McKinsey, Merkel, and Feminist Foreign Policy
We were all heartbroken when we heard about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some of us were sleeping, some of us were doomscrolling with a baby in our arms, some of us were putting together this newsletter—needing to be fully revised to address the new boom inside our brains. None of this feels good. It leaves us with a feeling of powerlessness, frustration, and a lack of purpose in our daily lives.
So, we thought about how we’re supposed to handle this. When people’s lives are at risk, how do we talk about beautiful business?
What can business do?
In response to a request by Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, Elon Musk’s Starlink and SpaceX are securing the country’s internet connectivity. Other big tech companies are also facing pressure to act: Meta, Twitter, YouTube, and Google have paused advertisements and other forms of platform monetization (Apple has yet to make a decision).
Then there’s McKinsey’s global managing partner Bob Sternfels, who called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “indefensible” and announced that the company “will no longer serve any government entity in Russia,” where the company has more than 400 staff and partners. In a similar vein, Christoph Schweizer, chief executive of Boston Consulting Group, announced a thorough evaluation of the entire portfolio of work in Russia, and a refusal of any work for the Russian government from this point on. Following BP and other major western energy companies, Shell announced an exit from all its Russian operations and an end to its equity partnerships with Gazprom.
In the meantime, Wix.com’s employees are volunteering to help their Ukrainian colleagues on the ground. With the company’s Plan A, all team members get an extra day off to either volunteer for a project supporting Ukraine or to care for their mental health. In Germany, the country’s public rail service Deutsche Bahn has said that refugees with Ukrainian passports can travel for free on all trains going from Poland to Germany. Neighboring Austria announced a similar offer for their state railway company. And there’s more: Airbnb’s non-profit arm, Airbnb.org, will offer free, short-term housing to up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine.
There are also individuals, like Rakuten Group Inc.’s CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, donating one billion Yuan to Ukraine. And the thousands and thousands of people who have been moved to act via protests, donations, and by simply speaking out. We are witnessing what being wired together really means, and seeing the impact business can have when it’s our humanity that drives it.
But we are also aware that momentum doesn’t always last. Are we witnessing a permanent shift in business? Are brands going to start baking their political beliefs into their identities? And if so, where do we draw the line between economic interests and social responsibility when making decisions? And what makes a business leader socially responsible anyway?
What’s your take? Where do you start?
How can we strengthen democracy?
As Bénédicte Santoire mentions in her essay titled “A Feminist Reality-Check on the Ukraine Crisis,” what we have before us is a “hypermasculine cockfight.” Male-led autocratic alliances are gaining strength, and democracy needs to quickly evolve to meet these new dangers. One way to fast-track this progress could be via the wider adoption of feminist foreign policy (FFP)—a new political framework that counters the current focus on military force, violence, and domination with an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most vulnerable.
The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, run by House Resident Kristina Lunz who has just published her first book, believes a feminist approach to foreign policy provides a powerful lens through which we can interrogate the violent global systems of power that leave millions of people in perpetual states of vulnerability. There are countries that have begun their evolution towards FFP, places like Sweden, Canada, France, Luxembourg, Spain, and Mexico. All to varying degrees, but all active in giving feminist foreign policy its proper place.
What would Merkel do?
Angela Merkel, widely considered the most powerful woman in world politics, was reluctant to call herself a feminist until recently. We spoke to her biographer Kati Marton about her latest book, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel. Kati Marton is an award-winning Hungarian-American author and journalist. She has contributed as a reporter to ABC News, Public Broadcasting Services, National Public Radio, and written for publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Times of London, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and more. She is the author of nine books, including True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy and Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
She is also the chair of the new pro-democracy group Action for Democracy alongside figures such as writer Anne Applebaum, historian Timothy Snyder, political scientist Francis Fukuyuma, and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark.
House co-founder Tim Leberecht met Kati Marton in Lisbon a few weeks ago and had a chance to interview her on Zoom yesterday. Below is an excerpt from their conversation, edited for length and clarity:
“For Putin, the end of the Soviet Empire was the 20th century’s greatest catastrophe. For Merkel, it was the beginning of her freedom and her reinvention from scientist to politician to becoming the most powerful leader in the West. They have a deep understanding of each other.”
