Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dirtiest Election Ever: Are foreign affairs so foreign?

European policies stymie American growth
Foreign countries threaten American existence
African pirates disrupt shipping
Headlines from today’s news? They could have just as easily been blazoned across the papers of 1800. During every election cycle, people are more focused on domestic issues; situations affecting them every day in obvious ways. Unless there is some huge threat, foreign affairs fall way down the list of criteria for choosing a candidate.

In 1800, the types of foreign threats the U.S. faced were eerily similar to those that affect us today. Perhaps the biggest were those growing out of the ongoing wars in Europe, especially the monumental battles between England and France.

President George Washington had insisted on a position of neutrality in the face of these conflicts. However, neither England nor France recognized our stance and attacked our shipping with impunity. Under President John Adams we engaged in the Quasi-War with France as our shipping was attacked on the high seas and in the Caribbean. England routinely boarded our merchant ships and impressed sailors they claimed were British citizens. They also barred us from the Caribbean. Pirates along the infamous Barbary Coast of Africa and in the Mediterranean routinely attacked our ships, held the captains for ransom, and enslaved the crew.   

The World in 1800

By 1800, the battle lines were pretty firmly drawn. John Adams was always distrustful of France since his days as a diplomat there. He and the Federalist Party leaned towards England. In fact, he was disliked in his own party for not going to war with France. The Federalist, concentrated in New England and South Carolina, wanted to reestablish profitable trade with England. There were even calls for secession.

Thomas Jefferson and his Republican Party disliked the British and wanted stronger ties to France. During the French Revolution, Jefferson supported the new order even when it turned into the Terror. In 1800 he was accused of being a Jacobin – a term the electorate translated as far more than a Francophile. They accused him of wanting to abolish private property and religion and turn their daughters into prostitutes in Temples of Wisdom!

In the midst of all this, Adams had sent delegates to England to negotiate a new Treaty, which was universally hated because people saw it as a complete capitulation to the British. He was given no credit for keeping the fragile new nation out of wars we would have surely lost.

Character assassination was the game of the day, just as now. Each side tried to paint the other as traitors to the American people.

What can leaders learn from this for today’s elections?

In the political realm, people like to say, “Politics ends at the water’s edge.” They recall times in our history when this was the dominant approach. However, those moments are not the norm as much as we might wish them to be. What can we ask of the presidential candidates? Articulate a coherent, comprehensive policy that makes it possible to choose. (Of course, that requires an electorate that educates itself on the issues, makes rational decisions, and goes to the polls. Because none of these conditions has ever been met in our history, this may be asking too much.)

Lessons for Business Leaders

Foreign affairs matter: In a global economy, virtually no business is isolated from what happens elsewhere. Consider in greater depth all the ramifications of outsourcing or trading with any country. By now companies understand there is more to the equation than lower production costs or opening new markets. Weigh these other factors and consequences seriously in making decisions. Help everyone understand how these decisions affect them and fit with the mission.

Foster understanding: In global companies or those that do business directly in other countries, insist on cultural understanding and sensitivity. These include learning the language and engaging with people. Too often employees live in cultural isolation. Unconscious bias is rampant and undiagnosed. Assess your situation independently and take action to correct your issues.

Forget isolation: Even in companies that do no direct business with other countries, do not isolate yourself and your staff from what is going on in the rest of the world. Help people understand how all the pieces of the global puzzle fit together. Educate yourself and your staff about the issues. Look for opportunities to engage with people from other countries. The “isolationist” position is unsustainable in today’s world. We cannot afford the fear, mistrust, anger, and xenophobia isolation breeds. It’s always in our interest to know and understand the world as it exists not as we might like it to be.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson interpreted their work and interactions in Europe through their own biases. Adams tended to reject outright people, nations, and customs that were different. Jefferson, although more open, accepting, and even embracing of various European cultures, was ready to overlook any negative by reinterpreting everything through his political philosophy. Neither approach serves today’s political and business leaders.
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What's your idea: Can we actually adapt ourselves, our businesses, and our country to a global world? Please post your comments.
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Next: Voter suppression, a time honored tradition?
* * * * * * ©Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president, Advantage Leadership, Inc. 
Want to know more about the tumultuous fights at the Constitutional Convention and the election of 1800? Check out
Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers

I NEED YOUR HELP: I'm beginning research for my new book on the influence of leaders on their organizations (Washington's Shadow) and I'm interested in your experiences or ideas for case studies. Do you know a leader who has had a profound influence shaping the organization's culture and changing it for the better? (I'm not interested in negative stories which are much more common.) Drop me a note: 

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