What Business History Has to Say about Huawei, Geopolitical Jockeying, and the Battle to Sell Americans 5G Equipment

16 05 2019

In this blog post, I’m going to show how the research of two business historians is relevant to understanding the ongoing controversy about Huawei. The Chinese company Huawei is in the news again, thanks to Donald Trump signing a presidential order that declared that Chinese exports of telecoms equipment to the United States constitute both a national security threat and a national “emergency.” Given that Trump previously labelled Canadian and European steel exports to the U.S. a threat to national security, it is not surprising that the justification for the U.S. government’s attack on Huawei is not being taken seriously. As the BBC reported this morning, Trump’s executive order is “widely seen” as an attack on Huawei, a firm whose 5G products are competing with those of two European manufacturers, Ericsson and Nokia, and Samsung, a South Korean firm. For this interpretation of Trump’s executive order, see here, here, and here.

The French president, Macron, has rightly called Trump’s attitude to the Chinese firm “overprotectionism”. Many experts who have compared the Huawei’s products with those of its non-Chinese rivals have concluded that  Huawei’s equipment is smaller, more cost effective, and more energy efficient than equivalent products from its competitors, which implies that the U.S. consumers will lose out from the ban on Huawei products.

The immediate winners of Trump’s move would appear to be the U.S. subsidiaries of Ericsson, Samsung, and Nokia. As of yet, there is no direct evidence that any of these companies were involved in making Americans concerned about  Huawei. There’s no proof that these companies paid U.S. journalists or Congressmen to adopt anti-China, anti- Huawei stances, but that’s not unthinkable. I would note that when Borje Ekholm, the CEO of Ericsson, was asked about Trump’s executive order, he was remarkably restrained and did not join in the Huawei-bashing.  However, there is rising Sinophobia in the U.S. and that’s good news, at least in the short term, for the shareholders of Ericsson, Samsung, and Nokia, Huawei’s rivals, as well as for domestic U.S. firms competing with Chinese imports.(The US doesn’t have any companies that make 5G equipment).


This episode is certainly not the first historical instance of third-country firms benefitting from rising tensions between two countries. In the early twentieth century, the emergence of the movement for independent in India prompted many Indian firms and consumers to shun British-made goods. As the business historians Christina Lubinski and  Dan Wadhwani  discuss this dynamic in their new SMJ paper “Geopolitical jockeying: Economic nationalism and multinational strategy in historical perspective”. Their paper introduces the concept of “geopolitical jockeying” which is when a multinational firm attempts to delegitimize rival multinationals and position themselves as complementary to the economic and political goals of the host nation. I know that many business historians will tend to view the Huawei with relation to the wider trade war between the United States and China and the literature on the history of trade wars However, in thinking about the Huawei saga, I find it more useful to use the concept of  geopolitical jockeying.

Larry Summers on Trump

4 02 2017

Larry Summers had joined the chorus of establishment figures who are ringing alarm bells about the current direction of travel in the United States. (Last week, David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and lifelong Republican (!), published an essay in which he charged that Donald Trump is taking the United States in the direction of becoming an authoritarian ‘managed democracy’ along the lines of Erdogan’s Turkey or Putin’s Russia).  Larry Summers, erstwhile Secretary of the Treasury and President of Harvard, is calling on business leaders to resist Trump. I struck/shocked by the historical analogy that was used in the Harvard Business Review’s interview with Summers.

Interviewer:  You’ve mentioned, a couple times, parallels with 1930s Europe. How far would you take the parallel at this point?

Summers: If history teaches us anything, it is that authoritarianism is best combated at early stages rather than late stages. I’m not saying that I think that American democracy is somehow lost…But the resilience of American institutions isn’t something that happens automatically. It’s something that happens because people see dangers and take steps. So I think one can learn from the most extreme instances about the kinds of moral ideas that are important…

Note that Summers is carefully distancing himself from the more hysterical online voices that are talking about Reichstag Fires and possible coups. However, he isn’t dismissing out of hand the suggestion that there are  parallels between Trump’s election and the rise of dictators in the interwar period.

In the days immediately after Trump’s inauguration, Summers was using a very different historical analogy, the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928. You can see Summers using this historical analogy in an interview uploaded to YouTube on 30 January. Hoover’s election was followed by a “sugar rush” surge in share prices that was unsupported by the developments in the real economy. By using this analogy, Summers was lending credence to both the idea that Trump will be a bungler who ruins the economy and to Robert Shiller’s view the recent increase in share prices is not justified by the fundamentals.

