How Sushi Went Global

A 500-pound tuna is caught off the coast of New England or Spain, flown thousands of miles to Tokyo, sold for tens of thousands of dollars to Japanese buyers ... and shipped to chefs in New York and Hong Kong? That's the manic logic of global sushi.

A 40-minute drive from Bath, Maine, down a winding two-lane highway, the last mile on a dirt road, a ramshackle wooden fish pier stands beside an empty parking lot. At 6:00 p.m. nothing much is happening. Three bluefin tuna sit in a huge tub of ice on the loading dock. Between 6:45 and 7:00, the parking lot fills up with cars and trucks with license plates from New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Twenty tuna buyers clamber out, half of them Japanese. The three bluefin, ranging from 270 to 610 pounds, are winched out of the tub, and buyers crowd around them, extracting tiny core samples to examine their color, fingering the flesh to assess the fat content, sizing up the curve of the body.

After about 20 minutes of eyeing the goods, many of the buyers return to their trucks to call Japan by cellphone and get the morning prices from Tokyo's Tsukiji market -- the fishing industry's answer to Wall Street -- where the daily tuna auctions have just concluded. The buyers look over the tuna one last time and give written bids to the dock manager, who passes the top bid for each fish to the crew that landed it.

The auction bids are secret. Each bid is examined anxiously by a cluster of young men, some with a father or uncle looking on to give advice, others with a young woman and a couple of toddlers trying to see Daddy's fish. Fragments of concerned conversation float above the parking lot: "That's all?" "Couldn't we do better if we shipped it ourselves?" "Yeah, but my pickup needs a new transmission now!" After a few minutes, deals are closed and the fish are quickly loaded onto the backs of trucks in crates of crushed ice, known in the trade as "tuna coffins." As rapidly as they arrived, the flotilla of buyers sails out of the parking lot -- three bound for New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, where their tuna will be airfreighted to Tokyo for sale the day after next.

Bluefin tuna may seem at first an unlikely case study in globalization. But as the world rearranges itself -- around silicon chips, Starbucks coffee, or sashimi-grade tuna -- new channels for global flows of capital and commodities link far-flung individuals and communities in unexpected new relationships. The tuna trade is a prime example of the globalization of a regional industry, with intense international competition and thorny environmental regulations; centuries-old practices combined with high technology; realignments of labor and capital in response to international regulation; shifting markets; and the diffusion of culinary culture as tastes for sushi, and bluefin tuna, spread worldwide.


Tuna doesn't require much promotion among Japanese consumers. It is consistently Japan's most popular seafood, and demand is high throughout the year. When the Federation of Japan Tuna Fisheries Cooperative (known as Nikkatsuren) runs ad campaigns for tuna, they tend to be low-key and whimsical, rather like the "Got Milk?" advertising in the United States. Recently, the federation launched "Tuna Day" (Maguro no hi), providing retailers with posters and recipe cards for recipes more complicated than "slice and serve chilled." Tuna Day's mascot is Goro-kun, a colorful cartoon tuna swimming the Australian crawl.

Despite the playful contemporary tone of the mascot, the date selected for Tuna Day carries much heavier freight. October 10, it turns out, commemorates the date that tuna first appeared in Japanese literature, in the eighth-century collection of imperial court poetry known as the Man'yoshu -- one of the towering classics of Japanese literature. The neat twist is that October 10 today is a national holiday, Sports Day. Goro-kun, the sporty tuna, scores a promotional hat trick, suggesting intimate connections among national culture, healthy food for active lives, and the family holiday meal.

Outside of Japan, tuna, especially raw tuna, hasn't always had it so good. Sushi isn't an easy concept to sell to the uninitiated. And besides, North Americans tend to think of cultural influence as flowing from West to East: James Dean, baseball, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Disneyland have all gone over big in Tokyo. Yet Japanese cultural motifs and material -- from Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai to Yoda's Zen and Darth Vader's armor, from Issey Miyake's fashions to Nintendo, PlayStation, and Pokémon -- have increasingly saturated North American and indeed the entire world's consumption and popular culture. Against all odds, so too has sushi.

In 1929, the Ladies' Home Journal introduced Japanese cooking to North American women, but discreetly skirted the subject of raw fish: "There have been purposely omitted... any recipes using the delicate and raw tuna fish which is sliced wafer thin and served iced with attractive garnishes. [These]... might not sound so entirely delicious as they are in reality." Little mention of any Japanese food appeared in U.S. media until well after World War II. By the 1960s, articles on sushi began to show up in lifestyle magazines like Holiday and Sunset. But the recipes they suggested were canapés like cooked shrimp on caraway rye bread, rather than raw fish on rice.

