World’s Banker: Responsibility of Robert Zoellick

BY CHRIS SZABLA

There are few places in the world, it seems, that Robert Zoellick ’81 is not something of an expert on. When the former US trade representative and newly-minted president of the World Bank sat down with Professor William Alford last Friday afternoon, his face lit up upon hearing each attending LLM student’s nationality. “Liberia!” he exulted, cutting off one such student mid-question. “I was just there”. Zoellick then launched into a ten minute long digression on Liberia’s history, culture, and politics, before segueing back into the topic at hand: his new job.

He had entered Liberia, Zoellick said, on a road financed by the bank and built by the Chinese. A war-ravaged hotel he stayed at was later sold to Libyan investors, with the bank’s help. However uplifting in some respect, these examples illustrated a tension lurking behind Zoellick’s remarks: for every recent success he and the bank could point to, there appeared to be some questionable influence working in the background.

China, for instance, often took center stage in the discussion, with clear reason. As banks in the US and Europe implode due to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, China’s lead role in the world economy, underwriting US debt and investing heavily in Africa and Latin America, has become readily apparent. Zoellick appeared proud of how the bank had hitched itself to China’s growing influence.

But difficult questions concerning, for example, the bank’s role in assisting China’s internal development, and its rise to world power status, were not forthcoming. Indeed, Zoellick readily admitted that the Beijing Olympics would probably lead to even greater outbursts of discontent within China than those experienced recently in Tibet, with outcomes unlikely to be applauded by Western governments. Yet his invocation of this dark scenario was made as if wholly external to his organization’s own ties to the People’s Republic.

It would be much easier to look critically at Zoellick’s presidency if his work with the bank were taken out of the context of the organization’s tumultuous recent history. Last year, the bank’s staff purged its previous president, Paul Wolfowitz, in an unprecedented coup. Arriving on the heels of that experience, Zoellick has been hailed as comparatively capable, competent, and cautious. The Financial Times, Alford noted, has been “laudatory” of Zoellick’s work, for the most part.

The overarching theme of this work, however, has actually flown under the radar of the mainstream media’s day-to-day focus. He spoke of trying to rekindle a “focus on the mission” within the bank by “draw[ing] people together” – by which he means everyone from the bank’s testily mutinous staff to countries he believes the bank has overlooked in the past.

The poorest countries, he noted, were only one prong of his six-point strategic plan. He also believed the bank should concern itself with post-conflict states – helping it return to the “reconstruction” mission for which it was founded after the Second World War – and “middle income countries” such as India and China, as “it would be an error to exclude the fastest rising powers”.

Zoellick has brought similar a similar emphasis on inclusion and conciliation to his participation in the current Doha round of negotiations on trade. People’s “general idea” of the round is “misplaced,” he said. “People have the idea it’s like a big poker game, but that’s not going to be the formula to get 150 economists to agree…everyone has to agree.”

Part of achieving concordance among so many parties, Zoellick hinted, was to not stay attached to any set principles. His personal strategy, he revealed, was to be opportunistic, and seize opportunities when they came along. Zoellick’s preferred authority on this was none other than Otto von Bismarck, who said that while he had a sense of where to go, he wanted to “grab on to the cloak of fate” when the “momentum of the times” came charging by.

Zoellick’s life has been the story, perhaps, of adhering to this principle. For someone with as blue-chip a job as president of the World Bank, his path was hardly the traditional one plied by most law students. In 1980, for instance, he took a year off law school to live in Hong Kong. Zoellick’s time there occurred just as China was beginning to implement the reforms that have led to its current influence in the world economy.

The “cloak of fate” is, however, just as often worn by gatekeepers with authority as it is by one’s own momentary impulses. For years after leaving HLS, Zoellick patiently absorbed advice from a series of influential superiors, noting that this had been one of the keys to his success. Today, Zoellick appears willing to follow the cloak of fate when it presents the opportunity of serving the influential just as often as when it blows toward his own principles. Yet as much as he appears to be untroubled by working with states such as China and Libya, he is still not afraid to exert his views – and influence – in other arenas.

