Values and Interests in Foreign Policy: A View from Business

A comment on values in foreign policy from a practitioner of business may seem like an oxymoron: business has gained a bad reputation worldwide for being particularly focused on short-term results at the cost of the long-term good, and for taking short-cuts in areas ranging from quality standards to tax compliance. The inference is that values in business—if at all present–take a seat right at the back of the room. Yet there is a long tradition of debate and discussion in management and business circles on the place of honesty in delivering sustainable business results. (I use the word ‘honesty’ here as shorthand for ‘keeping one’s promises’ and ‘being true to oneself’ apart from its usual meaning of financial integrity.) And the upshot of that debate is: in the long run, honesty does pay, and there is ample proof of it.

It would be of interest for diplomats to tune into this discussion. For ‘economic diplomacy’ is a growing—if not predominant—part of the foreign office remit in all nations; in other words, diplomats support the promotion of their nations’ business interests. When doing this, diplomats inevitably become complicit in the promises made by businesses, and hence in their final outcomes. So, how businesses look at profits and commercial results vis-à-vis the values stated expansively in their ‘mission statements’ should be of more than academic interest to the foreign policy mandarinate.

In the ancient past, trade consisted of commodities—salt, sugar, tea, coffee and so on. In modern times, practically every commodity consists of branded products: thus, there are many types of cars today beyond the original Model T designed by Henry Ford. A brand is an all-embracing name that not only captures the physical attributes of the product, but also its psychological content. So, an Alfa Romeo is not just a pricy, rakish and fast car with impressive engine performance, but its driver also imagines himself as a would-be James Bond, with the latter’s qualities (values) of courage, style, intelligence and wit. It is this combination of perceived value that enables the Alfa Romeo manufacturer to extract a hefty price from the buyer. Thus, the modern businessman is not just a purveyor of goods and services with a profit motive in mind, he also deals in brands, which are collections of tangible things with mental associations and values embedded in them. Whether the values attributed to the brand are true (or even desirable) is not the point; what matters is whether enough people believe that such a connection exists.

The businessman therefore deals in both interests (profits) and values simultaneously, and he deals with values in two ways. The first way is to create a brand which has the right mix of physical attributes and values/psychological content—if he gets this proportion wrong (an ugly Alfa Romeo!), the customer will notice the dissonance and promptly reject the product or not pay the full price. The second way is to be ‘honest’ with the customer—fulfilling his promises as to delivery, quality, service, warranty, etc—and to do so consistently over the complete period of his relationship with the customer.

We may visualize the diplomat as engaging in a not dissimilar process, for the nation, too, can be conjectured as a ‘brand’—consider the Government’s ‘Incredible India’ campaign. In that campaign, ‘India’ as a brand evokes a certain imagery, made up of the tangible (geography, population, GDP etc) and the intangible (philosophy, history, customs, traditions etc). There is of course a tension between the brand as imagined by the ‘customer’ (the other nation) and his actual experience of it. This is the gap that the diplomat must cover, to protect the interests of his own country as well as maintain the credibility and continuity of the relationship with the other nation.

It is true that in the business world, there are a lot of people who have got away with shoddy practices and by defrauding customers. But in a competitive world, this ‘strategy’ is not a sustainable one. Sooner or later, bad quality or poor service find their own level. After all, to be a great company and to reach the heights of performance, you need to win the trust of a large and growing number of customers, and to do so consistently. That is only possible through honest and authentic conduct. It has been shown time and again that customers will accept bad news with grace, if presented with the reasons truthfully with an intention of making amends.

As human beings, we are very sensitive in detecting honesty and authenticity in others. Words or behaviour which seem uncharacteristic, arouse suspicion or anxiety. The opposite is also true—that we value honesty even if it means a temporary setback in attaining our ‘interests’. Honesty ensures that the world around us has some measure of predictability and is not completely anarchic or chaotic. Honesty and ‘values’ provide this anchor, and thus are valued in themselves. Take the example of the Nordic countries—they are small in both size and population, but their voice in world affairs carries weight in much greater proportion since they are viewed as committed to democracy, human rights, egalitarianism, global peace, well-being and environmental sustainability. (In recent years, however, this reputation has taken something of a knock, with their swing towards anti-immigrant and nativist policies.)

Interests and values, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. Following interests at the cost of values will result—sooner or later—in behaviour labelled as selfish and transactional, with no greater success in diplomacy than in other spheres of human life. To follow only values without a care for interests might result in the loss of survival or independence, for individual or nation. As always, to knit the two into a Middle Path, is what seems best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *