Thwarting Anti-Americanism

By Kuhn, Robert Lawrence | Chief Executive (U.S.), September 2007 | Go to article overview
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Thwarting Anti-Americanism

Kuhn, Robert Lawrence, Chief Executive (U.S.)

Eight steps for CEOs coping with the villainization of America.

Aiti-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 antiAmericanism 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 differenees, 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.

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