Breaking the US's Dominance: Beijing Wants Say in Choice of World Bank Head
Traditionally, the US gets to appoint the president of the World Bank. But China is keen to make its influence felt in the search for a successor to Robert Zoellick, who will step down in June. The next head may still be American, but he or she will need to get Beijing's blessing.
The first person to complain was a Brazilian. He saw "no reason" why the future president of the World Bank had to be of a certain nationality, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said recently, speaking in the Brazilian capital Brasilia. Then came an angry outburst from Manila, where the Philippines' Finance Minister Cesar Purisima said that it was time to rethink the selection of the head of the World Bank. They were speaking in the aftermath of World Bank President Robert Zoellick's announcement on Feb. 15 that he would step down when his five-year term comes to an end on June 30.
The Bretton Woods Project, a group of development experts from Africa, Australia, Europe, South America and the United States, had already published an open letter on the Internet, in which it stated that the next president of the World Bank would also have to have the "open support" of the majority of the low and middle-income countries.
But another man left the strongest impression. Zoellick, 58, had barely issued his surprise announcement that he would not seek a second term when a representative of Beijing spoke up at a closed-door meeting of the 25 executive directors who make up the bank's steering committee.
The Chinese official made clear in no uncertain terms that the days of American control over the filling of the post were over. Washington, he said, must submit to the same "open, transparent and merit-based selection processes" that the World Bank announced it would introduce for the filling of its top job two years ago.
According to the Chinese representative, only one applicant with "clear competency on development issues" could be chosen in April to head the 187-country organization. Beijing's member of the exclusive group of executive directors received support from his Russian counterpart. The Kremlin representative argued strongly against an overly hasty decision regarding Zoellick's replacement. He was apparently concerned about the possibility that the faster a decision is reached, the more likely it is that an American candidate will be chosen.
The Most Important Qualification
For almost seven decades, one of the most important qualifications for the top job at the bank was, indisputably, an American passport. Traditionally, the Europeans got to appoint the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world's financial fire brigade, and in return the Americans chose the head of the World Bank. The Washington-based institution is the global focal point on development issues, with a recent lending volume of close to $60 billion (45 billion) and more than 10,000 employees.
This postwar arrangement already began to totter last year, when the scandal-ridden head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had to be replaced. At the time, the Europeans managed to get their way once more, placing the then-French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, at the head of the IMF. That was partly because Beijing ultimately chose to avoid confrontation. And although the Chinese are probably just as uninterested in open strife this time, they do want the world to witness their influence on the decision.
That's not surprising, considering that Beijing already contributes more to the World Bank's budget than, say, Germany. And a self-confident Chinese citizen, Justin Yifu Lin, 59, holds the influential position of the World Bank's chief economist. "One can be proud to be Chinese, standing in the world with one's head held high and chest out," he once wrote as a young economist, in a letter quoted by the New Yorker magazine.
Lin's appointment already underscores how audible China's voice is within the organization. Washington, however, has pretended to be deaf to that voice until now. The White House, seemingly undeterred, has drawn up its own list of candidates. The US media are openly wondering which associate of President Barack Obama could be more interested in the prestigious job: former economic adviser Lawrence Summers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner or Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is seen as the most interesting, even though she has repeatedly denied having any interest in the position.
Wielding Power in the Background
The Americans are as unwilling to give up their traditional claim to the World Bank top job as the Europeans are willing to give up theirs when it comes to the IMF. Obama's advisers coolly cite an important figure, namely that American taxpayers still contribute by far the largest share of the World Bank budget, close to 16 percent.
By now, countries like China and Brazil could easily offset Washington's financial share. Beijing alone already lends more money to developing countries than the entire World Bank.
But the superpower-in-waiting still prefers to wield power in the background, an approach that happens to work well when it comes to filling the World Bank position. When the US presents its candidate in the coming weeks, he or she will likely complete a worldwide PR tour ahead of the vote, explaining his or her ideas in detail.
The most important meeting will probably be the candidate's interview in Beijing. For the Chinese, the outcome of that meeting could be even more satisfying than seeing a Chinese in the president's chair: an American that everyone knows has only been chosen as World Bank president because of China's blessing.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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