The unsurprising announcement that the Board of the World Bank had voted in favor of the American candidate, Jim Yong Kim, presents an opportune moment to reflect upon the soft power structures that shape global public policy in the early 21st Century inside the UN system and beyond.
It is necessary to draw a distinction between Mr. Kim’s substantive qualifications and the procedure by which he was selected. Substantively, although lacking in either financial or diplomatic experience, Dr. Kim is in certain respects an interesting choice because of his lifelong dedication to improving the health of the very poor in the global South, as well as his training in medicine and PhD in anthropology. He has had extensive relevant experience on the ground, and in working with NGOs (he co-founded the widely admired Partners in Health) and in institutional settings (for some years he directed the HIV/AIDs program for the World Health Organization) and has been president of Dartmouth University for the past three years, although stirring controversy during his brief period of administrative tenure. It may be still wondered whether Dr. Kim understands sufficiently the economic dimensions of World Bank policy to enjoy the respect of the professional staff, and might have been more appropriately chosen to head an enhanced program of the Bank devoted to health and poverty. Overall, still, the substantive case for the appointment is relatively strong, although the two opposing candidates, both former finance ministers of developing countries, certainly had equally impressive substantive résumés and ethical profiles, and were plausible choices for this position.
The procedural criticisms of the appointment process are far more serious, and raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy of global institutions in the post-colonial period. It was not surprising that Dr. Kim’s two opponents, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigera and José Antonio Ocampo of Colombia, openly expressed their disgust with the process, complaining that the most qualified candidate had not been chosen despite the institutional promise of a ‘merit-based’ selection process. Ms Okonjo-Iweala uttered a truism when she said that selecting the Bank president was not “open, transparent and merit-based.” Mr. Ocampo was even more direct, saying, “[Y]ou know this thing is not really being decided on merit.” In this fundamental respect, the supposed international search for a director was a charade. It became clear as other candidate were put forward by their respective governments that the decision would be made in Washington and that the person proposed would be, as in every instance since the World Bank was established, an American (just as every Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund has been a European. This is a quid pro quo never formalized but decreasingly legitimate given the new de-Westernized geopolitical landscape that is becoming the most prominent reality of the early 21st century).
More specifically, this vote was a foregone conclusion, despite some mutterings to the effect that this World Bank search would be open as compared to the past, because Europe had bargained away their independence with respect to the Bank some months earlier so as to secure American support for Christine Lagarde’s appointment to head of the IMF. She, too, had been faced with non-Western well qualified candidates for the position that she now occupies. In fact, there were feeble boasts made in Western circles that at least this time there were non-Western candidates for these positions who would be considered fairly.
In a letter to The Financial Times (April 19, 2012), Mr. Moen Qureshi, former Prime Minister of Pakistan and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, expresses his annoyance with this new assertion of American ‘old boy’ privileges in staffing the top positions in world order. He does not offer criticisms in the wider context of a dysfunctional institutional rigidities that fail to register historical changes, and instead makes the temporizing suggestion that the World Bank establish a new No. 2 position who would be a person with banking experience and knowledge of the World Bank, allowing the Bank to clarify its role in a global setting with changing priorities. He proposes that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala be given the job, partially to overcome the injustice of her losing out in the competition for top position, but also to bring into the World Bank a person of stature and experience who can offset the limitations of Kim’s background. Of course, even in the unlikely event that Qureshi’s sensible advice is followed, it fails to address the fundamental issue of creating a more legitimate, just, and effective structure of global governance.
If the credibility of global financial leadership is considered more critically, given American responsibility for the global meltdown and recession going back to 2008 and the ongoing failed European efforts to solve the sovereign debt problems and internal budgetary, and taking account, in contrast, of how well the leading emerging economies handled the crisis of the last several years, this would have seemed to be an ideal moment to acknowledge the globalization of economic knowhow and competence, and pick a non-Westerner to head the Bank. President Obama might even have restored some of his tarnished reputation as a visionary and post-nationalist global citizen if he had gratuitously given up this informal prerogative enjoyed by the United States ever since the end of World War II, although those who preside over the erosion of imperial prerogatives are invariably appreciated at home for accommodating changing realities that downgrade the role of their own country, however compelling the case for such an overdue adjustment may be. Arguably, the more overdue the adjustment, the more intense the likely backlash from those with strong ideological affinities and entrenched interests in maintaining the old order as long as possible. It certainly would not have been a wise tactical move for Obama to make in an election year, but at any time any gesture toward a more globally democratic structure for global public policy in the economic realm would have elicited a bitter screed from the likes of the Wall Street Journal.
The informal lock on Western domination of the Bretton Woods institutions continues without much challenge. It is reported that both China and India supported the selection of Dr. Kim, apparently not wanting to alter expectations about the locus of global economic leadership, and even Russia and Mexico apparently voted for the American candidate (the votes are cast by secret ballot, and so their attribution is based on leaks and speculation). It seems that the geopolitical comfort level of the BRIC countries remains largely accommodationist in character, suggesting that decolonizing the mind of the global South has a long way to go. It would seem almost self-evident that the informal power/prestige sharing that might have appeared natural in 1945, when access to American capital markets were crucial for the success of international financial initiatives should no longer govern behavior more than 65 years later when the United States is close to being a failed state when it comes to financial viability having even suffered the indignity of having its credit rating downgraded by an independent market-oriented private agency. As it is, despite broadening the G-8 to the G-20 with regard to some global economic issues, the governance of the world economy remains determinedly neoliberal and West-centric, and for this reason less than legitimate, especially when consideration is given to widening disparities of wealth and income within and between countries and the persistence of high levels of deep poverty and material deprivation. The geopolitical passivity of the BRICs is not encouraging from the perspective either of the wellbeing of the peoples of the world or the prospects for global democracy. It is notable that such passivity is also evident in other policy domains: climate change, control of nuclear weaponry and even recourse to military intervention (the most that BRIC countries were willing to do to express their opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya was to abstain when it came to the crucial March 2011 vote in the Security Council, although Russia and China having been deceived in the Libyan setting have refused to go along with R2P approach in the Syrian context).
Undoubtedly, the most vivid institutional effort to achieve global reform that reflects the world we now live in rather than the one that existed at the end of World War II, when most of the non-West was formally or informally operating under Western surveillance and control, has been the endlessly frustrating struggle to broaden and reconstitute the membership in the UN Security Council. It is scandalously anachronistic that the United Kingdom and France, at best secondary countries in the present global hierarchy, both hold permanent seats in the Security Council and enjoy a veto right, while countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey must compete for the nine seats with two-year terms that are shared with the other 189 members of the UN. It is not only a problem of representation for important states, but also the fact that there is no Muslim or Hindu majority state that is permanently represented in the supposedly global body. At least with the UN there is an excuse that the Charter makes amendments almost impossible, prescribing that there must be total acquiescence in any change in the composition of the Security Council by all five of its permanent members, as well as two-thirds of the overall membership. I suppose it is far too much to expect that France and the UK would accept a single rotating European permanent seat, and relinquish their dysfunctional separate membership on the Council. In the meantime, the UN System is largely frozen in time, and the world is deprived of a more legitimate and effective global problem-solving capability that is desperately needed at this time.
It is important to move toward the achievement of global democracy for the sake of both global policymaking and the overall legitimacy of world order. To move away from violent geopolitics, acknowledging changes in the status of governments by reliance on soft power criteria leadership of international institutions has never been more useful. From this perspective the selection of Dr. Kim, even if he lives up to his considerable potential for a turn toward global empathy, is one more lost opportunity to move beyond the West-centric structuring of world order after World War II.