I have been in Washington, D.C. for the past two days for my stepdaughter’s volleyball tournament. I have gone on two long walks, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Korean War Veterans Memorial to the World War II Memorial, then another around the U.S. Capitol. A few images remain in my mind. General (later President) Grant stands guard in front of the Capitol, flanked by another statue of his troops in the American Civil War, preserving the Union, ending slavery. The Korean War Memorial has a motto, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” with a list of the 36,000 Americans and 600,000 UN soldiers, mostly South Korean, who perished in the conflict to guarantee the independent status of the Republic of Korea. Just outside of the World War II Memorial is a rest area which has President Roosevelt’s prayer for the Allied troops who were landing at Normandy to free Europe from Nazi oppression. He said, “With Thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies…into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.”
This is why America and her allies have sent $150 billion in military supplies and aid to Ukraine, to fight back the Russian invaders who have now been proven to carry out crimes against humanity. The twisting of facts by President Vladimir Putin to justify his military action has now also been exposed. There were no guarantees against former Soviet states joining NATO; in fact, there was an explicit guarantee of Ukraine’s borders by the West in negotiating the transfer of nuclear missiles from Ukraine to Russia in the early 90s.
The corporate sector has distinguished itself by pulling out of Russia. When I was in Munich a few weeks ago, I asked former Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted how he came to the decision to exit. He told me, “Two days after the invasion, I told the board we needed to pull out. We had 500 stores and did a good business. But we could not carry on as usual. I called my fellow CEOs and encouraged them to leave as well.”
The total number of companies that have withdrawn from Russia now exceeds 1,000, according to a list maintained by the Yale School of Management, under the direction of Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who runs the Chief Executives Leadership Institute at the school. It is an unprecedented act of corporate responsibility, with six times as many companies departing Russia as left South Africa during apartheid, approximately two-thirds of total multinationals. The honor roll of companies will run on Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal. Even companies that have remained in Russia have reduced their business activities, choking the supply chain and maintaining minimal presence to protect local employees.
The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that business is the only institution that is both competent and ethical, with the ethical number rising by 20 points in the past three years. Business had a strong performance during the Pandemic, inventing life-saving drugs, keeping society functioning with food and services. It responded immediately to the murder of George Floyd, making DE&I a fundamental part of corporate strategy. The final boost to ethical behavior has been the corporate departure from Russia without government mandate and NGO pressure. This is business at its best because action drives trust.
Richard Edelman is CEO.