I have no idea if Dartmouth president (and public health expert) Jim Yong Kim is a good
choice to head the World Bank or not. I'm not an expert on economic development, and I've heard both good and
bad things about him from a number of friends and colleagues since his
nomination was announced. But I am
pretty sure that the Obama administration blew an opportunity to score some
diplomatic points when they decided to push him for the job.
Here's the key issue: Because voting shares in the
World Bank are determined by each member nation's contributions, the United States
has a de facto veto over who gets to be Bank president. It's the old Golden Rule of International
Organization: Those with the gold make the rules. By long-standing custom, the president of the World Bank has always been an American, while a European gets to
lead the International Monetary Fund.
Surprise, surprise: Other countries find this situation objectionable. And especially when the U.S. uses its prerogative
to foist candidates with dubious qualifications on the institution, such as
former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who helped lead the U.S. to disaster in
Vietnam) or former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (who did the same for us in
Of course, realists expect powerful states to use
international institutions to advance their own interests, which is why they
want to make sure that the people in charge are reliable. If I were president, I would want the World
Bank to be led by a highly competent individual who wasn't about to harm U.S.
interests. But a smart realist would
also recognize that imposing the U.S. choice on others every single time is bound to trigger resentment, and encourage
rising powers like China, Brazil, India, and others to redouble efforts to
break Washington's stranglehold. And every
time the United States has to twist arms or use its privileged position to get
its way, other states quietly seethe and anti-American forces are handed
another nice talking point to use to undermine the U.S. image around the world.
Which is why I
think the Obama administration missed a golden opportunity when it failed to
embrace the nomination of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian Minister of Finance
minister and former World Bank Managing Director. I can't speak with authority about her
qualifications, although she does have a B.A. from Harvard (magna cum laude) and a
Ph.D. in regional economic development from MIT. I'm also struck by the endorsement she received from renowned trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati in a letter to
the Financial Times, where he said
that his own personal experience had convinced him that "she can outwit and
outsmart almost any policy economist I know."
To be clear, I'm
not arguing that Okonjo-Iweala is axiomatically a better choice than Kim,
although she certainly appears to be equally (and maybe better) qualified. My point is about the diplomatic
repercussions of this decision and the broader approach that the United States
ought to be taking in world affairs. Given how powerful the United States still is, a primary goal of U.S.
foreign policy should be to make America's privileged position as palatable to
others as possible. One way to do that
is to make symbolic concessions on minor issues on occasion, in order to build
good will and to convey a certain regard for others's sensitivities. You know: a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind." So when Washington gets lucky and the African Union endorses a Nigerian
economist with a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT, who also has ample
experience at the World Bank, and who is a woman of color to boot, the smart thing to do is get behind it immediately. This course is such an obvious no-brainer
that I'm amazed the Obama administration didn't leap at the opportunity.
And by the way,
having a non-American as president of the World Bank wouldn't set an
unfortunate precedent. The United States
would still have the voting rules in its favor, and it could still veto future candidates
that it deemed unacceptable. But in this
case the United States missed an opportunity to build some good will at
little or no cost, and it's going to come back to haunt us down the road. And woe unto us if Kim gets the job and turns
out to be a dud.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images