In the HBC interview, Summers and his interlocutor are using a far darker historical analogy. Instead of comparing Trump to Hoover the bungler, Summers is comparing him to a dictator. Other centre-left and centre-right commentators in the US have used similar language to describe Trump.

To my mind, the most interesting thing said by Summers is about the impact of “short-termism” on the willingness of US CEOs to speak truth to power by joining the resistance to Trump. A great deal has been written about short-termism and quarterly capitalism, the tendency of the current generation of business leaders to have limited time horizons that contrast with the longer-term orientation that was likely common in US business a generation or two ago. (In my view, the long-term orientation of many US CEOs in the 1950s and 1960s was due to the influence of the philosophy of corporate governance promoted by Berle and Means in an influential book published in 1933–see here for a more detailed explanation).

Summers: But if you’re going to talk about your civic responsibility, as many business leaders do, if you’re going to talk about long-termism, as almost all business leaders do these days, what could be a more important long-term issue for American business than American leadership in the world? And I haven’t seen business leaders speaking out against protectionism in public. It’s very clear that, in private, many of them are deeply troubled by the signs that we’re moving in a protectionist direction.

Summers is right that there has been a lot of rhetoric from business leaders recently about the need to escaped from the curse of short-term thinking. Yes, business leaders in Davos and elsewhere have given renewed attention to the social, geopolitical, and cultural foundations of the business ecosystems in which they operate.  However, I’m not convinced that there has been a genuine shift in thinking towards the long-term, civic orientation that Summers favours. It is true that some business leaders have heroically spoken out against Trump. There may be a larger number of CEOs who are willing to say, in private, the Trump’s actions threaten the business ecosystem in which they have prospered. I suspect that  most business leaders will be like the CEO of Uber— they won’t distance themselves from Trump until their real-time data analytics suggest that consumers are starting to boycott their products. (This CEO resigned from Trump’s economic council after the #DeleteUber protest started getting rolling).

Bottom line: I’m not convinced US CEOs will stand up to Trump and unless they are prompted to by consumer pressure. Historically, CEOs have behaved generally adopted an unheroic stance during takeovers of democratic regimes. Only one or two of the oligarchs in Russia protested Putin’s efforts to construct an autocracy there. Ditto for Italy in the 1920s.  Moreover, the short-term orientation of my most US  CEOs means that they are especially unlikely to speak publicly against Trump, regardless of what they might say to Larry Summers in private. Impatient capital and the US system of corporate governance means that the CEOs of public companies aren’t really free to speak up in defence of Statue of Liberty values.

Justin Fox on Shareholder Primacy in the Age of Trump

6 01 2017


The excellent Bloomberg columnist Justin Fox has published a great piece on the current state of corporate governance in the United States. He speculates that the “shareholder value” view of corporate purpose — that corporations exist to maximize value for their investors — is finally on its way out…. Donald Trump is effectively challenging the gospel that shareholder interests should come first. 

As Fox points out, the doctrine that the sole or primary purpose of a public company is to make money for shareholders has long been challenged by a group of academics who believe that CEOs should revert to running firms with the interests of a wider group of stakeholders in mind. (That was the dominant philosophy in corporate America from teh 1930s to the late 1970s). What is new is that the President-elect is questioning the ideology of shareholder primacy through his repeated criticisms of US corporations for sending manufacturing jobs overseas and otherwise being insufficiently patriotic. In effect, Trump has been calling on US corporate managers to adopt the ethos that pervaded US business life in the years between the New Deal and the 1970s, when CEOs saw themselves as stewards who would manage in firms in a way that balanced the interests of workers, shareholders and other stakeholders. In that era, US corporations certainly regarded their interests as closely tied to those of the nation, as evidenced by Charles Erwin Wilson’s famous declaration during his Senate confirmation hearing that For years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.

Fox’s article deals with many of themes (the impact of shareholder primacy, short-termism, and the obligations of corporations to the nation-states that charter them) that are examined in the paper I wrote with Kevin Tennent and Jason Russell. The title of our paper is: “Berle and Means Reconsidered: the Military Roots of a Philosophy of Stakeholder Governance”. If all goes as planned, we will be presenting this paper on the conference circuit (Academy of Management, EURAM, BAM, Association of Business Historians) this summer. Our paper examines the relationship between military service and the ethos of public service associated with it and competing ways of thinking about the social responsibility of business corporations.  We structure our analysis around a discussion of The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means (1932), a text that influenced a generation of US business executives that remains one of the most cited works in management.