Tim Leberecht: Would Vladimir Putin have invaded Ukraine if Merkel were still the German Chancellor?
Kati Marton: I would tend to think not. It’s too big of a coincidence that just after she left the Chancellery, he launches this aggression. The circumstances on the ground did not change. NATO’s position did not change. I think he is exploiting what he perceived. For 16 years Angela Merkel kept Vladimir Putin under control through a variety of stratagems. She was really the only one that he respected among world leaders.
Leberecht: And why do you think that is? Because of the similar upbringings in a socialist communist environments? Or is it gender?
Marton: Definitely not gender. Like most demagogues, he has very little respect for women. But they are products of the same Soviet formation, and they came out with different conclusions about that formation.
For Putin, the end of the Soviet Empire was the 20th century’s greatest catastrophe. For Merkel, it was the beginning of her freedom and her reinvention from scientist, to politician, to becoming the most powerful leader in the West. So a deep understanding of each other—and on Merkel’s part—a profound feel for his capacity for cruelty and deception, because she had personal experience: 35 years of living under a police state.
She had a personal experience of what the KGB is about, and he is, in Merkel’s mind, first and foremost, a KGB agent—trained at deception, trained at whatever works. Whether it’s assassination, or poisoning, or subduing an entire nation. That is his training, his training is not as a diplomat or as a statesman, those are not in his toolbox, they’re very much in her toolbox. But because she approached him understanding this, she had an advantage over every other head of state in the world plus something else—a deep respect, love, I would say, for Russian history and culture.
That, in a way, eased her passage with Putin, because she used her love of Dostoyevsky and Gogol and Tchaikovsky and so on—that’s her very clever use of soft power to soften him up. But I could go on and on as to why she was so eminently suited for the task of keeping Putin under control for 16 years and why she is so desperately missed today. There’s simply no one else like her, and no one else who practices her brand of what I call an ego-free statesmanship.
Leberecht: You had unprecedented access to Angela Merkel, a public persona who is also a very private person. What did you learn about her that truly surprised you?
Marton: The thing that I learned was that she’s not this straight-laced, puritanical, humorless, matronly person. In fact, she’s very warm. I’ve seen her tear up on occasion. She’s very funny. Her skits on Putin when he’s upset are killers and keep her staff amused. She can do imitations of most heads of state. She likes to have a good time. She likes to stay up with a drink or two long past when others have nodded off. She has remarkable stamina for a woman of her age, or any age. She says she has the constitution of a camel whereby she can store up sleep the way a camel stores up water, and go for days. This, by the way, paid off when she was negotiating with Putin, during the first round of his Ukraine aggression. She was always the last to leave the table. And that physical stamina has been an asset for her.
But let’s not forget the fundamental fact that she’s brilliant, that she has a photographic memory. Usually when I get closer to the person I’m writing about, the less impressive they are. But the closer I got, the more impressed I was, because she does manage to shield both her great ambition and her remarkable qualities. Unlike any other politician I’ve encountered, she frankly doesn't care what you or I think of her. She’s not working for a Nobel Peace Prize. She’s working to achieve results.
Leberecht: Do you think she’s the last in a line of enlightened modern leaders serving the public good? Or is she the first of a new breed of ego-free, servant-conscious leaders?
Marton: I think it would be a terrible development for the human race if she were the last public servant, the last who was more interested in us than in themselves. That would not be a world I want to bring my children up in. But I do believe that among her prime legacies is that she has permanently put to rest any question we might have about a woman’s capacity to lead. Not in spite of the fact that she’s a woman but, call me a feminist, I'm guilty, but because she’s a woman, because she thinks that hubris is a male weakness. And I think that is a feminine trait, the notion of “oh, come on, let’s just get on with it. Damn your need to be bigger and stronger.”
For her, Putin is a very transparent character, as was Donald Trump. A weak narcissist who will test you. I quote her as saying, “He will test you night and day and if you shrink before his eyes, then you are done.” But she never did. She never shrank. She met him eyeball to eyeball, and that was really in all our interest for 16 years.
Read the full interview here.