David Rothkopf

Maybe the politics behind the World Bank presidency won’t stay local for long…

Some in the U.S. government are contemplating embracing a policy change that may result in the next president of the World Bank being the first not to be from the United States. As a consequence, Brazil’s President Lula might be on the verge of scoring an important electoral victory this week…on the other side of ...

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Some in the U.S. government are contemplating embracing a policy change that may result in the next president of the World Bank being the first not to be from the United States. As a consequence, Brazil's President Lula might be on the verge of scoring an important electoral victory this week...on the other side of the planet, in the world's biggest exercise in democracy, the Indian parliamentary elections. Ah, globalization. Maybe in the flat world all politics aren't exactly local.    

You see, Lula, is looking for his next big challenge. According to those close to him, he would like something on the international stage, not surprising given the enormous good will and international support he has built up during his two very successful terms of office in Brasilia. Given the former labor leader's interest in social issues, particularly the plight of the world's poorest, those close to Lula say his ideal job would be doing something that can meaningfully help the disadvantaged in Africa and other hard-hit regions. 

Some in the U.S. government are contemplating embracing a policy change that may result in the next president of the World Bank being the first not to be from the United States. As a consequence, Brazil’s President Lula might be on the verge of scoring an important electoral victory this week…on the other side of the planet, in the world’s biggest exercise in democracy, the Indian parliamentary elections. Ah, globalization. Maybe in the flat world all politics aren’t exactly local.    

You see, Lula, is looking for his next big challenge. According to those close to him, he would like something on the international stage, not surprising given the enormous good will and international support he has built up during his two very successful terms of office in Brasilia. Given the former labor leader’s interest in social issues, particularly the plight of the world’s poorest, those close to Lula say his ideal job would be doing something that can meaningfully help the disadvantaged in Africa and other hard-hit regions. 

The perfect opportunity may be right here in Washington, D.C. Because a job like that of head of the World Bank ideally fills the bill for Lula. What’s more, although this position has traditionally gone to a U.S. citizen, there is increasing pressure from emerging powers like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to change the allocation of top jobs at international financial institutions to better reflect  what is expected to be a growing role for them in the ownership structure of the IMF and the development banks as well as in the leadership of the international community more broadly. The World Bank presidency would be one of the most visible such posts and although it has been jealously guarded as a plum to be handed out by American presidents since the bank’s founding, I am told there is now growing support within the U.S. Department of the Treasury to let the post go to someone who is not from the United States.

While push back could come from the U.S. Congress on this if they feel it is too much to be asked to provide more money to institutions like the World Bank and to simultaneously give up prerogatives, Lula even has some special advantages there. Because the leadership in the U.S. Congress at the moment is very sensitive to the views of the U.S. labor community and Lula, because of his background, has long-standing very close ties to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney among others. 

The Indian elections are relevant because one of the other emerging powers that will certainly be seeking visible evidence of their new position in the global pecking order is India. As it happens, they are also home to one of the men who would certainly be seen as one of the very best possible candidates for the bank job should it be opened to international candidates, Manmohan Singh. Singh is a globally respected economist, highly thought of throughout the international financial community since his days as India’s Finance Minister. 

The problem for Singh’s candidacy is that he already has a job. He is prime minister of India. And now it looks as those his ruling coalition may eke out a victory in the current round of Indian elections. If that’s so, he may stay in his current job for another five years. And if he does, then Lula’s shot at the World Bank job may improve. 

Certainly, it’s early days yet. The change in U.S. and bank policy is far from official and faces hurdles being implemented.  And were it to change many candidates are sure to emerge. And of course, Lula has to formally express his interest in the job. But months ahead of such questions arising, the puzzle pieces are shifting and this week’s developments raise, at least a little, the possibility that Bob Zoellick’s successor at the World Bank may well be a very different kind of American than has occupied it in the past, a South American.  And in my view that, or a selection in the same spirit of including new powers at the top of these institutions, would be a very positive step forward. 

JOEDSON ALVES/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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