For example, Zoellick appears unafraid to critique the US on its policy of domestic agricultural subsidies, saying that it retards the growth of agriculture in the developing world. He also said that while many Persian Gulf states had been successful in transforming themselves into “little Singapores,” they needed “lessons” on issues such as gender equality, education, and social issues. He believes some countries have played upon global sensitivities unfairly while trying to get the best deals for themselves in trade negotiations: “the middle powers, like China, India, and Brazil,” he said, “like to wrap themselves up with sub-Saharan Africa, but there’s a bit of a difference…the idea people are trying to pulverize them isn’t borne out by the facts”.

In the past, Zoellick has shown an even greater inclination to go with his moral instincts. Visiting Darfur several times, he wore a wristband bearing the phrase “not on our watch”. His resignation as Deputy Secretary of State sometime thereafter may have had to do with disagreements with the Bush administration over Darfur. Defending the give-and-take style of trade negotiation, and the openness of trade itself as a sort of extension of this, Zoellick remains passionate. “The wonderful thing about trade is that it’s a win-win process,” he observed, adding that “the wonderful thing about being a trade negotiator is that if you give away too much you actually help your economy”.

Perhaps it is this passion for trade, and the negotiation that enables it, that is the intersection where Zoellick the maverick individualist and Zoellick the cooperative collaborator meet. Case in point: speaking softly, and conceding where possible, is Zoellick’s strategy for achieving anything he has in mind. His couched sentiments on China are a good example. “The Chinese are justifiably proud of what they have accomplished,” he noted, but said that they should recognize their success was accomplished through the preexisting structures of the international system, and that they therefore had a stake in preserving that system.

This was not the first time Zoellick has used such language. When he first noted that China should be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, Alford said, it “sent people worldwide scrambling for their dictionaries”. This was as far as Zoellick ever went leveling a direct criticism at China, however. He has preferred, instead, to gently increase the level of trust China has in the bank, and the amount of influence the bank has, thereby, in China. Many of the bank’s loans to the PRC are conditioned on their use for environmental purposes, for example, and its commitment to maintaining a new commitment to transparency in dealing with Africa may be a couched way at forcing China’s interests there out in to the open.

This approach can strike one as too gentle, however. Zoellick quickly followed his “responsible stakeholder” remark by complimenting the Chinese on their lack of arrogance. The violent repression of demonstrations in Tibet he airbrushed as fomenting “a lot of sensitivities to manage”. US politici
ans, he said, would not react to crackdowns during the Olympics with calm measure just because China was a “responsible stakeholder”.

It was not clear whether, by this, Zoellick meant that that standard was fine as far the bank, at least, was concerned. In many ways, it is easy for Zoellick to wash his hands of the questions that vex political leaders dealing with rising powers such as China. The World Bank is an independent organization with no political constituency to answer to – it is so independent, in fact, that it regulates itself through its own internal legal system.

Still, politics and economics are inextricably intertwined. Zoellick himself pointed out that phasing out internecine hostilities in Liberia was both the challenge and the goal of the bank’s work there, and the bank’s current partnership with China can be viewed as tantamount to tacit acceptance of its policies. Yet the bank does not have the same influence over China that it can have in small, sub-Saharan African states. The argument can be made that collaborating on Chinese-financed development projects is more advantageous for the bank in the long term, as it will come to be seen by China as a reliable partner.

The self-interest of the bank is, however, not the only interest at stake. Perhaps Zoellick ought to consider making his definition of “responsible stakeholder” more expansive than the People’s Republic may, by the bank’s eager participation in China’s African projects, have assumed. Perhaps he ought to insist that the superpower of the 21st century fulfill a few basic conditions – on human rights, for example – before the bank becomes its willing tributary. Taking such a line would take the bank in no less neutral political direction than it already maintains – by virtue of its support for China’s growing international influence.

Of course, this might buck the trend of Zoellick’s presidency, which has moved the organization away from a pushy approach that had been criticized as imperialist. It might meet considerable resistance from China for similar reasons – the country is wary of rehashing the centuries of humiliating economic domination it endured in the era of treaty ports and favorable trade laws surrendered to European powers. Zoellick need not, however, be untrue to his grand strategy – or himself. He would be sticking up for the spirit of open discussion, give-and-take, and negotiation, after all.

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