Nationality and Multinationals in Historical Perspective

by Geoffrey G. Jones

Overview — Many people believe that globalization has caused companies to lose their national identity. This study traces the history of corporations and nationality and finds that multinational companies have always had ambiguities, particularly before World War I. National subsidiaries became stronger in the twentieth century, and companies like Ford, for example, would feel very American in the United States, but have a more local identity in another part of the world. In the twenty-first century, globalization has caused a reemergence of issues concerning corporate nationality. However, this research shows that in many ways corporate affiliation with a country may matter more than ever. Key concepts include:

  • The twentieth century brought an increase in international businesses with strong national ties.
  • Today, corporate strategy, executive leadership, government relations, and brands rely heavily on location and geography.

Author Abstract

This paper provides a historical perspective to current debates whether large global firms are becoming "stateless." Robert Reich among others suggested that historically the nationality of multinationals was clear, while for contemporary multinationals corporate nationality is both unclear and increasingly irrelevant. However the historical evidence shows that a great deal of international business in the nineteenth century was not easily fitted into national categories. The place of registration, the nationality of shareholders, and the nationality of management often pointed in different directions. During the twentieth century such cosmopolitan capitalism was replaced by sharper national identities. The interwar disintegration of the international economy also led to the national subsidiaries of multinationals taking on strong local identities. Over the past two decades, as the pace of globalization quickened, ambiguities increased again. Yet in the early twenty first century, ownership, location and geography still mattered enormously in international business. They may matter more than in the past.

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