A Legacy in Peril at the World Bank

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 28, 2007

As the U.S. representative on the World Bank's board of executive directors, I formally nominated Alden Winship ("Tom") Clausen in 1980 to be the bank's sixth president. The outcome was never in doubt. Clausen was elected by acclamation. It has always been thus.

Since the World Bank was created at the end of World War II, the election of an American as president has never been seriously challenged. However, 51 years of unbroken American service at the helm of the largest international financial institution are in jeopardy, thanks to the ill-fated presidency of Paul Wolfowitz. This week, the European Parliament, in an unheard-of action, called for his resignation.

What a fall from grace for the United States.

The American reign began in June 1946, when, at the urging of President Harry Truman, The Washington Post's owner, Eugene Meyer, became the World Bank's first president.

It was the job done by Meyer, who built the bank from the ground up, coupled with years of admirable service by Meyer's four American successors that made Tom Clausen's election go so smoothly.

My task before the board was essentially ceremonial. The groundwork for Clausen's acceptance was started months earlier by the Carter administration, led by Assistant Treasury Secretary C. Fred Bergsten, who eased the way through consultations with his counterparts in key European, Asian, African and Latin American capitals.

The real foundation for Clausen's presidency, however, had been laid decades earlier by Meyer, who put in place policies and structures that enabled the bank to play a prominent role in postwar Europe and beyond.

Other distinguished Americans followed Meyer, bringing expertise and luster to the bank. Chief among them were John Jay McCloy, Eugene Robert Black, George David Woods and James D. Wolfensohn. I served on the board during the last year of Robert McNamara's presidency.

McNamara came to the bank draped in the legacy of the Vietnam War. But he left 13 years later praised by one observer as an "[i]ndefatigable builder and wielder of influence on behalf of the Bank and the development cause." I can attest to that.

Each of the nine bank presidents from Meyer through Wolfensohn brought different strengths to the job. Yes, some were better at financial management and international diplomacy than others. But they all shared one quality: Their on-the-job conduct was beyond reproach.

All of that ended with Paul Wolfowitz.

Eugene Meyer set the standard for bank presidents. Wolfowitz has fallen short of that mark. Under his presidency, the bank has been condensed into a tabloid in which the chief executive's girlfriend is Topic A. Instead of concentrating on the bank's basic mission of reducing global poverty, Wolfowitz is spending precious time staving off charges of favoritism, cronyism and conflicts of interest.

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