Geopolitical corporate responsibility can drive change

Russia’s long invasion of Ukraine is testing the commitment of business, but this could see the emergence of a new pillar of support for the rules-based international order.

Expert comment Published 26 July 2022 3 minute READ

The massive exit of more than 1,000 international companies from Russia has surpassed – by a factor of nearly ten in merely four months – the number which pulled out of apartheid-led South Africa over an entire decade.

These company exits extend beyond those industries targeted for sanctions – oil and gas, banks and financial services, aerospace, and certain technology sectors – to include hundreds in consumer products ranging from Levi’s and H&M clothing to Coca-Cola and McDonalds. Many of these companies may wish to return to a post-conflict – or post-Putin – Russia, while a few have already sold their Russian operations, as McDonald’s has to an existing Siberian licensee.

Both reputational and operational factors are driving the huge exodus: reputational as companies have chosen to disassociate themselves from Putin’s regime; operational as transportation routes and supply chains have been interrupted.

Few of these companies have made explicit the principles at stake, while many still face ‘tricky legal, operational and ethical considerations’ and some have kept operations in place. But the collective impact of the exit in response to Russia’s affront to international law has sent shockwaves around the world.

Current issues and future implications

Minds now turn to whether this exodus sets a blueprint for the future, and how companies having to make complex and sensitive risk assessments and global business planning decisions can address both current issues as well as similar future challenges.

The new Declaration from the Business for Ukraine Coalition – an international civil society initiative of organizations and individuals – encourages companies to reinforce ‘responsible exit’ from Russia ‘in response to its unprovoked, full-scale war on Ukraine’.

The declaration’s objective is to ‘block access to the economic and financial resources enabling Russian aggression’ and it urgently calls on companies that have terminated or suspended their business operations and relationships to ‘stand by those commitments until the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine within internationally recognized borders is restored.’

Business has a fundamental stake in the international order as the framework for stability, prosperity, open societies, and markets

It also states companies yet to terminate or suspend operations in Russia should do so unless they can demonstrate through due diligence that their provision of ‘essential’ services or products – such as medicines – meet critical humanitarian needs.

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Geopolitical Business suggests Ukraine represents an inflection point posing ‘a new test’ for business. According to an online survey of 14,000 respondents in 14 countries, including employees, NGOs, and other stakeholders, there is a ‘rising call’ for business to be more engaged in geopolitics, with CEOs ‘expected to shape policy’ on societal and geopolitical issues.

Such expectations have been intensifying with the impetus of the combined stakeholder capitalism and corporate purpose agenda, even as a political backlash in the US against the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement linking institutional investors and multinational corporations gains momentum.

The emergence of corporate activism is a further development – partly driven by employees and accelerated during the pandemic – on issues of economic inequality, racial injustice, and gender equality, as well as the climate crisis.

When considering what broader purpose should drive this corporate geopolitical engagement, the Business for Ukraine Declaration offers an answer, calling Russia’s aggression ‘an attack on the rules-based international order which must be protected to ‘safeguard the international community and the global economy.’

This points to broader interests and values at stake in the Russian war on Ukraine because supporting the rules-based international order can become the basis of a new geopolitical corporate responsibility. Business, especially multinational corporations and institutional investors, fundamentally depend on and have enormously benefitted from this order.

Economic development needs a stable rules-based international order

Trade and investment, entrepreneurship, and innovation – the sinews of economic development – depend on predictable, rational behaviour by states at home and abroad. Individual companies and entire industries share a stake in upholding this order at a time when its stability and even legitimacy is undergoing a severe challenge.

A new geopolitical corporate responsibility does not need to become a doctrine but can instead be an agenda to support the international rules-based order under stress

The rules-based international order has evolved since the adoption of the UN Charter in 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the establishment of the standards, norms and institutions that reflect and reinforce these lodestars. It defines the international community, the rule of law, accountable governance, civic freedoms, and human rights within nations. It also supports national self-determination, sovereignty, and the disavowal of the use of force to alter borders among nations, and it provides accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Business has a fundamental stake in the international order as the framework for stability, prosperity, open societies, and markets.

A new geopolitical corporate responsibility does not need to become a doctrine but can instead be an agenda to support the international rules-based order under stress. Such an agenda may help multinationals deal with expectations they already face, such as:

Avoiding situations where they cause, contribute, or are directly linked to human rights abuses. This objective is enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and companies can be further informed by the new UN Guide to Heightened Human Rights Due Diligence for Business in Conflict-Affected Contexts.

Committing to the ‘shared space’ of the rule of law, accountable governance, civic freedoms, and human rights. These are both the enablers of civil society and the underpinning of sustainable and profitable business and investment environments. The Chatham House synthesis paper The role of the private sector in protecting civic space sets forth the rationale for companies to defend these vital elements.

Supporting peace, justice, and strong institutions both within nations and across the international community as set forth by UN Sustainable Development Goal 16. The SDG 16 Business Framework: Inspiring Transformational Governance shows how companies, as well as national governments and international institutions, can contribute to these building blocks of stability and prosperity.

Demonstrating corporate responsibility at the national and geopolitical levels to enhance equity, transparency, and accountability. Multinationals are already challenged to accept minimum corporate taxation within and across jurisdictions, curb excessive executive compensation, endorse mandatory disclosure of environmental and human rights due diligence, and strengthen corporate governance of ESG risks and responsibilities, including with respect to human rights.

Diminishing inequality by tackling poverty and ensuring sustainability by arresting the climate crisis. Alongside governments and international institutions, the business community already faces increasing pressure to improve its efforts in these areas.

Geopolitical corporate responsibility can drive change 2nd part

The elements of this agenda for business are not entirely new, having emerged within the last decade. But while embraced to varying extents by leading companies, none are implemented with a priority and urgency necessary to address the global problems and opportunities that underly them. Moving this agenda forward could be transformational, both for business and the international community.

The war in Ukraine may be a catalyst, or even a turning point, for the emergence of a new geopolitical corporate responsibility. As multinationals face inescapable and irreversible pressures to address national and geopolitical challenges, this agenda can inform their commitments and actions to help uphold the international rules-based order on which they depend.