One vote decided the race for World Bank president: that of the only world leader who thought neoconservative lothario Paul Wolfowitz was doing a heckuva job managing the troubled lender of last resort for developing nations. So it came as no surprise that voter in chief George W. Bush chose a Wolfowitz with an even sharper bite, former US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, to create the impression of change while maintaining the substance of the Bank’s operations.
Even before Wolfowitz had secured his generous severance agreement, Bush pointedly refused to bow to calls by Brazil, Australia and reform-minded Europeans to end what Ute Koczy, the German Green Party’s development policy spokeswoman, describes as the “wretched tradition” of letting the United States pick the World Bank boss while the European Union selects the International Monetary Fund leader. And Bush certainly was not going to heed demands from developing nations and activist groups for real change in how the Bank does business.
Sure, there was talk about picking a new president with a track record of showing concern for the Bank’s impoverished clients, someone like former US ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth or former Iowa Representative Jim Leach. But Danforth or Leach might have taken seriously the notion that the point of reforming the Bank is to get more clean water, food, housing and medicine to the planet’s neediest people. That wasn’t a perspective the Bush team was looking for. They wanted someone who could be counted on to keep the Bank working within the safe confines of neoconservative theology and a Wall Street worldview. Zoellick fit the bill, as both a smoother operator than his couldn’t-organize-an-envelope-opening predecessor and a truer believer in the mantras of forced privatization, structural adjustment and free trade. “The best that can be said” for Zoellick, argues Sameer Dossani, director of the 50 Years Is Enough Network, “is that, like Wolfowitz, he’ll be an appropriate symbol of what the World Bank has become–an agency dedicated to entrenching US economic domination.”
Starting as a protégé of former Secretary of State James Baker, Zoellick made his mark as the privatization-preaching personal representative of Bush Senior at G-7 summits in 1991 and 1992. In recognition of his service, the investment firm Goldman Sachs hired Zoellick as a senior international adviser in the mid-1990s. But his primary work during the Bush family’s wilderness years involved outlining the second Bush Administration’s foreign policies. Zoellick was a signer, with Wolfowitz, of the 1998 Project for the New American Century letter urging then-President Clinton to get busy on “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.” As an original Vulcan–the name taken by the group that taught W. everything he knows about international affairs–Zoellick asserted the futility of employing “reason or goodwill” to tackle “evil in the world” in a January/February 2000 Foreign Affairs essay.
Zoellick practiced what he preached as the Administration’s economic hit man during W.’s first term, negotiating trade pacts that paved the way for multinational corporations to country-hop in a race-to-the-bottom search for lower wages and laxer regulations. As irascible as he is shameless (in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Zoellick fashioned the Administration’s bizarre demand that Congress rubber-stamp trade deals as part of the “war on terror”) the Trade Representative smeared labor, environmental and human rights groups that seek humane trade and development policies as “anti-globalization nihilists.”
Zoellick was no friendlier to developing nations that sought to make the World Trade Organization a more transparent and benevolent institution. In his dealings with the WTO “he earned a reputation as a powerful bully in middle- and low-income countries,” recalls Jessica Walker Beaumont of the American Friends Service Committee. “His condescending lectures about ‘can-do and won’t-do nations’ at the 2003 WTO summit in Cancún, when the US didn’t get its way, became notorious. It’s hard to imagine that, after defending US corporate profits so zealously, this is the person who is going to champion development on behalf of the world’s poor.”
Zoellick apologists cite his brief tenure at the State Department, when he dealt creditably with the Darfur crisis. But they conveniently forget that after expressing frustration with what he considered a low-prestige assignment, he exited State to rejoin Goldman Sachs as a managing director. Few who have seriously observed Zoellick over the years doubt that once his appointment is approved by a Bank board dominated by the United States and its European partners, the new president will indulge his penchant for corporate-friendly fixes such as forced privatization. He’ll be a determined proponent of “shock therapy” schemes, which use the muscle of the Bank and the IMF to make poor countries barter off essential public services to the highest bidder. Thus there is good reason to believe that John Cavanagh, veteran Bank watcher and director of the Institute for Policy Studies, will be proven right when he warns, “Paul Wolfowitz might not go down in history as the worst president of the World Bank.”