A decade later, however, sushi was growing in popularity throughout North America, turning into a sign of class and educational standing. In 1972, the New York Times covered the opening of a sushi bar in the elite sanctum of New York's Harvard Club. Esquire explained the fare in an article titled "Wake up Little Sushi!" Restaurant reviewers guided readers to Manhattan's sushi scene, including innovators like Shalom Sushi, a kosher sushi bar in SoHo.

Japan's emergence on the global economic scene in the 1970s as the business destination du jour, coupled with a rejection of hearty, red-meat American fare in favor of healthy cuisine like rice, fish, and vegetables, and the appeal of the high-concept aesthetics of Japanese design all prepared the world for a sushi fad. And so, from an exotic, almost unpalatable ethnic specialty, then to haute cuisine of the most rarefied sort, sushi has become not just cool, but popular. The painted window of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, coffee shop advertises "espresso, cappuccino, carrot juice, lasagna, and sushi." Mashed potatoes with wasabi (horseradish), sushi-ginger relish, and seared sashimi-grade tuna steaks show Japan's growing cultural influence on upscale nouvelle cuisine throughout North America, Europe, and Latin America. Sushi has even become the stuff of fashion, from "sushi" lip gloss, colored the deep red of raw tuna, to "wasabi" nail polish, a soft avocado green. 


Japan remains the world's primary market for fresh tuna for sushi and sashimi; demand in other countries is a product of Japanese influence and the creation of new markets by domestic producers looking to expand their reach. Perhaps not surprisingly, sushi's global popularity as an emblem of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan consumer class more or less coincided with a profound transformation in the international role of the Japanese fishing industry. From the 1970s onward, the expansion of 200-mile fishing limits around the world excluded foreign fleets from the prime fishing grounds of many coastal nations. And international environmental campaigns forced many countries, Japan among them, to scale back their distant water fleets. With their fishing operations curtailed and their yen for sushi still growing, Japanese had to turn to foreign suppliers.

Jumbo jets brought New England's bluefin tuna into easy reach of Tokyo, just as Japan's consumer economy -- a byproduct of the now disparaged "bubble" years -- went into hyperdrive. The sushi business boomed. During the 1980s, total Japanese imports of fresh bluefin tuna worldwide increased from 957 metric tons (531 from the United States) in 1984 to 5,235 metric tons (857 from the United States) in 1993. The average wholesale price peaked in 1990 at 4,900 yen (U.S.$34) per kilogram, bones and all, which trimmed out to approximately U.S.$33 wholesale per edible pound.

Not surprisingly, Japanese demand for prime bluefin tuna -- which yields a firm red meat, lightly marbled with veins of fat, highly prized (and priced) in Japanese cuisine -- created a gold-rush mentality on fishing grounds across the globe wherever bluefin tuna could be found. But in the early 1990s, as the U.S. bluefin industry was taking off, the Japanese economy went into a stall, then a slump, then a dive. U.S. producers suffered as their high-end export market collapsed. Fortunately for them, the North American sushi craze took up the slack. U.S. businesses may have written off Japan, but Americans' taste for sushi stuck. An industry founded exclusively on Japanese demand survived because of Americans' newly trained palates and a booming U.S. economy.


Atlantic bluefin tuna ("abt" in the trade) are a highly migratory species that ranges from the equator to Newfoundland, from Turkey to the Gulf of Mexico. Bluefin can be huge fish; the record is 1,496 pounds. In more normal ranges, 600-pound tuna, 10 feet in length, are not extraordinary, and 250- to 300-pound bluefin, six feet long, are commercial mainstays.

Before bluefin became a commercial species in New England, before Japanese buyers discovered the stock, before the 747, bluefin were primarily sports fish, caught with fighting tackle by trophy hunters out of harbors like Montauk, Hyannis, and Kennebunkport. Commercial fishers, if they caught bluefin at all, sold them for cat food when they could and trucked them to town dumps when they couldn't. Japanese buyers changed all of that. Since the 1970s, commercial Atlantic bluefin tuna fisheries have been almost exclusively focused on Japanese markets like Tsukiji.

In New England waters, most bluefin are taken one fish at a time, by rod and reel, by hand line, or by harpoon -- techniques of a small-scale fisher, not of a factory fleet. On the European side of the Atlantic, the industry operates under entirely different conditions. Rather than rod and reel or harpooning, the typical gear is industrial -- the purse seiner (a fishing vessel closing a large net around a school of fish) or the long line (which catches fish on baited hooks strung along lines played out for many miles behind a swift vessel). The techniques may differ from boat to boat and from country to country, but these fishers are all angling for a share of the same Tsukiji yen -- and in many cases, some biologists argue, a share of the same tuna stock. Fishing communities often think of themselves as close-knit and proudly parochial; but the sudden globalization of this industry has brought fishers into contact -- and often into conflict -- with customers, governments, regulators, and environmentalists around the world.

