Neutrality – The Case for Sustainable Commerce – Part I


WOLF, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf’s right to eat him. He thus addressed him: “Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me.” “Indeed,” bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, “I was not then born.” Then said the Wolf, “You feed in my pasture.” “No, good sir,” replied the Lamb, “I have not yet tasted grass.” Again said the Wolf, “You drink of my well.” “No,” exclaimed the Lamb, “I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother’s milk is both food and drink to me.” Upon which the Wolf seized him and ate him up, saying, “Well! I won’t remain supperless, even though you refute every one of my imputations.“”

“The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny.”

                                – Aesop’s Fables – G. F. Townsend, Translator

Admittedly, as Aesop would remind us, sometimes diplomacy and a strong legal case simply isn’t going to keep the wolf at bay.  To be prepared for that contingency is prudent, as just yet there is no ‘one size fits all’ for eliminating conflict from our world, our work or our lives, nor is there any workable sociopolitical cure for conflict on the low horizon. But there are often narrow windows of opportunity, circumscribed strategies for mitigating the risk of needless destructive conflict.

The more formal structure of the diplomatic principle of neutrality started taking shape under the ancient Greek system of independent city-states, though the concepts existed long before. The term “neutrality” itself came later, and then the modern day framework which “parallels the growth of the nation-state system of western Europe beginning in the late eighteenth century.”  [1]  Along the way from its roots in ancient Greece (400 B.C.) all the way to neutrality’s 20th Century incarnations, the fundamental precepts of neutrality held up well under the test of time. [5]

Adherents of neutrality generated more than simply relative political stability. Through a review of measured successes and failures of a millennium or more of neutrality, P. Jessup corroborates the economics of neutrality:

”Neutrals have complained bitterly and loudly over individual cases of breaches of [neutral rights], but in the long run they have frequently netted material gains from neutrality far in excess of their total losses.”  [2] (Italics ours)

Marek Thee (1982) points up that “neutrality can be viewed as an instrument of change with far-ranging socio-political and economic implications. It is certainly no coincidence that nations with long traditions of neutrality can record significant gains and belong to the most prosperous in the world.” [3] (italics ours)

In the view of yet another noted historian, “In its struggle, neutrality has been powerfully seconded by an invincible ally: the development of international economic relations.” Though other factors are decidedly crucial to any sustained neutrality, “It is none the less true, however, that the facts of economic life have played a preponderant, and in some respects a decisive part in its development.”  [4]

So, what’s the point here?

From the regional inter-state commerce of ancient Greece to the 21st Century’s global economy, the durable concept of neutrality has throughout remained inextricably linked to the conduct of business.  Not merely about rejecting war, it was interwoven with interstate and/or international commerce from its inception.  In terms of economic justification, neutrality may prove to be an “instant on” with respect to its positive benefit to a commercial enterprise. It can apply to businesses in the internal management of the effects of external socio-cultural conflict. Sans any need to rationalize, theorize, analyze or intellectualize its economic efficacy, the primary challenge for any stance of any neutrality will therefore be its correct application to any specific situation or venue, and its manner of execution.

So, can a practical foothold for neutrality be established in the commercial institution/organization?

A noted author in organizational theory and sociology of law, Philip Selznick’s work was groundbreaking in several fields, including leadership. “Selznick identifies four key activities of leaders: definition of institutional mission and role; institutional embodiment of purpose; defense of institutional integrity; and the ordering of institutional conflict.” [6] All four mesh nicely with the CultureNeutral® Keys, but resonates most powerfully with the last, ordering conflict, neutrality’s raison d’être. Not eliminating, but ordering.

Thus, the business case for examining neutrality as an instrument of managing institutional culture-based conflict falls within both pecuniary and sociological frameworks before the fact, not after.

Neutrality stands in direct and stark contrast to the often nondescript “Diversity,” the adherents of which have only recently begun in earnest to formulate the ostensible “Business Case for Diversity & Inclusion” after its first forty years. D&I has staked its case almost solely on matters of corporate social responsibility until recently, otherwise devoid of standards, metrics and measures to bolster its standing as a pecuniary matter.  The ‘case for sustainable commerce‘ under the principle of neutrality, on the other had, has been known and practiced for centuries, and is already widely recognized as bearing an empirically economic advantage, in retrospect.

