A week after Robert Zoellick announced that he would step down as World Bank President in late June, events have followed an already known pattern. Just as last May, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn left the IMF, many voices called for someone from an emerging power to take the job (see my op-ed in O Globo from May 21, 2011). And just like last year, leading twitterati with an emerging-power background like Dani Rodrik began to promote alternative candidates (such as Turkey's Kemal Dervis). A website, www.worldbankpresident.org, has been set up to promote non-American candidates. In an open poll on the site, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, an Indonesian economist already working at the World Bank, received most votes, followed by Dervis. The Financial Times' beyondbrics blog showed that betting shops expected Larry Summers to win, but a surprisingly high number of non-Americans are in the top 24, including long-shots such as Marina Silva, Brazil's former Minister for the Environment.
Using familiar rhetoric, the Brazilian government argued that a non-American should get the job. Yet as Reuter's Emily Kaiser rightly points out in a recent piece, there has been "much talk, but little action, to break U.S. grip on World Bank job." Just like last year, the United States may soon announce a suitable US-American candidate, quickly squashing hopes to make the World Bank more representative. As I wrote in a post last year ("Failure to counter Lagarde’s IMF bid shows that BRICS are far from united"),
When a Brazilian official sulkily admitted last week that “Europe is likely to keep its deep stranglehold on the position”, this was an implicit admission that emerging powers had plainly failed to agree on a powerful alternative to the French Finance Minister. While Europe and the United States have enough votes to push through any candidate, it would have been difficult for them to reject a viable choice which enjoys full support of China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa.
There are two aspects that make the situation different this year. First of all, the U.S. election campaign will make it very difficult for President Obama to escape domestic political realities and honor global promises. As Nancy Birdsall writes in an excellent post, "the election year timing puts the White House in an especially unenviable position. There is a risk that the World Bank could become a highly partisan, U.S. hot-button issue, as the UN has too often been."
On the other hand, the upcoming BRICS summit in Delhi may provide a great opportunity for emerging powers to pick and support a common candidate, such as South Africa's much-respected Trevor Manuel. The United States may seek to prevent such a scenario by quickly presenting an inevitable choice, although the most likeable candidate, Hillary Clinton, has already said she is not interested.
The hard truth is that finding a “BRICS-candidate” will be a tough challenge given the BRICS members countries’ often differing opinions, strategic interests and points of view. China, the world’s second largest economy and the IMF’s third largest contributor (after the United States and Japan), may see little difference between a French and a Mexican candidate. In the same way, Brazilians may feel no incentive to spend political capital in a fight for a Singaporean candidate. Brazil, for example, declined to support Mexico's IMF candidate last year.
On the way towards a more equitable world order, rising powers must first show that they can, amongst each other, agree on a common strategy. The upcoming BRICS summit in India is a golden opportunity. Unless the BRICS can build consensus in New Delhi, there is no point in decrying the West’s dominant position in today’s international institutions.