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Previously in Politics & Prose:

  • The Graveyard of the American Dream -- May 1998
    What's behind California's decline, and what's at stake for the rest of the country.

  • Games of Monopoly -- April 1998
    A look at the tactics of John D. Rockefeller shows that capitalism, like history, repeats itself.

  • The Price of Longevity -- March 1998
    Medicare and what we have to look forward to.

  • The King of Drudge -- February 1998
    A review of a new biography of the man behind the assembly line -- whose ideas need to be acknowledged and abandoned.

  • Color Us Green -- January 1998
    A heretical new approach to economics puts ecology first -- and may change the way we think about growth.

  • The Deep Slumber of Decided Opinion -- December 1997
    Those who hail the virtues of trade without limits are this era's reactionaries.

  • A Barbarous Frenzy -- November 1997
    A new book documents the Rape of Nanking, China's "forgotten Holocaust."

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

  • Do the Right Thing
    Think globally, act ethically

    by Jack Beatty

    June 10, 1998

    The chairman of Unocal, a huge international energy company based in California, must soon make a hard and emblematic decision in the emerging field of global-reputation management. The Taliban, the repressive Islamic militia that controls nearly three-quarters of Afghanistan, has approved a deal with Unocal to build a $5 billion oil-and-gas pipeline network through Afghanistan that would connect the oil and gas fields of Central Asia to Pakistan and India. For letting this oil and gas cross Afghanistan, Unocal would pay the Taliban $50 to $100 million annually, ranking the pipeline below only opium-smuggling as the Taliban's leading source of revenue. With this infusion the Taliban could move to consolidate its power, to conquer the anti-Taliban forces still occupying the north of Afghanistan, and to continue its medieval persecution of women and girls.

    Afghan flag As recently as two years ago, before the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul, half of Afghanistan's lawyers, doctors, and university students were women. Today girls are forbidden to attend school, and women are forbidden to work, to leave their homes without a male escort, and to wear shoes that make noise -- an erotic incitement to the misogynist Taliban, which also requires women to swathe themselves in form-hiding garments and veils. Twenty years of war have decimated Afghanistan's male population, and so, without men to accompany them, many women cannot leave their homes under any circumstances. Nor are they allowed to see male doctors. Penalties for violating these prohibitions include whipping, stoning, and, in some cases, death. As one might expect, suicide is increasing alarmingly among Afghan women, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation.

    Unocal says it won't go ahead with the pipeline unless the nations of the world recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. (Currently only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates recognize the Taliban government; the rest of the world holds off, awaiting the results of the ongoing civil war and hoping for an end to the Taliban's war against Afghan women.) But the Taliban minister of mines and energy said recently that he expects the project to start before the end of the year, and Unocal has given a $900,000 grant to the University of Nebraska to train Afghan men to build the pipeline.

    None of this would have come to light if it were not for the women's rights advocacy groups who, in an act of global solidarity with their sisters in Afghanistan, have spoken out against the deal. Unocal, they say, must display social responsibility and stay out of an Afghanistan that practices "gender apartheid" toward women.

    Doing the right thing would be painful for Unocal. Canceling the deal would clear the way for an Argentinian company to build the pipeline, hurting the stockholders toward whom Unocal has an overriding fiduciary responsibility. But there are also costs for doing the wrong thing -- a crisis in global-reputation management brought on by bad publicity, with incalculable consequences for those same stockholders.

    The lesson of this continuing episode is, I think, a heartening one that reveals the good side of the new world economy. For just as the economy is going global, so, through the agency of articulate groups, is the conscience of humankind -- as Nike has learned (when the company was forced to change its overseas work practices), as Unocal is learning now, and as the cigarette companies may learn tomorrow. Helped by the transparency conferred by instant communications, a global ethic is emerging apace with the global economy. Truly, and for the first time in history, no woman is an island.

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    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

    Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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