At the international financial meetings just concluded here, a British journalist said to a colleague at one point: "We're all waiting for [Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III's] statement -- but that's getting to be the routine, isn't it?"
Rarely have international economic happenings focused on one official as much as they do on the Texas lawyer-politician who shifted in midcareer to the post of finance minister for the world's biggest industrial nation.
All went smoothly at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting for one major reason: The pragmatic team of Baker and his principal aide, Deputy Secretary Richard Darman, has replaced what many foreigners labeled the ideological team of former secretary Donald T. Regan and undersecretary for monetary affairs Beryl Sprinkel.
Regan and Sprinkel surely are not without their continuing influence in these matters -- Regan as the president's chief of staff and Sprinkel as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
But the pragmatic Baker is effectively in charge of the policy-making machinery on all economic issues -- even trade matters, which used to fall outside the Treasury bailiwick -- through his chairmanship of the White House Cabinet council on economic policy.
"Pragmatic," of course, is an overworked Washington word, which sometimes is taken to mean that an individual has no real commitment to anything. In Baker's case, it means trying to find a practical way to achieve whatever it is he believes in.
Says a European central banker: "Baker is not only pragmatic, but cool, calm and approachable. You get the feeling that you can get something done when negotiating with him. With Regan and Sprinkel, we were always fighting over a word or two."
For example, in discussing IMF surveillance of the major economies -- a fancy phrase for nudging the major countries to bring their economic policies in line with those of their trading partners -- Regan and Sprinkel resisted agreeing to a "policy consensus" with the others.
The banker said "their idea was that the United States didn't have to reach a consensus with anyone else."
That now has changed, although no one suggests that all is sweetness and light, and that all differences among the Americans, Japanese, Europeans and others have been resolved. And no country is ready to put international considerations ahead of domestic priorities: The "one-world" concept has not arrived -- and may never be a reality.
But what has happened with the advent of the Baker-Darman team is that the United States has shucked its "do-it-alone" policy. The days of an arrogant posture of ignoring the impact of American economic decisions on others is gone, in favor of recognition of the real interdependence of the world's free nations.
At the Federal Reserve Board, for example, the exchange rate of the dollar is an important consideration in establishing interest-rate policy: It didn't use to be that way.
At times, the need to take interdependence seriously has caused a conflict with the preferred free-market rhetoric of the president.
For his part, Baker hasn't feared to stake out an interventionist role on several issues, starting with the Group of Five meeting last September in New York -- among the United States, West Germany, Japan, France and Britain -- that brought the dollar down. He also began "jawboning" Germany and Japan to expand their domestic economies.
Then, Baker abandoned the hands-off attitude on the Third World debt crisis, evolving his now-famous "initiative" on this problem last October. This asserted the need for governmental leadership to prod the World Bank, the IMF, the commercial banks and the borrowing countries into action.
The Baker plan has not yet taken off, but the beginnings are in view with a World Bank readiness to boost loans about 90 percent by 1990, and in the prospect of basic reforms in some key debtor nations. The Third World debt crisis still looms as a threat to global prosperity, but the Baker initiative remains the one solid hope of beginning to master it.
Finally, Baker helped orchestrate a reduction in interest rates through the G-5 process, which ultimately may be the framework for basic improvements in the creaky international monetary system.
Baker's pragmatism also shows in his willingness to consider broadening the G-5 to a G-7 by including Canada and Italy, which feel left out of the picture even though their economies are as important as those of Britain and France, the lesser of the Five.
For a time, some administration officials favored shrinking the G-5 to a G-3, arguing that the only nations important enough for the United States to fuss with are West Germany and Japan.
But a key Treasury insider says: "There are real live differences between us and, say, the Germans. It is exceedingly helpful to have mediating parties and other influences to try to help bring about consensus.
"And there's another reason to go for more than a G-3 and, in my opinion, more than a G-5: I'm a believer that the larger the political system in which this is operating, the larger the pressure for coordination: The wider the base of political support, the better off you are and, ultimately, the more significant."