Has Wikileaks told us anything we did not know? I am not sure it has. We are all aware that behind the façade, nations treat each other with suspicion and, at times, outright hostility. That is the essence of the realpolitik of international relations: to treat our friends as enemies and our enemies as friends. And providing it all remains within a tolerable range, nobody much minds.There is also something quite reassuring that behind the ideological battle lines between Israel and many of her neighbours, there is a comforting unanimity of concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Of course, it must be embarrassing that all these anxieties have been so graphically laid out in the media, but so far there have not been any earth-shattering revelations.
One interesting vignette is the remarks attributed to the UK’s Prince Andrew on the subject of corruption. Andrew is Queen Elizabeth’s second son and he has long acted as a trade ambassador for his country. Like his father, he is known to hold trenchant views and it is no great surprise that he seems to regard bribery as an occupational hazard and is alleged to be critical of UK regulators.
He is not alone. The zeal now being shown in the US towards the application of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the new Bribery Act in the UK are both part of a global enforcement regime that is causing disquiet in many board rooms. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act also gives added financial incentive to whistleblowers whose actions lead to successful prosecution of corruption cases.
Nobody can object to the principle of reducing corruption. It is the most virulent virus. It is one of the principal reasons why poor countries stay stubbornly impoverished and why efforts to resolve conflict are often counter-productive. But corporate leaders are concerned that the burden of compliance will likely fall on good companies from well-regulated countries thus creating an unfair playing field that leaves ethical business at too unfair a disadvantage in the global marketplace.
Compliance is complex. So much of international business is conducted through multi-company structures and joint venture arrangements often involving host government agencies. And in major infrastructure and natural resource projects the hierarchy of inter-connecting supplier relationships creates significant difficulty for prime contractors trying to ensure adherence to a single code of ethics. None of this should be an excuse for unlawful or immoral behaviour but the often byzantine structure of international commerce makes executives nervous of unwitting violations of strictly enforced legislation.
But attitudes are changing. When we first started talking about the perils of corruption over ten years ago, we were met with protests that we were raising a subject best left well alone. Now you cannot open a newspaper or turn on the television without reading about a new scandal or fresh initiative to tackle the problem. Companies openly and proudly display their good governance credentials. But, as ever, there is often a difference between lofty head office ideals and local gritty reality.
Gritty reality and the British royal family are not two subjects that regularly sit side by side. But in this case, Prince Andrew may, however bluntly, be expressing an authentic groundswell of angst among the international business community. Safeguarding one’s integrity and succeeding in a competitive global market are not mutually exclusive. But it can be hard work.