Two miles off the beach in Barbate, Spain, a huge maze of nets snakes several miles out into Spanish waters near the Strait of Gibraltar. A high-speed, Japanese-made workboat heads out to the nets. On board are five Spanish hands, a Japanese supervisor, 2,500 kilograms of frozen herring and mackerel imported from Norway and Holland, and two American researchers. The boat is making one of its twice-daily trips to Spanish nets, which contain captured Mediterranean tuna being raised under Japanese supervision for harvest and export to Tsukiji.

Behind the guard boats that stand watch over the nets 24 hours a day, the headlands of Morocco are a hazy purple in the distance. Just off Barbate's white cliffs to the northwest, the light at the Cape of Trafalgar blinks on and off. For 20 minutes, the men toss herring and mackerel over the gunwales of the workboat while tuna the size (and speed) of Harley-Davidsons dash under the boat, barely visible until, with a flash of silver and blue, they wheel around to snatch a drifting morsel.

The nets, lines, and buoys are part of an almadraba, a huge fish trap used in Spain as well as Sicily, Tunisia, and Morocco. The almadraba consists of miles of nets anchored to the channel floor suspended from thousands of buoys, all laid out to cut across the migration routes of bluefin tuna leaving the strait. This almadraba remains in place for about six weeks in June and July to intercept tuna leaving the Mediterranean after their spawning season is over. Those tuna that lose themselves in the maze end up in a huge pen, roughly the size of a football field. By the end of the tuna run through the strait, about 200 bluefin are in the pen.

Two hundred fish may not sound like a lot, but if the fish survive the next six months, if the fish hit their target weights, if the fish hit the market at the target price, these 200 bluefin may be worth $1.6 million dollars. In November and December, after the bluefin season in New England and Canada is well over, the tuna are harvested and shipped by air to Tokyo in time for the end-of-the-year holiday spike in seafood consumption.

The pens, huge feed lots for tuna, are relatively new, but almadraba are not. A couple of miles down the coast from Barbate is the evocatively named settlement of Zahara de los Atunes (Zahara of the Tunas) where Cervantes lived briefly in the late 16th century. The centerpiece of the village is a huge stone compound that housed the men and nets of Zahara's almadraba in Cervantes's day, when the port was only a seasonally occupied tuna outpost (occupied by scoundrels, according to Cervantes). Along the Costa de la Luz, the three or four almadraba that remain still operate under the control of local fishing bosses who hold the customary fishing rights, the nets, the workers, the boats, and the locally embedded cultural capital to make the almadraba work -- albeit for distant markets and in collaboration with small-scale Japanese fishing firms.

Inside the Strait of Gibraltar, off the coast of Cartagena, another series of tuna farms operates under entirely different auspices, utilizing neither local skills nor traditional technology. The Cartagena farms rely on French purse seiners to tow captured tuna to their pens, where joint ventures between Japanese trading firms and large-scale Spanish fishing companies have set up farms using the latest in Japanese fishing technology. The waters and the workers are Spanish, but almost everything else is part of a global flow of techniques and capital: financing from major Japanese trading companies; Japanese vessels to tend the nets; aquacultural techniques developed in Australia; vitamin supplements from European pharmaceutical giants packed into frozen herring from Holland to be heaved over the gunwales for the tuna; plus computer models of feeding schedules, weight gains, and target market prices developed by Japanese technicians and fishery scientists.

These "Spanish" farms compete with operations throughout the Mediterranean that rely on similar high-tech, high-capital approaches to the fish business. In the Adriatic Sea, for example, Croatia is emerging as a formidable tuna producer. In Croatia's case, the technology and the capital were transplanted by émigré Croatians who returned to the country from Australia after Croatia achieved independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Australia, for its part, has developed a major aquacultural industry for southern bluefin tuna, a species closely related to the Atlantic bluefin of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean and almost equally desired in Japanese markets.


Just because sushi is available, in some form or another, in exclusive Fifth Avenue restaurants, in baseball stadiums in Los Angeles, at airport snack carts in Amsterdam, at an apartment in Madrid (delivered by motorcycle), or in Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, or Moscow, doesn't mean that sushi has lost its status as Japanese cultural property. Globalization doesn't necessarily homogenize cultural differences nor erase the salience of cultural labels. Quite the contrary, it grows the franchise. In the global economy of consumption, the brand equity of sushi as Japanese cultural property adds to the cachet of both the country and the cuisine. A Texan Chinese-American restauranteur told me, for example, that he had converted his chain of restaurants from Chinese to Japanese cuisine because the prestige factor of the latter meant he could charge a premium; his clients couldn't distinguish between Chinese and Japanese employees (and often failed to notice that some of the chefs behind his sushi bars were Latinos).

