President Bush's nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to be the next head of the World Bank has brought forth a global torrent of disapproving invective. Britain's former development secretary, Clare Short, said it was as though the US was "showing two fingers to the world". "A terrifying appointment", "an insult to the world's poor" and "mystifying" were among the reactions. The development expert and UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs said that a position on which hundreds of millions of people depended for their lives needed "a proper leadership of professionalism". And so it does.
Mr Wolfowitz's record, unfortunately, contains little that would make him an obvious candidate for the job. The Pentagon does not naturally recommend itself as a nursery for World Bank executives, least of all the Pentagon of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Nor does Mr Wolfowitz himself seem especially qualified for the role. His main experience of the less developed world was a spell as ambassador to Indonesia rather a long time ago.
More recently, and more notoriously, he has been known as the embodiment of neoconservatism, that strand of thinking that places America first and advocates the use of US power to transform Muslim and other states into American-style democracies. As deputy defence secretary, he will probably be remembered not only as the intellectual force behind the Iraq war but as author of some of the Americans' most heinous misjudgements. Nothing about his tenure at the Pentagon bodes well for the future of the World Bank.
What this international institution needs is a respected leader who will carry conviction around the world; someone well aware of the competing demands on the bank's resources, someone well informed about the reality in the many countries where it operates, someone willing to tackle the twin banes of corruption and waste. The new head does not have to be someone steeped in the World Bank's culture; there is a good argument that an outsider is needed to take a fresh look at how the bank operates and the projects it funds. There is an argument, too, for someone who will be able to work with the current US administration and has influence in Washington.
The difficulty with Paul Wolfowitz is that much of the rest of the world will find it difficult to work with him. He may, as is claimed on his behalf, be a highly competent administrator and fundraiser. He may also be "compassionate and decent", as President Bush described him. But this is nothing like enough to outweigh his ideological baggage. It is hard to escape the impression that he is being parachuted in to reshape the bank as an arm of US policy cloaked in false multilateralism.
There are now three possibilities. The first is that Mr Wolfowitz's nomination will be rejected by the board of the World Bank, or that, anticipating rejection, the nominee himself withdraws. This, however, looks unlikely. If there is one trait for which Mr Bush is known it is his single-minded persistence. He will not easily give in.
The second is that Mr Wolfowitz will prove just as catastrophic a choice to head the World Bank as his worst detractors fear. Insensitive to the nature of the bank and the needs of its beneficiaries, ideologically inflexible, utterly committed to free-market solutions even where and when they are inappropriate, he would preside over the decline of an international institution that, while far from perfect, does much good. That, it could be argued, might be a purpose of his nomination.
The third possibility is that Mr Wolfowitz does as he says he will: listens to those around him and builds on the best of the World Bank's achievements, while applying more modern administrative methods. If Mr Wolfowitz went native enough to make himself acceptable to the bank and its non-American shareholders, while retaining the high-level access he clearly enjoys in Washington, it is just conceivable that he could become a successful president of the World Bank. But it is not a gamble we would choose to take.Reuse content