – while promoting shared values—here at home and around the world. In talking about the benefits to society provided by corporate citizens, we cannot discount profitability and prosperity as foundational to social and environmental gains.
As leading multinational companies turn to emerging economies in Asia and Africa as future markets and manufacturing bases, I’m hopeful that a new type of cross-sector diplomacy will provide opportunities for less disparate global prosperity and security – prerequisites for global stability from which we all benefit. It’s possible to imagine that within a generation emigrating will not be the only path to a secure financial future for people like Rocky.
So how can we support corporations in understanding the multitudinous and nuanced cultures, contexts, and value systems that they will encounter abroad – and increasingly – encounter in our own nation simply as a result of engaging in global commerce? These are subjects that we will explore more fully in our work. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or contact us if you are interested in contributing a bylined guest blog in the future.