The brand equity is sustained by complicated flows of labor and ethnic biases. Outside of Japan, having Japanese hands (or a reasonable facsimile) is sufficient warrant for sushi competence. Guidebooks for the current generation of Japanese global wandervogel sometimes advise young Japanese looking for a job in a distant city to work as a sushi chef; U.S. consular offices in Japan grant more than 1,000 visas a year to sushi chefs, tuna buyers, and other workers in the global sushi business. A trade school in Tokyo, operating under the name Sushi Daigaku (Sushi University) offers short courses in sushi preparation so "students" can impress prospective employers with an imposing certificate. Even without papers, however, sushi remains firmly linked in the minds of Japanese and foreigners alike with Japanese cultural identity. Throughout the world, sushi restaurants operated by Koreans, Chinese, or Vietnamese maintain Japanese identities. In sushi bars from Boston to Valencia, a customer's simple greeting in Japanese can throw chefs into a panic (or drive them to the far end of the counter).

On the docks, too, Japanese cultural control of sushi remains unquestioned. Japanese buyers and "tuna techs" sent from Tsukiji to work seasonally on the docks of New England laboriously instruct foreign fishers on the proper techniques for catching, handling, and packing tuna for export. A bluefin tuna must approximate the appropriate kata, or "ideal form," of color, texture, fat content, body shape, and so forth, all prescribed by Japanese specifications. Processing requires proper attention as well. Special paper is sent from Japan for wrapping the fish before burying them in crushed ice. Despite high shipping costs and the fact that 50 percent of the gross weight of a tuna is unusable, tuna is sent to Japan whole, not sliced into salable portions. Spoilage is one reason for this, but form is another. Everyone in the trade agrees that Japanese workers are much more skilled in cutting and trimming tuna than Americans, and no one would want to risk sending botched cuts to Japan.

Not to impugn the quality of the fish sold in the United States, but on the New England docks, the first determination of tuna buyers is whether they are looking at a "domestic" fish or an "export" fish. On that judgment hangs several dollars a pound for the fisher, and the supply of sashimi-grade tuna for fishmongers, sushi bars, and seafood restaurants up and down the Eastern seaboard. Some of the best tuna from New England may make it to New York or Los Angeles, but by way of Tokyo -- validated as top quality (and top price) by the decision to ship it to Japan by air for sale at Tsukiji, where it may be purchased by one of the handful of Tsukiji sushi exporters who supply premier expatriate sushi chefs in the world's leading cities.


The tuna auction at Yankee Co-op in Seabrook, New Hampshire, is about to begin on the second-to-last day of the 1999 season. The weather is stormy, few boats are out. Only three bluefin, none of them terribly good, are up for sale today, and the half-dozen buyers at the auction, three Americans and three Japanese, gloomily discuss the impending end of a lousy season. In July, the bluefin market collapsed just as the U.S. fishing season was starting. In a stunning miscalculation, Japanese purse seiners operating out of Kesennuma in northern Japan managed to land their entire year's quota from that fishery in only three days. The oversupply sent tuna prices at Tsukiji through the floor, and they never really recovered.

Today, the news from Spain is not good. The day before, faxes and e-mails from Tokyo brought word that a Spanish fish farm had suffered a disaster. Odd tidal conditions near Cartagena led to a sudden and unexpected depletion of oxygen in the inlet where one of the great tuna nets was anchored. Overnight, 800 fish suffocated. Divers hauled out the tuna. The fish were quickly processed, several months before their expected prime, and shipped off to Tokyo. For the Japanese corporation and its Spanish partners, a harvest potentially worth $6.5 million would yield only a tiny fraction of that. The buyers at the morning's auctions in New Hampshire know they will suffer as well. Whatever fish turn up today and tomorrow, they will arrive at Tsukiji in the wake of an enormous glut of hastily exported Spanish tuna.

Fishing is rooted in local communities and local economies -- even for fishers dipping their lines (or nets) in the same body of water, a couple hundred miles can be worlds away. Now, a Massachusetts fisher's livelihood can be transformed in a matter of hours by a spike in market prices halfway around the globe or by a disaster at a fish farm across the Atlantic. Giant fishing conglomerates in one part of the world sell their catch alongside family outfits from another. Environmental organizations on one continent rail against distant industry regulations implemented an ocean away. Such instances of convergence are common in a globalizing world. What is surprising, and perhaps more profound, in the case of today's tuna fishers, is the complex interplay between industry and culture, as an esoteric cuisine from an insular part of the world has become a global fad in the span of a generation, driving, and driven by, a new kind of fishing business.

