Daniel W. Drezner

The realpolitik of the World Bank presidency

The realpolitik of the World Bank presidency

I was on the road when President Obama announced his preferred choice of Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim to be the next World Bank president. Since then, both the Economist and Financial Times have endorsed Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala instead. I didn’t pay it much mind, because, frankly, if the U.S. could get Paul Wolfowitz through the nomination process, Kim wasn’t gonna be a problem.

Over the weekend, however, things jumped up a notch on the rhetorical front. I confess to being a bit puzzled by it all.

First, Bill Easterly suggested in the Guardian that the vote be delayed because Kim hadn’t addressed a public forum on his development views… because he was too busy meeting with the member governments who have actual, like, real votes on this selection.

Then Chris Blattman came out against Kim, concluding grumpily that "identity has crowded out substance." He then adds the following:

Kim is smart and qualified, and there are many good reasons not to have a business-as-usual Bank President, even one in health. But if you find yourself supporting his candidacy on such substantive grounds: congratulations, you have successfully succumbed to Obama’s strategy for maintaining imperial control of one the world’s most influential institutions.

Yeah! How dare the perfidious Americans extend their control over the World Bank presidency by…. selecting someone who substantively addresses the issues of developing country governments!! That’s like, totally unrepresentative. Or to put it more bluntly, I don’t think "identity" means what Blattman thinks it means.

Finally, I’ve seen a bunch o’ tweets to myriad articles suggesting that Kim’s selection could be in doubt. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like the headline/lead paragraphs scream "Whoa! Non-American could actually win!" until we get to the text of the articles, which then observe thing like, "most analysts believe there is little doubt that Kim will secure the presidency" or that Kim would lose if "the US signals willingness to accept defeat."

Look, let’s get a few things straight:

1) I’m very sympathetic to the notion that non-Europeans should head the IMF and non-Americans should head the World Bank. This is an entirely fair and appropriate issue to raise.

2) For that to happen, it will require the United States and Europe to jointly renounce their informal cartel on the leadership posts and that they will not suggest any candidates. No way one side moves without the other, and no way this happens now after the Europeans managed to install Christine Lagarde as IMF head only last year.

3) Barack Obama is up for re-election and his chief opponent has been accusing him on going on non-existent apology tours across the world. There is no way — no way — he is going to compromise on Kim’s selection. I can see a second-term shift towards what everyone wants, but the only way the World Bank becomes an election issue is if Kim loses.

4) Even with the current arrangements, the selection process has been more… let’s say polyarchical than even a decade ago. Lagarde had to woo China and other key voters at the IMF, and Kim has been busy doing the same thing now. Deputy selections have been used to win favor from key voting constituencies. Blattman’s complaint that Kim represents a gesture towards exactly the issues that a lot of development activists care about shows that the US and EU are recognizing the rising political constraints at the IFIs.

5) For reasons 2 – 4, I think that what’s happened over the weekend is mostly a lot of stuff and nonsense. If development activists are smart, they will initiate a major push after November 2012 to get the Americans and Europeans to gracefully and jointly commit not to nominate anyone for the next go-around of IFI leaders.

Am I missing anything? UPDATE: Nope, I wasn’t.