Robert Zoellick’s announcement that he would not seek another term as president of the World Bank has begun anew an old debate: Should an American continue to lead this institution?
Some argue that in a dramatically different world than the one which gave birth to the World Bank, it’s time for the face of the bank to come from a place other than the United States. Others cater to a restive domestic audience at home and argue that the United States should focus inward and move away from its traditional role atop the bank.
I disagree with both arguments. I believe instead that in a vastly different and more complicated world than at any time in our lives, the United States should continue to lead the World Bank - not as a matter of custom or birthright, but because it is in our interests and the shared interests of all countries that turn to the World Bank to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions around the globe.
Those at home who are tempted to look inward and turn their backs on American leadership would do well to remember the change the World Bank has rendered in remaking the world we live in today. In the decades since its founding, the bank has extended some $750 billion in financing for more than 11,000 projects in 168 countries. Those projects have not only lifted whole nations and countless people out of poverty, but have worked to address transnational threats, including - in my view - climate change. No matter how tempting, America cannot opt out of a networked world.
Moreover, in large measure because of Mr. Zoellick’s vision, passion and creativity, he will leave his successor with a bank that is smarter, more inclusive, financially stronger and more legitimate in the eyes of its shareholders and borrowers. If we are to build on that legacy, we must choose his successor with care.
Mr. Zoellick’s accomplishments are significant - not just for history, but for the bank’s future. At the height of the global economic crisis, he expanded the bank’s support for the world’s most vulnerable communities and ensured that emerging economies such as Indonesia would not be crushed by the post-Lehman cash crunch. From 2008 to 2010, the bank’s lending more than tripled. He subsequently persuaded the bank’s shareholders to contribute an additional $86 billion in capital to expand the bank’s lending capacity and to commit to nearly $50 billion in additional grant funds for projects in low-income countries.
His efforts also made public the bank’s treasure trove of economic data, which empowered its borrowers. The bank expanded its work to promote gender equality, which is not just because it was the right thing to do, but because we know it pays social and economic dividends in poor communities. At Mr. Zoellick’s direction, the bank expanded access to reliable energy for literally millions of people, while dramatically scaling up its commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energy. For America to walk away from this legacy would be more than a dereliction of duty, it would be contrary to our vital interests.
It is true that by custom, the bank has always been led by an American. But Mr. Zoellick took the important step of updating the bank’s governance to reflect changes in the world economy, and he increased the voice of middle- and lower-income countries that had been underrepresented at the institution. One of the bank’s managing directors is Indonesian and another is Egyptian. Its chief economist is Chinese. There is now more geographic diversity at the senior levels of bank management than ever before. In short, this is not your father’s World Bank.
Still, to those who say it is time for other nations to lead the bank, I believe America’s place at the head of the organization should continue. The global economy is struggling from Europe to the Middle East to pockets of East Asia. Despite our own struggles, the American economy remains the largest and most dynamic in the world - a $15 trillion goliath on the cusp of renewal. Our leadership has been and will continue to be essential for placing the international economy on a more positive trajectory and avoiding global contagion that could - at a moment’s notice - put us right back on unstable economic ground.
Equally important, if the bank is to continue to promote best practices in development, its next president must have demonstrated consistent dedication to just, accountable and transparent governance - values that are part of the American tradition.
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has rightly emphasized the need for an open selection process. We shouldn’t fear that process. If we are to promote an American to lead the bank at this critical time - as I strongly believe we should - our candidate must possess the experience, knowledge and stature to run the World Bank effectively from Day 1. I am confident the administration will identify just such a leader, one who will secure the strong support of our international partners and who can continue to generate domestic support at a time of fiscal challenge at home.
It was in no small part through Mr. Zoellick’s skillful facilitation on Capitol Hill that, even in a time of considerable budgetary constraint, we in Congress - House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats - agreed last year to fund the U.S. contributions to all of the multilateral development banks. Through those contributions, the United States will continue to be the World Bank’s largest funder, and we will maintain our leadership role across the international financial institutions. Without an American at the head of the bank, support at home and abroad could wane, and the many developing nations that benefit from American influence would suffer.
Going forward, the World Bank’s opportunities and responsibility to make a difference will only grow - in fighting poverty, alleviating the effects of climate change and helping the Middle East transition through its current turbulence. These challenges are not small, but neither are they different from the turbulent times that gave birth to the bank decades ago. In opening the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 - the meeting that would lay the groundwork for an open international economy for decades to come - President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded Americans that “the economic health of every country is a proper matter of concern to all its neighbors near and far.” In the years that followed, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, in good times and bad, the United States translated FDR’s conviction into reality, creating institutions for peace, including the World Bank, which helped to rebuild Europe and went on to assist impoverished people on every continent. In so doing, America benefited - in new markets for our businesses and new allies who looked to America and our values for inspiration.
Under American leadership, the World Bank has become one of the most effective multilateral organizations operating today, and under new American leadership it will continue to ensure, as Roosevelt once insisted, that the economic health of every country is the concern of us all.
Sen. John F. Kerry is a Massachusetts Democrat.