Many New England fishers, whose traditional livelihood now depends on unfamiliar tastes and distant markets, turn to a kind of armchair anthropology to explain Japan's ability to transform tuna from trash into treasure around the world. For some, the quick answer is simply national symbolism. The deep red of tuna served as sashimi or sushi contrasts with the stark white rice, evoking the red and white of the Japanese national flag. Others know that red and white is an auspicious color combination in Japanese ritual life (lobster tails are popular at Japanese weddings for just this reason). Still others think the cultural prize is a fighting spirit, pure machismo, both their own and the tuna's. Taken by rod and reel, a tuna may battle the fisher for four or five hours. Some tuna literally fight to the death. For some fishers, the meaning of tuna -- the equation of tuna with Japanese identity -- is simple: Tuna is nothing less than the samurai fish!

Of course, such mystification of a distant market's motivations for desiring a local commodity is not unique. For decades, anthropologists have written of "cargo cults" and "commodity fetishism" from New Guinea to Bolivia. But the ability of fishers today to visualize Japanese culture and the place of tuna within its demanding culinary tradition is constantly shaped and reshaped by the flow of cultural images that now travel around the globe in all directions simultaneously, bumping into each other in airports, fishing ports, bistros, bodegas, and markets everywhere. In the newly rewired circuitry of global cultural and economic affairs, Japan is the core, and the Atlantic seaboard, the Adriatic, and the Australian coast are all distant peripheries. Topsy-turvy as Gilbert and Sullivan never imagined it.

Japan is plugged into the popular North American imagination as the sometimes inscrutable superpower, precise and delicate in its culinary tastes, feudal in its cultural symbolism, and insatiable in its appetites. Were Japan not a prominent player in so much of the daily life of North Americans, the fishers outside of Bath or in Seabrook would have less to think about in constructing their Japan. As it is, they struggle with unfamiliar exchange rates for cultural capital that compounds in a foreign currency. And they get ready for next season.


Who Gets to Run the World?

Now more than ever, the world's multilateral organizations need top talent. But they usually don't get it. Find out how today’s bureaucratic all-stars really make the team -- and why the best players rarely get a chance.

The recent firestorm sparked by the botched selection process for the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) exposed a deeper problem than merely the wranglings of petty bureaucrats in Washington or Geneva. At a time when multilateral institutions have become more important than ever, the international community appears incapable of establishing a fair, expedient, and successful process for appointing the top leaders of these organizations. The IMF's travails, the European Union's (EU) squabbles in 1998 over who would head the European Central Bank, and the current jockeying for the top post at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are but the most visible examples of this widespread paralysis.

The timing is particularly bad. Globalization has increased the world's demand for effective multilateral organizations that can establish international rules and standards and address complex transnational problems. The agendas and influence of institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have expanded considerably in recent years, while lesser-known institutions such as the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) are rapidly gaining influence. Meanwhile, advances in communications technology have prompted the creation of entirely new organizations, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). But the unseemly, ad hoc feuds that appear to break out every time a top international post becomes vacant mean that the most competent candidates are rarely chosen or even put forward. Moreover, drawn out leadership battles distract the institutions from their core work, as occurred with the WTO during the crucial run-up to its failed 1999 meetings in Seattle. Even as more and more players demand to be heard on the international stage, the lack of a proper process to select leaders only undermines support for the system of global governance, precisely when the stresses of globalization make such support more critical than ever.


Most multilateral organizations were set up by nation-states wary of surrendering national autonomy. As a result, the leaders of these institutions are often vested with relatively weak formal powers compared, for instance, with those wielded by the chief executive officers of major multinational corporations. Nonetheless, the high visibility of such positions allows them to be used as "bully pulpits," as several U.N. secretaries-general have amply demonstrated. The managers of global institutions also enjoy considerable agenda-setting power, affecting not just which issues are debated but, more critically, when they are brought forward. Leaders often have considerable discretion in shaping the internal characteristics of their organizations, ranging from budgetary procedures and priorities to financial controls, personnel, and procurement policies. And in international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, leaders can exert heavy influence over the global distribution of enormous financial resources.

Some leaders of international organizations have emerged as invaluable consensus builders, helping member states forge compromises around thorny issues. Consider Maurice Strong of Canada, whose able stewardship of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) helped bridge sharp regional divides at the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. The importance of the "honest broker" role in contentious negotiations is one reason why nationals from small and mid-size countries are often overrepresented in the leadership of multilateral institutions. While their abilities are not always outstanding, such individuals attract broader support since their countries are less distrusted. Prominent examples include Norway's Gro Brundtland at the World Health Organization (WHO) and Ireland's Peter Sutherland, who chaired the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The leadership of multilateral organizations seems to matter more on the downside than the upside. Given the constraints imposed by member states, good leaders are often reduced to housekeeping roles as they simply seek to keep their institutions on track. By contrast, poor leaders can undermine the functioning and legitimacy of their organizations with surprising ease. Such was the case with Edouard Saouma of Lebanon, the former director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an institution charged with raising global nutrition levels and improving agricultural productivity in developing countries. When Saouma left office in 1993 after 18 years of service, the organization spent as much money on internal administration as it did on aid, and roughly half of its 6,000-plus staffers were comfortably stationed in urban Rome. The decade-long leadership of Japan's Hiroshi Nakajima at the WHO had similar, albeit less extreme, effects on that institution's administration. And James Wolfensohn, the World Bank's current president, has selectively committed the institution's resources to bankrolling the foreign-policy objectives of the world's advanced economies and enhancing his image. In recent years, the bank's research budget has been roughly equal to its public-relations expenditures -- an odd priority for an organization that now calls itself a "knowledge institution."

In the absence of any objective criteria and monitoring devices, the only real sanction that member states can wield against mediocre leaders is the denial of new terms in office. Even here, leaders such as the FAO's Saouma have been able to successfully manipulate the system and retain their positions. Such occurrences only underscore the importance of selecting the best possible leaders in the first place.


Most international organizations have only vague statutes governing the selection of their top executives. Often, the institution's governing council (or in the case of some parts of the United Nations, the secretary-general) makes the final appointment, but such a process can be simply a rubber stamp for the political deals already cut among the most important member countries.

The United Nations operates on a "one country, one vote" system, and the selection of the secretary-general is ostensibly democratic. By tradition, the post is off-limits to the world's major powers and rotates among the world's various regions. The last time the top job became vacant, it was widely deemed to be Africa's turn, so Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan took office in 1997. Yet the process is not nearly as inclusive as it might seem. Indeed, it can be dictatorial. Although each member country has a single vote at the United Nations, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) enjoy veto power over who can become secretary-general. When the United States blocked the reappointment of Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996, the final Security Council vote was 14 for reappointment and one against. Had the U.N. General Assembly been consulted, the likely vote would have been 183 in favor of reappointment and two against, with only Israel backing the U.S. position.

Unlike the United Nations, most of the international financial institutions operate on a system of weighted voting that gives their largest shareholders (generally the richest countries) the most influence. In the case of the IMF and World Bank, a decades-old "gentlemen's agreement" reserves the top job at the fund for a European and the high post at the bank for an American. Even here, however, there are no formal search and selection procedures, and domestic political considerations often prevail. In 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson nominated Robert McNamara for the presidency of the World Bank, at least in part to ease the controversial secretary of defense out of the cabinet. Similarly, in 1986, U.S. Treasury Secretary James Baker chose Barber Conable, a former Republican congressman, as a candidate for the presidency of the World Bank largely because the nominee had to be acceptable to Secretary of State George Shultz and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan. Whatever the merits of McNamara and Conable as leaders of the bank, a closed-door selection process based on domestic political compromises hardly seems an ideal way to choose the leader of an organization ostensibly serving a broad global constituency. In many cases, the selection process has resulted in the appointment of bank presidents with little or no professional experience in the core mission of the institution -- the economic development of poor nations.

Since multilateral institutions usually lack even informal conventions or official screening mechanisms such as search committees, countries often use candidates' national or regional affiliation as a proxy for whether they are likely to reflect certain policy preferences. Not knowing much about the candidates as individuals, governments tend to vote on the basis of what leaders are likely to do once in office. Nation-states often vote strategically, deploying their support in order to garner payoffs in other areas -- be it foreign-aid funds or support for their nationals in other leadership battles. 

These contests often display plenty of cajoling and outright arm-twisting, sometimes accompanied by an ample array of carrots and sticks. Japan, for example, is rumored to have held out the promise of greater development assistance to many countries to secure key votes in its ultimately successful campaign to install Yoshio Utsumi as head of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an organization that coordinates the use of telecom network services around the world. In addition, unrelated leadership squabbles sometimes become intertwined as countries keep score of which nationalities are over- or underrepresented in the top positions, and exactly who supported whom for which jobs and when. The overall process could hardly be more complicated or less transparent, and in the end there is no certainty that the best candidates will be selected, or even considered, when key jobs become vacant.

The farce at the IMF earlier this year provides a case study of what is wrong with the current system. When Michel Camdessus decided to retire as managing director before the end of his third term, Germany sought to redress its historical lack of visibility in international institutions by pushing the candidacy of Caio Koch-Weser, its deputy finance minister. The German claim centered on a complex balance sheet of intra-European ious: A French national was in line to head the European Central Bank; Italy owed Germany a favor for backing Italian Romano Prodi to lead the European Commission; and the British were indebted to Germany for backing George Robertson as the new head of NATO. Against these interlocking interests, the smaller European countries had little chance to intervene.

Despite intense European politicking, the United States effectively vetoed Koch-Weser's candidacy, and other countries offered at best lukewarm support for a person they believed lacked the stature for this prominent position. After much acrimony, another German national, Horst Köhler, former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was awarded the post. Noting the arbitrariness of the process, some observers have suggested that Koch-Weser might have won the top IMF spot had he been Germany's second candidate, while Köhler might have been vetoed had he been nominated first. Ultimately, the consequences were threefold: As a second-choice candidate appointed after a bruising and high-profile battle, Köhler's authority was weakened; the tussle further tested already strained transatlantic relations; and in persuading other European countries to suppress lingering reservations, Germany ran up hefty political debts that will have to be settled through similarly awkward compromises down the road.


Such leadership travails point to a deeper underlying imbalance: The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but its institutional grid has not. Fifty-one countries joined the United Nations at its founding in 1945; the structures they created now apply to today's 189 member states. Less than a quarter of the current members of the IMF and World Bank were present when the institution's structures were crafted in the 1940s. Developing nations joined gradually over the years, but did so as rule takers, not rule makers. There are now nearly 200 countries in the international system, and their pecking order has shifted; two of the world's three largest economies, Japan and Germany, were absent at the creation of the major Bretton Woods institutions. And finally, the advent of regional alliances and unions has prompted a realignment of positions and interests across the globe. With the passage of time, the mismatch between the antiquated structures of multilateral institutions and their larger global environment has increased -- and so have tensions.

Developing Countries: The institutional mechanisms of global decision making appear glaringly inadequate if judged by the extent to which they truly represent the countries and people of the world. For example, the nations that are least represented in multilateral leadership positions, relative to their size, are China and India, which account for 37 percent of the global population. The Group of Seven industrialized countries (G7) -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- plus the rest of the EU represent a mere 14 percent of the world's population, yet they control 56 percent of the votes in the IMF's executive board. In addition, the managing director is selected from among their ranks. This situation prompted Camdessus to argue that the old practice of dividing the World Bank and IMF jobs between the United States and Europe "was justified in 1950, when the rest of the world was not there except for a few countries from Latin America.... Now the emerging countries are there, now the poorest countries must have their say." Indeed, a critical reason why Senegalese national Jacques Diouf won a narrow victory over an Australian challenger to head the FAO in 1993 was the belief by many developing countries that the GATT, which was dominated by rich countries, shortchanged their interests.

As in all clubs, the rules in multilateral institutions reflect the preferences of the founders. The Bank for International Settlements provides a good example. For more than 50 years, the BIS was an exclusive club -- a forum for central bankers from advanced economies to cooperate and help promote international financial stability. Although the institution's ambit has rapidly expanded in recent years to include banking supervision and financial market monitoring, its governance structure remains locked in the past. Its executive board comprises the governors of the central banks of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and not more than nine governors of other member central banks (currently Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland). In other words, at the beginning of the 21st century, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden still carry more weight than Brazil, China, and India in these structures.

There is certainly some movement toward greater inclusion. Frustrated at the overrepresentation of Europe (and underrepresentation of key emerging markets) in the IMF's powerful International Monetary and Financial Committee and in the Basel-based Group of 10 (the G7 plus Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden), the United States spearheaded the creation in 1999 of the Group of 20 (G20) -- a new forum for consultation on matters relating to the global financial system, which includes larger developing countries. But even this group still leaves the poorest countries voiceless. Furthermore, leadership of the G20 is likely to remain in G7 hands for the foreseeable future, thus ensuring control of the group by rich nations.

Germany and Japan: Germany's aggressive posture during the IMF succession battles reflected the frustration of a major economic power at being shut out of key positions because of its history. The same is true of Japan, which wants to project its global leadership and become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Brandishing its substantial aid resources, Japan has sought the support of developing countries, often the largest voting bloc in many intergovernmental organizations. In the case of the ITU, Japan succeeded in gaining the top job for a Japanese national. In other cases, particularly where it is a major financial contributor -- such as in the Asian Development Bank -- Japan has also gained the top slot. Yet, despite their global importance and substantial financial contributions to multilateral institutions, Germany and Japan remain relative outsiders in the overall system and still do not have permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council.

Regionalism: The emergence of formal regional alliances has further complicated the clubby world at the top of international organizations. First, regional blocs engage in their own internecine leadership conflicts. In 1998, EU members could not agree on a candidate to head the new European Central Bank. In a move that dismayed financial markets, leaders agreed to split the eight-year term between Wim Duisenberg of the Netherlands and Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet, who will assume office in 2002. Second, regionalism poses severe challenges to globalization, and compromises made by countries to enhance the former spill over into conflicts involving the latter. Talented individuals in Europe were ruled out from the top job at the IMF, victims of the complex interplay between the nationality distribution of key positions within the EU and in global institutions. An experienced technocrat and thinker such as Poland's former Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz was not even considered. Indeed, until Poland is a full member of the EU, its government will be reluctant to challenge Germany, as will any of the other prospective EU countries.

The proliferation of new regional groups -- such as the Mercosur customs union in South America, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum -- will further complicate the politics within international institutions. The EU, and perhaps other regional bodies, will continue to try to have it both ways, wanting to be considered as single entities in international organizations when it suits them (for example, having their financial contributions considered in aggregate or claiming rights to certain leadership positions), but rejecting the notion that individual countries need no longer be represented on the governing councils of the IMF, the World Bank, and other such institutions. For instance, Denmark recently laid claim to the leadership of the U.N. Development Programme, arguing that overall the EU contributes much more to the agency than does the United States, for which the leadership position is traditionally reserved.


Not all the acrimony and complexity surrounding multilateral leadership contests can be attributed to outsiders wanting in or to increasing regionalism within global institutions. The global environment within which multilateral institutions operate has changed in ways that make these institutions and their leaders more important. Globalization has meant that many international organizations now grapple with issues much broader and deeper than anything their founders intended. Mounting frustrations at the mismatch between the widening agendas of international organizations and the narrow base of their governance were manifest in the ugly battles that erupted over the selection of the director-general of the WTO in 1999. The WTO's predecessor institution, the GATT, had limited powers; consequently, disputes over its leadership were muted. The WTO, however, referees a much larger game and has substantial sanctioning authority. Developing countries resented what they considered stacked rules of the game coming out of the GATT's Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, so the selection of a new WTO director-general in 1999 became even more critical. Aware that the two previous incumbents (both European) had failed to protect the interests of developing countries, these nations adopted a much stronger stance, resulting in bitter conflicts, prolonged machinations, and a leaderless organization for four crucial months. The eventual solution involved splitting the director-general's six-year tenure into two three-year terms to accommodate both developed and developing countries.

Rapid technological change, particularly the digital revolution, has also increased the importance of some global organizations, thus multiplying the leadership conflicts. The controversy surrounding ICANN -- the administrative body set up to facilitate Internet governance by assigning Internet addresses -- reveals how powerful interests try to dominate the multilateral arena. Were it not for a last-minute effort by two public-interest groups, ICANN's governing board would have been selected indirectly through an electoral council rather than via direct elections by the world's Internet users. In the telling words of Esther Dyson, interim chairwoman of ICANN, the electoral council had been established to prevent the nomination of "people who are stupid." So "smart" business interests, representing Internet service providers and intellectual property interests concerned with protecting their brands online, would have dominated the board relative to "stupid" consumer interests.

Ultimately, the struggles over leadership selection are a reflection -- and a warning -- of widespread frustration with the mechanisms of global governance. The current process for choosing multilateral leaders is for all, but more often than not it is by and of the few. Indeed, the strains on the system have become so severe that the World Bank and the IMF recently initiated high-level reviews of their institutions' appointment processes -- an encouraging sign that multilateral organizations are beginning to realize the magnitude of this problem. (Final reports and recommendations are due in 2001.) Prescriptions for improving selection processes abound: clear, transparent rules with standing selection committees to screen and shortlist candidates, as in the private sector; term limits for leaders of international organizations; and periodic independent performance appraisals of those leaders to reduce the chance that they will use their positions for partisan ends.

Nonetheless, a simple set of rules for leadership selection would not solve the problem. International organizations face an unavoidable dilemma that forecloses easy options. Rules allowing international institutions to choose leaders opposed by key members would only leave these institutions exposed to the risk of losing the financial support of the major players. While in theory it is possible to separate governance from financial contributions (as in the exceptional case of the World Intellectual Property Organization, where member countries contribute less than a tenth of the annual budget), contributors would likely oppose financial autonomy precisely because it would undermine a key basis of their control. At the same time, an unrepresentative process in which rich nations dominate the selection process only undermines the legitimacy and sustainability of multilateral organizations.

While many lament the "democratic deficit" in the world's global institutions, a careful balance is required between the resources that key members provide and the legitimacy of greater representation. As important as equitable representation is for both symbolic and substantive reasons, a democratic system of purely popular control over decision making would impair the effectiveness of most international organizations. This unavoidable tension is only exacerbated when key leaders are chosen through an ad hoc and opaque process that inevitably advances the interests of the powerful.