Marco? Polo!

For Marco Polo, his father and uncle, the meeting with Kublai Khan was the highlight of 1268.  As Venetian businessmen, they had risked a lot to get to the great man but it seemed that the financial rewards from future trading would be significant.  So, they didn’t hesitate to accept the Khan’s request to take a message to the Pope and return with numerous priests so Kublai could learn about Christian beliefs and potentially add Jesus of Nazareth to his pantheon.

The Polo family thought nothing of mixing geopolitics and religion with business but in our world, until recently, there has been a generally accepted belief that business and foreign policy should occupy different spheres.  There has, of course, been a widely understood exemption for big hardware (planes, guns) and energy, but corporations have generally left foreign affairs to the diplomats.

Several recent events suggest that in today’s increasingly volatile global environment, the world’s geopolitics and business affairs are once again completely intertwined.  What this means is that thoughtful corporate communicators need to be looking more deeply at business engagements from a geopolitical perspective and including “political risk” in business calculations in a seamless fashion once again.

There may or may not be a story behind suggestions that U.S. hedge funds which have received major investments from China could have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  Certainly, companies that have extensive business dealings with the holdings of the Tunisian first wife’s family, the Trabelsis,  should be looking carefully at evolving events in Tunis.  Both GE and GM need to evaluate their entanglements with Chinese aviation and auto companies in the light of changing geopolitical scenarios.  As Orwell warned “four legs good, two legs bad” can become “four legs good, two legs better” in the blink of any eye.  Kublai Khan gave the Polo team a massive engraved golden tablet to guarantee their safe passage through his lands.  Their descendants may not be so fortunate.

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