Companies in Russia have had to take positions in the context of the war in Ukraine. Whether they decided to stay or to withdraw, they gave reasons which, for the former, concerned their degree of commitment or the interest of Russian consumers, and, for the latter, compliance with international sanctions or supply difficulties (1). There was little mention of their contribution to peace-building. However, companies can act in this area – the recent Paris Peace Forum is an illustration – including by practising track-two diplomacy. What remains to be understood is their motivation.



Business can act for peace

The weak role (or lack thereof) of business in promoting peace in Ukraine so far can be explained by the fact that the conflict is ongoing and its end is not in sight. But the preponderance of political authorities in this regal domain provides a plausible explanation. “The protection of human dignity and the maintenance and preservation of peace are generally the responsibility of states,” notes Ataa Dabour, but she immediately adds that companies also have a role in “preserving or enhancing peace” (2).

She describes this role through the institutional mechanisms put in place by the United Nations: the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011, and the Business for Peace (B4P) initiative – “a business leadership platform […] which aims to expand and deepen private sector action in support of peace – in the workplace, marketplace and local communities” – launched in 2013 as part of the Global Compact. Moreover, according to Angelika Rettberg, companies have enjoyed a form of “growing popularity” in this area since “the first UN resolution on cooperation between the UN and the private sector in 2001” (3).

In its section “How to participate,” the B4P document states that “any company committed to advancing peace […] can join B4P” (4), This underlines the potential value of business commitment (B4P refers to the need for “ongoing engagement”) and assumes that it is sincere and not instrumental. We return to this in section 4.

The document also warns companies of the consequences of their possible action or inaction in conflict or high-risk areas, and urges them to work with other organisations, including other companies, to promote peace:

“By working collaboratively with other stakeholders, including Global Compact Local Networks, companies can develop and expand projects and initiatives to make progress on local issues that will contribute to peace, stability and development. Companies should also consider how they can become an advocate for peace among their peers, employees, customers, investors and the public.”

The significance of this call is also to bring together the idea of peace, particularly peace in the territories in which businesses operate, with the spirit of peace that businesses need to demonstrate not only in their external actions to promote peace, but also in their internal operations. This is why B4P calls on companies “to advance peace in the workplace.”

The Frutera banana plantation in the Philippines is an example of this. To help resolve religious and socio-economic conflicts, its chairman decided to have employees from different communities work together without assigning hierarchical responsibilities to any of them because they belonged to one community or another. In this way, it has “facilitated improved relations in both the workplace and the wider community” (5). Similarly, in Northern Ireland, the company Futureways “purposely hires both Protestants and Catholics, in an approximate fifty-fifty ratio, for its workforce” in order to unite them through the pursuit of a common goal (6).

These approaches reflect the search for a “positive” peace, in contrast to the “negative” peace that is limited to the absence of violence. This is reflected in the words of sociologist Johan Galtung:

“Positive peace is cooperation for mutual and equal benefit, and the word equal is very important: when in harmony, I feel what you feel and you feel what I feel, because we are somehow coupled together” (7).



Typology of business actions for peace

There is a great deal of work describing the variety of possible business interventions in peacebuilding. An article by the World Economic Forum identifies seven:

– exploring the economic opportunities that can contribute to the prosperity of societies in conflict;

– understanding the degree of influence that companies can exert beyond the “do no harm” principle;

– employing people from different backgrounds;

– investing for peace, including identifying local partners that enable companies to understand the context and reduce their risks;

– paying their fair share of taxes – “If businesses, in particular large international businesses, are seen to avoid paying their share, it risks leaving citizens with a sense that the system is inherently unfair; we need a private sector that supports the strengthening of institutions and the rule of law, not one that detracts from it;”

– sharing information transparently about contracts and company operations, as proposed by the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI);

– finally, “exert its influence to advocate for peace and support mediation efforts,” as the private sector has done in Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Confederation of Business Industry in “laying out the economic rationale for peace” and lobbying the political leadership. (8)

The idea that business can participate in peace-building is well established in academic literature. They can participate indirectly through ethical practices, but – and this is the case we consider in this article – they can also engage intentionally in this way (9).

In an article published in 2010 in the Journal of Business Ethics, Jennifer Oetzel and her colleagues distinguish five possible actions that companies can take:

– fostering economic development;

– adopting principles of external valuation [i.e., adopting external principles and standards] and obeying the rule of law;

– contributing to a sense of community;

– engaging in track-two diplomacy;

– engaging in conflict sensitive practices and risk assessment. (10)

Some of these actions contribute to peacekeeping or, more broadly, to the prosperity of societies. One is typically oriented toward peace-building: track-two diplomacy.



Track-two business diplomacy

Although diplomacy is by nature the responsibility of states – it is the “science and practice of political relations between states, and more especially of representing a country’s interests abroad” (11) – companies are not excluded. When Oetzel et al. observe that companies can go beyond the economic and social contributions of their business to engage in “track-two diplomatic efforts,” they have in mind a particular role: that of mediating between groups in conflict, which was discussed in Section 2. This is because companies are potentially “credible brokers” in the eyes of political authorities – and Galtung observed that “an outsider will very often see things the parties don’t see themselves as they’re too close” (12). Oetzel et al. illustrated this mediating role through the example of apartheid in South Africa, in which companies worked with journalists and the ANC (African National Congress) to promote the exit from apartheid and the achievement of peace (13).