But what of cultural neutrality?  Neutrality itself, most frequently associated with political conflict, is by no means disassociated from other fields of endeavor where conflict is at play. Nor is the idea of linking neutrality to cultural conflict by any means a ‘hot new idea.’ It’s been bandied about by many, though ankle deep, in more scholarly sociology publications than this researcher could possibly list. It seems most often to be expressed as a wish, of sorts, “What we really need is a neutral language,” or “Aptitude testing must be culture neutral,” or “Admissions should be race neutral…” and so forth, but little more than that in the way of development of a framework of cultural neutrality in some form.

There are simple reasons why that quickly becomes the case. Those calling for neutrality are often not neutral themselves.  They are advocating neutral means for non-neutral ends, seeking to increase the advantage  of one party or decrease the degree of advantage for the other. “If we level the playing field, we could win for a change.” The advocate’s vociferation favoring neutrality becomes a rallying cry on behalf of one combatant or another in a given social struggle, thereby disqualifying it as an impartial assertion from the start by reason of the advocate’s positioning, despite the intellectual correctness of their assertion.

Neutrality can act to mitigate conflict escalation, a deterrent to war, limiting the alignment of critical resources that can aid belligerents. “In the classical period, [hegemonic] states proved to be the most determined opponents of neutrality, for they quickly realized its potential to erode their power base and limit their own superiority.”  Ironically, however, the hegemonic may also quietly enjoy the neutrality of weaker sovereigns as it decreases the likelihood of synergistic alignment of weaker powers against it. [5]

A second possible reason for some discomfort with wholeheartedly exploring or espousing neutrality is its unavoidable association with conflict. The decidedly non-neutral corporate strategy of driving employees to embrace and value socio-cultural differences not their own  both increases and masks conflict [7] rather than acknowledging and effectively managing it. The preference has been the opaque pseudonym “Diversity Management” rather than the transparent leadership rubric of institutional conflict management. If the axiom is true that we cannot fight what we cannot see, it’s logical to conclude that neither can we be neutral toward what we cannot see. Neutrality requires that we call conflict by its name.

In order to establish neutrality, the belligerents must be named, the differences defined, the intensity and stage of conflict must be defined, and the decidedly uncomfortable but necessary decision of committing to a neutral stance must be embraced.  We’ll get to more about this in later posts.

In tandem, can culture and neutrality combine to economically benefit an entity?  How well can this concept of neutrality be coupled with culture? How might it work in practice?

Click here to examine Part II of “Neutrality – The Case for Sustainable Commerce” to prepare our followers for a good look at the mechanics of neutrality in international conflict, and to begin to understand its many applications, including commerce and culture.

Copyright © Robert D. Jones 2013 – All Rights Reserved

[1] “Towards a new conceptualization of neutrality: a strategy for conflict resolution in Asia”  by Marek Thee, Center for the Study of Armament and Disarmament, California State University, Los Angeles (1982) p. 1, 40

[2] “Neutrality, Its History, Economics and Law, Volume IV: Today And Tomorrow” Jessup, Phillip C., (1936) Columbia University Press (p. 213) 

[3] “Towards a new conceptualization of neutrality : a strategy for conflict resolution in Asia”  by Marek Thee, p. 40

[4] Neutrality and Peace, N. Politis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, Pamphlet no. 55, p 12

[5] The Concept of Neutrality in Classical Greece, Robert A. Bauslaugh, University of California Press (1991), p. 253, 246-247

[6] (1) Selznick, Philip. Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation. Berkely, CA: University of California Press, p. 62-64;  (2) Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium, ed. Nitin Nohria, Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business Press (2010)

[7] Article: “The Trouble With Diversity Initiatives” Wall Street Journal, “A meta-analysis from researchers at New York University, University of Michigan and George Mason University traces the roots of stigma that can erupt in organizations that implement affirmative action policies to attract women and racial minorities. The study dug into 45 previous pieces of research to identify the mechanisms that cause these programs to go awry.” 

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