This post is part of a series of interviews with thought leaders to explore issues on the frontier of the complex domain of ESG.
In hindsight, the hope that 2022 would be the return to normalcy after years of the COVID-19 pandemic seems naïve. Mere weeks into last year, Russia invaded Ukraine, ushering a cascade of disorienting economic effects. Instead of a return to normalcy, 2022 delivered “spiraling commodity prices, greater global food insecurity, skyrocketing interest rates, continued climate shocks, strict Covid lockdowns in China and a retreat from globalization due to geopolitical risks,” observed Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. One year later, we’re still living in that world.
At the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaders of U.S. and European businesses are confronting heightened demands to plan for geopolitical disruptions—with significant implications for executives and board members.
As the Aspen Business & Society Program examines the frontier issues in the ESG space, we wondered: Is geopolitics an emerging ESG risk? In pursuit of an answer, Business & Society Program Executive Director Judy Samuelson spoke with Anja Manuel, Co-Founder and Partner in Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, and Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy Group. Their conversation reveals the need for a nuanced consideration of geopolitics in corporate risk management in which ESG plays a part. It also underscored the central role values play when companies make choices in once-unthinkable circumstances like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Judy Samuelson: Welcome, Anja. As a geopolitical expert, how well do you think a framework like ESG can help businesses proactively navigate political risks?
Anja Manuel: Geopolitics and ESG are two different but affiliated concepts. If you are a CEO or a Board Director today, you have to look at geopolitical risks because they’re going to impact the bottom line—irrespective of ESG. There are certain ways the world is trending and you can’t swim against that river.
For example, decoupling is certainly happening between the U.S. and China on certain technologies. This will be hard to reverse in the short or medium term. So those trends, if I were a CEO, I would be considering very carefully. In geopolitics, we are really seeing a cataclysmic change. With respect to China and Russia, as this is as big a tectonic shift as the end of the Cold War.
JS: Really? Say more.
Manuel: Yes, there are now two great powers who have declared themselves as antagonistic to the West. It’s not one open, globalized world. That’s the first time that has happened in a generation and it’s a huge mental shift not just for people in government, but also for business leaders.
JS: What do you think has changed in the outlook of Western businesses before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Manuel: Great question. First, Western businesses really found their values in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Very rapidly, both U.S. and European companies went well beyond what the sanctions required to extract themselves from Russia. They sent an enormous amount of humanitarian aid to Ukrainians directly while also helping their Russian employees who were trying to get out of the region.
Second, because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was so drastic and brutal, and China had just declared its no limits friendship with Putin, it caused a lot of American companies, in particular, to think more strategically about their exposure to China. While there hasn’t been a rush for the exits yet, there’s been a lot of planning in boardrooms and amongst senior C-suite officials about what would happen if U.S.-China relations were to get even worse.
JS: Concretely, what kind of decisions did businesses operating in Russia have to weigh in response to the invasion?
Manuel: Some businesses in the U.S. were giving up a huge amount of revenue by withdrawing from the Russian economy. Some abandoned joint ventures which then were taken over by a Russian partner very quickly. If you look at some of the write-offs, they were quite substantial, depending on the industry. Many business leaders really made decisions based on patriotism, not on their bottom line.
JS: Do you have any thoughts on what enabled these companies to make, in some cases, these substantial write-offs?
Manuel: I think it was just how sudden and extreme Russia’s aggression was that concentrated minds. There was a sense of, “Wow, we can’t be a part of this. This can’t be business as usual.” This was coupled with pressure from employees and shareholders to do the right thing.
JS: Another global issue that we see categorized as an “ESG” consideration for business is climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy. How would you describe the salience of these issues in the work that you do? Is there a geopolitical bent?
Manuel: In the U.S.-based companies I work with, climate considerations are very much front and center, and I think we’ve moved well beyond window dressing at this point regarding net-zero plans and real carbon-reduction opportunities. The last three years have been a wake up that first, you can’t rely on globalization, second, you can’t rely on the climate being steady, and third, you can’t rely on the world to problem-solve multilaterally when a crisis hits.
So businesses have had to make a huge shift in mindset: where it used to be ‘efficiency, efficiency, efficiency’ now there’s a lot more conversation about resilience. If we can’t work in the office, can we work from home? If we can’t get our supply from China, what about Malaysia? This shift means the world may be a little less efficient, but it certainly is becoming more resilient.
JS: One of the things we’re focused on at the Business & Society Program is the changing role of the Board [of Directors]. For example, there are more first-time directors, and there is a greater emphasis on racial and gender diversity in the boardroom.
Recently we interviewed Sabastian Niles, Partner at Wachtell Lipton, who agreed with you that “geopolitical shocks will continue to test corporate purpose, values and business models.” He recommended that boards and management teams consider “advance assessments of business adjustments the company is willing to make and the responsibilities it is willing to assume.”
How do you think boards could be better prepared to tackle geopolitical risks?
Manuel: It would be helpful for most large company boards to have someone who really is a geopolitical expert on key regions where they operate, because very often that’s hard expertise to find inside a company. Having one board member who has an international, geopolitical perspective is critical. It’s the kind of diverse expertise that many boards are still lacking today.
This post is part of an interview series with thought leaders to explore frontier issues in the complex domain of ESG. These issues will be explored in Aspen at the Aspen ESG Summit from July 11-13, 2023.
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