For a thriving global economy and to protect national security interests, the United States must reengage on trade agreements. That was the call to action issued by Frederick W. Smith, founder and executive chairman of FedEx Corporation, in a keynote address delivered on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill Thursday, Sept. 29.
“The U.S. should embrace its history as a leader in the creation of the modern global trading system,” Smith said. “That system has been good for the U.S. and the world—maintaining peace and stability and creating economic opportunity.”
Recently, he made the case that an anti-trade narrative has emerged that runs counter to U.S. interests.
“With the rise of populist politics, American leadership for open trade is now in jeopardy,” Smith said. “Those who think the U.S. can manufacture all the goods we require to maintain and improve our standard of living are engaged in sophistry. We do not have the population, workforce and culture to do so. We have the ability to succeed in the trade of services–increasingly digital–and high tech and high value-added manufactures.”
Smith spoke to an audience of Carolina students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered in the FedEx Global Education Center to hear Smith’s message and mark the center’s 15th anniversary.
“Fred Smith is a global leader whose vision and commitment to UNC-Chapel Hill led to the establishment of the FedEx Global Education Center here on campus 15 years ago,” said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. “This state-of-the-art center provides Carolina students with a centralized hub for core international programs and services, giving them the opportunity to connect with the world. It is critical to our work of preparing the next generation of leaders to solve global challenges.”
Smith called for the United States to maintain its support for a rules-based trading system. By reengaging in trade agreement negotiations, he argued, the U.S. can join with friends and allies in preserving an open world order and countering threats to it presented by China and Russia.
“I believe the record is clear, the U.S. should trade what it can trade with willing partners and restrict what should not be traded due to risks to our national defense,” Smith said.
“What Carolina students learned tonight is that successful global business leaders like Fred Smith are also deeply engaged in international policy issues,” said Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer. “To tackle complex global problems like trade, security and sustainability, it takes leaders from government, business, think tanks, universities and other institutions coming together to share their expertise and forge a vision for taking effective action.”
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Diplomacy Initiative—led by Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador and career foreign service officer—prepares Carolina students to become the next generation of global leaders by helping them gain the skills needed for global problem-solving, in part through direct access to the world of diplomacy. Smith’s talk was part of the initiative’s Diplomatic Discussions series—expert talks and panels that provide Carolina students with inside perspectives on the world of foreign policy, diplomacy, trade and national security.
Smith, who has advocated for investment in carbon capture research, electric vehicles and other sustainable solutions for the transportation industry, made the case that sustainable business practices are not only good for the planet and society, but also good for business.
“Today’s consumers, particularly younger consumers, they’re just not going to do business with you unless you’re environmentally responsible,” he said.
In 2021, FedEx set a goal to achieve carbon neutrality across global operations by 2040. The corporation is designating more than $2 billion of initial investment to make global operations more sustainable and invest in solutions to address the transportation industry’s emissions challenges.
Throughout his career, the business pioneer has focused on important global issues such as sustainability, innovation and public policy, and is involved with numerous trade and policy organizations. He is a trustee for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has served as chairman of the U.S.-China Business Council and co-chair of the French-American Business Council.
Smith completed his original analysis of the logistics needs of a highly automated future society while earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Yale College ’66. He then enlisted in the Marines and served two tours in Vietnam, flying 200 missions as a scouting pilot. He is the recipient of two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.
Smith founded FedEx Corporation in 1971 and continues to serve as executive chairman. Under Smith’s leadership, FedEx Corporation has become a $93.5 billion global enterprise serving more than 220 countries and territories, with 215,000 vehicles and some 700,000 team members worldwide. FedEx has been recognized many times as one of the best companies to work for and is consistently named one of the world’s most admired brands.
“The engine that drives it all is global trade, and our team members sit on the front lines of the connected global economy,” Smith said. “It’s from this vantage point that FedEx observes the benefits of global trade every day as we connect people with possibilities around the world.”
In 2007, FedEx Corporation contributed funding for the construction of the FedEx Global Education Center, which was also funded by the 2000 North Carolina Higher Education Bond Referendum and support from other Carolina alumni and friends. The 80,000 square foot building, designed by award-winning architect Andrea Leers of Leers Weinzapfel Associates, has become a vibrant hub for the Carolina community to learn about and connect with the world.
The FedEx Global Education Center houses the academic programs and administrative units known as UNC Global. These include the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, International Student and Scholar Services, the Study Abroad Office, six U.S. Department of Education-funded area studies centers, the Curriculum in Global Studies, the Global Research Institute and the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center.
Smith is the father of three Carolina graduates: Arthur Smith ’05, Rachel Smith ’06 and Samantha Smith Atkinson ’08.