The aim of such initiatives is mainly to establish a dialogue between the conflicting parties. Other initiatives contribute to this, such as participation in global multilateral agreements or partnerships with NGOs. Timothy Fort and Cindy Schipani also highlight the personal dimension of track-two diplomacy (14). It requires business leaders to exercise leadership that can lead them “to deal directly with governmental officials as well as society.” Such approaches are facilitated by the fact that these leaders do not belong to the political and military spheres, and by the links that may exist between the political and business elite (15).

It is to this kind of track-two diplomacy – or rather its absence – that the Western press has referred to the role of Russian oligarchs. The Belgian newspaper L’Echo illustrates this by reporting on the atmosphere of a meeting held shortly before the war began between the Russian president and representatives of his country’s business community: “the form of the meeting excluded […] any debate,” L’Echo writes, before explaining that “on coming to power, Putin promised them not to question their ill-gotten wealth, in exchange for their loyalty and promise to keep out of politics – to put it in a few words: ‘Be rich and shut up’” (16).



An interest-based pattern

One is reminded of the Business for Peace formula: “Any company committed to advancing peace […] can join B4P.” The word “committed” suggests that companies have a moral reason to promote peace, a reason that is itself based on higher-level principles that might be, for example, those proposed by John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth): truth, justice, charity and liberty (15). He stated that “its advantages will be felt everywhere, by individuals, by families, by nations, by the whole human race,” suggesting also that it is in the interest of human beings.

This reference to the concept of interest is not surprising. We have seen that it is part of the definition of diplomacy. The art of reconciling interests (17) also concerns its informal, track-two version, as track-two diplomacy involves business interests.

The newspaper, L’Echo, dramatised this concept in relation to the Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman – who called for an end to the war in Ukraine – noting that he was “well aware that the influence of oligarchs, whose interests are increasingly aligned with those of Western markets, is shrinking” (18). This “alignment” of economic interests of course reduced their chances of influencing Russian political power. But it also happens that, in the permanent game in which they are caught up, economic interests do not have enough weight to influence political decisions. Guy Ben-Porat remarked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“The influence of business is also dependent on the issue that is at stake. In ‘pure’ economic issues in which the public is less involved, the direct influence of the business community on policymakers is sufficient. But, when the issue is wider in scope and related to questions of national identity and security, business influence is dependent not only on its relations with the government but also on its ability to enlist broad public support.” (19)

In the latter case – which today seems to be that of  Russia – track-two business diplomacy is unlikely to succeed. “Be rich and shut up,” said the Echo article. Many of them are no doubt following this grim maxim.

Alain Anquetil

(1) See for example (in French) “Guerre en Ukraine. Rester ou quitter la Russie : le dilemme des entreprises françaises,” Ouest France, 23 March 2022 ; “Guerre en Ukraine : Décathlon stoppe finalement ses activités en Russie,” LSA, 29 March 2022 ; “Guerre en Ukraine : pourquoi la Société Générale s’obstine à rester en Russie ?,” Capital, 24 March 2022 ; “Auchan, Leroy Merlin, Décathlon… Pourquoi le groupe Mulliez reste en Russie,” Capital, 22 March 2022.

Updated on 11 April 2022: “Guerre en Ukraine : coûteuse retraite de Russie pour la Société Générale,” Le Figaro, 11 April 2022.

(2) A. Dabour, “Business responsibility in promoting peace », The Human Security Centre, 8 April 2021.

(3) A. Rettberg, “Need, creed, and greed: Understanding why business leaders focus on issues of peace,” Business Horizons, 59(5), 2016, pp. 48-492.

(4) I put the italics.

(5) V. Crawford, “7 ways business can be agents for peace,” World Economic Forum, 28 May 2019.

(6) T. L. Fort & C. A. Schipani, « An action plan for the role of business in fostering peace,” American Business Law Journal, 44(2), 2007, pp. 359–377.

(7) “An interview with Johan Galtung,” Peace Insight, 12 March 2012.

(8) V. Crawford, op. cit.

(9) J. Forrer, T. Fort & R. Gilpin, “How business can foster peace,” The United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 315, 2012.

(10) J. Oetzel, M. Westermann-Behaylo, C. Koerber, T. L. Fort & J. Rivera, “Business and peace: Sketching the terrain,” Journal of Business Ethics, 89(4), 2010, pp. 351-373.

(11) Source: CNRTL.

(12) “An interview with Johan Galtung,” op. cit.

(13) They refer to a 1985 meeting between four business leaders, three journalists, the ANC president and five of its leaders. See D. Lieberfeld, “Evaluating the contributions of track-two diplomacy to conflict termination in South Africa, 1984-90,” Journal of Peace Research, 39(3), 2002, pp. 355-372.

(14) T. L. Fort & C. A. Schipani, The Role of business in fostering peaceful societies, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

(15) See for example G. Ben-Porat, “Business and peace: The rise and fall of the new Middle East,” World Political Science Review, 1(1), 2005, pp. 40-52.

(16) “Même les oligarques ‘critiques’ n’auraient plus l’oreille de Poutine,” L’Echo, 4 March 2022. See also “Guerre en Ukraine : les oligarques russes ont-ils vraiment de l’influence sur Poutine ?,” La Dépêche, 6 March 2022.

(17) Diplomacy is the “knowledge of the rules, traditions and customs that govern relations between states; [the] art of reconciling their respective interests,” according to the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (9th edition).

(18) “Même les oligarques ‘critiques’ n’auraient plus l’oreille de Poutine,” op. cit.

(19) G. Ben-Porat, 2005, op. cit.

Share this post:
Share with FacebookShare with LinkedInShare with TwitterSend to a friendCopy to clipboard