Our paper shows that Berle and Means espoused a stakeholder theory of corporate governance that challenged the idea that the sole purpose of a corporation is to create value for the shareholders. Whereas shareholder value ideology was dominant in the United States in the 1920s, the nation’s corporate governance system moved towards a stakeholder model during the New Deal. Berle and Means clearly disagreed with the view that the primary purpose of a corporation was to serve the interests of the shareholders. The communitarian ethos advocated by Berle and Means can be seen in this passage:

 Neither the claims of ownership nor those of control can stand against the paramount interests of the community. . . . Should the corporate leaders, for example, set forth a program comprising fair wages, security to employees, reasonable service to their public, and stabilization of business, all of which would divert a portion of the profits from the owners of passive property, and should the community generally accept such a scheme as a logical and human solution of industrial difficulties, the interests of passive property owners would have to give way…It is conceivable—indeed it seems almost essential if the corporate system is to survive—that the “control” of the great corporations should develop into a purely neutral technocracy, balancing a variety of claims by various groups in the community and assigning to each a portion of the income stream on the basis of public policy rather than private cupidity (Berle and Means, 1933, 356, emphasis added).

In the paper, we argue the ethos espoused by Berle and Means remained dominant in the US corporate world until the late 1970s, when it was challenged by the re-emergence of shareholder value ideology.By the time Gardiner Means died in 1988, the shareholder-centric ideology of corporate governance presented by Jensen and Meckling (1976) had largely displaced the stakeholder approach espoused by Berle and Means.

There is something of an affinity between the view of the purpose of the corporation outlined by Berle and Means and that recently advocated by Donald Trump on Twitter in that they both challenge shareholder primacy. Of course, there are massive differences between Berle and Means on the one hand and Trump on the other. These differences are evident in terms of temperament and style of communication. Berle and Means wrote a scholarly book. Trump writes tweets in the middle of the night. Berle and Means patriotically served in the military when called to do so in 1917. Trump obtained dubious medical deferments during the Vietnam War, although that doesn’t stop him from being a cheerleader for war now that he is too old to serve. There is also a massive disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter and the way in which Trump’s companies have actually been run. I’m probably the last person in the world who would defend Trump. However, I do think that Fox and other observers are right to argue that Trump is pushing back against shareholder value ideology in his own crude fashion. I suppose the danger of someone like Trump being the champion of some variant of the stakeholder model is that he may end up discrediting the entire concept.

I would also hasten to add here Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, also critiqued the doctrine of shareholder primacy. She did so by calling for a return to “corporate patriotism” during her campaign. Her first use of this term was during the Democratic presidential primaries, when she was battling with Bernie Sanders, a fierce critic of outsourcing and globalization. Campaigning in Detroit in March 2016, Clinton criticized the outsourcing of US manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries: “I’m not asking corporations to be charitable, although that’s important. I’m asking corporations to realise that when Americans prosper, they prosper too. The idea of corporate patriotism might sound quaint in era of vast multinationals, but it’s the right thing to do” and in the long-term interests of the companies themselves, as “more money in the hands of working people helps everyone, including businesses” .

In her speech to the July 2016 Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton once again called on American corporations to begin acting in a more “patriotic” fashion. Clinton’s call for a “New Bargain” with American workers, which was delivered after a series of military speakers had warmed up the audience, echoed the ideas of Berle and Means and challenged the view that the sole purpose of a company is to make money for its worldwide shareholder base. Noting that the US left had appropriated the rhetoric of militarism and patriotism, Megan McArdle quipped that progressives had “learned to speak Republican” .

I think that McArdle is on to something there. The US has been on a war footing ever since 9/11. For fifteen years, nationalistic flag waving and patriotic exhortations to “service” to the nation (i.e., military service)  have been everywhere. In this political climate, it is not surprising that the idea that a CEO’s primary duty is to maximize returns for his or her global shareholder base would come to be regarded as unpatriotic.  The US appears to be locked in a cycle of perpetual war, fighting perceived Others in the Middle East and elsewhere. Given this cultural and political context,  it will be difficult to defend the Friedmanite thesis that the sole purpose of a corporation is to make profits for the shareholders. This idea may have flied in the peaceful days of the 1990s, but it doesn’t fit the nationalist and anti-globalization mood of the present.