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Thwarting Anti – Americanism

Anti-Americanism is a potent phenomenon in the world, and business executives as much as political leaders need to appreciate its …

Anti-Americanism is a potent phenomenon in the world, and business executives as much as political leaders need to appreciate its significance and deal with its consequences. First, I discuss the etiology of anti-Americanism, its genesis and sources; then I prescribe antidotes to its poison.

There is nothing so strange about anti-Americanism. On the one hand, its cause is the clash between American idealism, infused with naivety and arrogance, and on the other, the natural nature of all peoples to seek honor for themselves, to have pride in their countries and to assert their national independence. All peoples are rightly proud of their own nations and cultures and can come quite naturally to resent other nations and cultures that may seem in some way superior (whether economically or militarily). Such resentment is amplified when America is seen exerting its military forces in a presumptive or preemptive manner. These images cast America as “Big Bully,” even if what the “Bully” is doing is for the benefit, not the detriment, of foreigners. The intimate and ubiquitous media, television and the Internet, make personal and specific what in past generations were generic and abstract.

Nationalism is pivotal here. In general, people do not resist foreign intervention when it rescues them from other foreigners but can come to begrudge such help when it rescues them from equally evil domestic tyranny. Thus the French people universally appreciated the American liberation of France from Germany‘s Adolf Hitler, while the American liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein, who brutalized his own country, was not appreciated. Although Iraq is laden with complexity and subtlety, notably the interminable Shia-Sunni conflict, nonetheless a majority of the Iraqi people, though they loathed Saddam, want the Americans out.

An anti-American demonstration organized by university students in an Asian country is illustrative. One student leader was particularly virulent in his criticism of America, holding high placards criticizing the U.S. for its military interventions and shouting slogans that the U.S. is arrogant and bellicose and must be stopped. When asked by a reporter how long he would continue his protest, the student leader stated, rather matter-offactly, that he could not remain much longer since he had to return home to study for his GRE (Graduate Record Examination), which is the test required for admission to American graduate schools. The student saw no contradiction in his fervent denunciation of American policy and his fervent desire to attend American schools.

This true story, one of my all-time favorites, personifies America‘s opportunities as well as its problems. For as much as American policy is disparaged, its way of life, its grand vision and its standards of excellence are all admired. Business leaders must learn how to delimit the antagonism and leverage the appreciation.

Following are eight principles that executives can consider in dealing with anti-Americanism:

1. Take Anti-Americanism Seriously. Understand the roots of the problem and recognize it’s not going away. Whether or not you think anti- Americanism is justified is not the point. Expect it and adapt to it.

2. Discern Proper Public Posture. Each company has its own market position, its distinct image and style, and it is the articulation between these company-specific characteristics, and the nature and degree of anti-Americanism in each country, that drives proper strategy. Consumer product companies and industrials have systematic differences, yet since anti-American public pressure can affect a government’s capacity to buy American, even nonconsumer goods, these differences may not be significant.

3. Reflect Local Tastes and Sensitivities. It seems a cliché to advise American companies to adapt their products and services to local interests, but there is no better way to begin. Consider something as simple as different body dimensions for clothes and divergent appetites for foods. There are, however, no simple formulas. Customers can be conflicted; they may like an American lifestyle but at the same time they may feel uncomfortable, unpatriotic, liking it too much. In advertisements, mix international and local faces.

4. Localize Structure and People. A company cannot counter anti- Americanism if all of its leadership is American. More important, it makes good business sense to develop local managers. Diversity of people provides diversity of thinking, which makes the company more robust in dealing with unexpected contingencies. A key question: What is the process and the locus of decision making in the foreign country? If most decisions must go back to America, progress will be slowed.

5. Stress True Partnership. First, take your company’s best international practices and adapt them to local conditions. Then, reverse direction and discern how local experiences can enhance the international company. That’s the essence of true partnership.

6. Craft a Consistent Public Image. In its ads, Toyota states that it creates American jobs. This claim does not fool us into believing that Toyota is not a Japanese company, but it does show us that Toyota cares about its relationship with Americans beyond simply selling cars to them, and we appreciate the effort. Sony, on the other hand, has truly become an international organization; it is the first major Japanese company to appoint a non-Japanese as CEO. After acquiring IBM’s personal computer and ThinkPad divisions, Lenovo also is becoming a new kind of company, with executive leadership split between China and America.

7. Warning: Do Not Condescend or Patronize. People smell insincerity. If you put on a show to sell a public image, it won’t work. Only if you genuinely feel the partnership with your foreign customers and employees will your tone reflect it. It is more how a company thinks than what a company does that determines its true internationalism.

8. Inoculate Your Company. The medical analogy is a good one. By injecting into the body something like the real disease, the body will develop immunological defenses to protect it against the real disease. The analogy works by arguing that American companies operating internationally should take anti- Americanism as a serious threat be – fore it arises, preparing its corporate body to withstand the attack. Anti- Americanism is a wild card that can suddenly overturn a long history of patient success. Only those companies that see anti-Americanism for the threat that it is can survive such onslaught.

There is a tectonic shift among nations, and Americans must recognize that every nation has every right to provide a good standard of living for its people, and that if these nations feel restricted from attaining this worthy goal, our world will see no end of trouble. The consequences are clear: America cannot retain as large a disproportion of world GDP as we have today, which will mean more disruptions in our economy and more dislocations in our workforce- though we can adapt and continue to improve our absolute standard of living. (American percentage of world GDP peaked at just over 30 percent, coincidentally about the same percentage that China enjoyed for hundreds of years until the 19th century.) Thus, Americans should welcome the countries of Asia, China and India in particular, into the widening circle of developed nations whose peoples enjoy comfortable lives. We should hasten the day when African nations-when all nations-can be so elevated.

As for Americans who feel threatened by the rise of other nations, I can only say “we had better get used to it.” The impact is not avoidable and it is not uniform. Some people will prosper; others will suffer. American jobs will be lost, but rather than retreating into self-defeating protectionism and isolationism, we should adapt by developing new kinds of jobs and by caring for those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves displaced. As for foreigners who rejoice when they see America falter and who watch with glee as America‘s reputation declines, I can only say, “Be careful for what you wish.” The world without an engaged America would be a more dangerous place, and you may rue the day that you had sought it so. With all its misguided policies and naïve perceptions, America, perhaps more than any other nation in history, has been international protector and benefactor. That this cannot continue makes one fear for the future.


Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international investment banker and corporate strategist, is senior adviser at Citigroup. He is co-editor-in-chief of China‘s Banking and Financial Markets: The Internal Report of the Chinese Government. His articles describing and ex plaining in – vestment banking, which ad vise business executives how to optimize in vestment banking products and services, are posted at www.chiefexecutive.net/investment.

About robert lawrence kuhn

Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an international corporate strategist, investment banker and expert on China. Since 1989, he has worked with China’s senior leaders and advised the Chinese government on matters of economic policy, industrial policy, mergers and acquisitions, science and technology, media and culture, Sino-U.S. relations, and a variety of international business matters. Dr. Kuhn advises leading multinational companies, CEOs and C-Suite executives, regarding formulating and implementing China strategies in a variety of sectors, including science and technology, energy and resources, industrial, media and entertainment, healthcare / medical / pharmaceuticals, consumer products, and financial services. He works with major Chinese companies on structuring their capital markets financing and M&A activities.