Robert Zoellick, the only neo-con who survived the Bush era because he left in time , has just announced that he will step down from the top job in the World Bank, and not look for a new term in 1818 H street in Washington.
This move, already in the air given the ambition of the democrats not to leave a Republican-appointee in place for a second term at the World Bank, renews again the well known saga about the appointment of next Bank president: again an American politician or banker? Or for the first time ever since Bretton Woods in 1944 will a non-American citizen be allowed to head the institution?
Despite the whole debate and new commitment to a procedure for a transparent and merit-based selection process to find the best candidate for the top job of the IMF, the Europeans gave a bad example in 2011 by forcing through Madame Lagarde at a time of profound crisis in “old Europe”. Hence the need for European governments to be sure that the IMF will intervene in case of a show down of the Eurozone. This is quite understandable for a bunch of countries who are not able even to decide among themselves about how to help each other out of the crisis.
But in the case of the United States, why should the US government be so interested today to keep control over the IMF’s sister institution? The Bank could do little to help the US out of the crisis. The amount of World Bank aid’s contracts going to US companies for building projects in developing countries has progressively decreased in the last years and actually emerging countries’ companies are getting a bigger slice of the pie. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are more and more influential in the World Bank board, they often bring it to a standstill, stalling decisions. In short they have already power in the Bank, without taking the responsibility or getting blamed when sitting in the top position of the institution. And finally, the World Bank, despite adapting to a changing world, is no longer so influential as in the past – with the exception of those African countries who still have no power to object to the impositions of the Bank and the Fund.
So, why should the Americans care so much in keeping the leadership of the World Bank? Even if Obama looks at domestic politics, the issue is not relevant at all in the Presidential campaign. Most of the staff of the Bank will keep being American because of its headquarters’ location in Washington. And most of this American staff does vote democrat in any case and are quite “internationalist”.
The Tea Party, as well as more radical Republicans, would even like to close the Bank as a useless international institution. So getting a non-American President would allow them to reduce the US contribution to the Bank.And furthermore, it is fair to say that surprisingly the Obama administration has paid more attention to the United Nations than the Bretton Woods Institutions in the last four years, in order to show its discontinuation from the Bush unilateral era.
So, why not for once to choose a more radical stand and leave the top job in the Bank to a developing country candidate? To be cynical, there are plenty out there who would apply the same failing neoliberal policies that Larry Summers or Hillary Clinton would sponsor. And getting a prominent developing country’s leader – even better if from the Middle East or Africa – leading the Bank under “US concession” could even strengthen the de facto US control on the management of the institution. It would sideline the Europeans – who are already divided on many issues among themselves – and win some favour with the Chinese just for being “politically correct”.
Today this “radical” stand is feasible for Obama, at home and abroad. But for once he needs to be brave. Maybe the time for the first black man (or woman?) at the head of the World Bank has come.