National pride survives into the global era. So does national political ambition. The hunt for a new managing director for the International Monetary Fund has turned into a quiet quagmire of subterfuge and rivalry among the world's richest nations.
Sigmund Freud would recognize this as a moment when a cigar is not just a cigar. The jockeying around the fund job, which France's Michel Camdessus leaves in mid-February, reveals hidden agendas in the nations competing to pluck the plum or keep it away from others.
This sub rosa competition ripples into the future choice of Britain's prime minister. It also touches France's ambition to shape European monetary policy, the fate of Germany's rickety coalition government, Japan's newly expressed determination to gain its rightful share of global power in the 21st century, and other, more subterranean agendas.
For the contenders, such national concerns outrank what should be the priority right now: the need to pick the person who can most successfully address the changing nature of the IMF itself. One of the half-dozen most prestigious posts in the international financial community, the IMF managing directorship was radically redefined in the 1990s as Camdessus became globalization's crisis manager.
This transformation occurred more by default than design. Nobody else could pour emergency money into Russia, Indonesia, South Korea and other financial hot spots of the new world economy. A strong leader will be needed to direct the emerging debate over whether the IMF should continue in this role, and even expand into fighting world poverty, as Camdessus has suggested.
That suggestion did not go down well at the U.S. Treasury and especially not at the World Bank, which has the mandate to fight world poverty. The possibility of confusion of World Bank and IMF missions has now come to play a role in the unexpectedly long and rancorous sparring over who replaces Camdessus.
By tradition the United States has named an American to head the World Bank and a European--usually a Frenchman--has taken the IMF helm. Germany had the inside track for the next IMF term, until Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, with little advance consultation with his foreign partners, put forward the name of his relatively obscure deputy finance minister, Caio Koch-Weser.
The choice immediately ran into silent but clear opposition from France, the United States and others unimpressed with Koch-Weser's 23 years at the World Bank in Washington and his recent performance in the lackluster economic team of the Social Democratic-Green coalition.
Just as Schroeder's stumble in the international arena parallels and underlines the uncertain way he has handled the still sluggish German economy, France's reaction is revealing of its changing priorities.
The French-German alliance that has been the motor of European integration was deemed not to be overriding this time: Paris did not accommodate Berlin's choice. And in the impasse that has followed, France has not put forward the name of the superbly qualified head of the Bank of France, Jean-Claude Trichet, for the IMF job. Paris prefers to send Trichet to Frankfurt to head the European Central Bank in a few years, as has already been agreed, rather than reclaim the job for France.
The French combine elegance and cold calculation in blocking Koch-Weser's appointment. They suggest privately that the IMF job should go to a European of much higher official rank, say, prime minister or finance minister, and thoughtfully offer several of their own ex-heavyweights. The French thus let the Germans down easy and move to block the candidacy of the dynamic director general of Italy's treasury, Mario Draghi.
Japan also bids to be a kingmaker by putting forward a name that will not be accepted: Eisuke Sakakibara, the country's abrasive ex-vice finance minister. Tokyo just waged a fierce and successful fight to win the UNESCO secretary-general's post and seems to be positioning itself for a future IMF challenge.
The man who could have the job for the asking--and who has the clout and skills needed to redefine the IMF--is Gordon Brown, Britain's energetic chancellor of the exchequer. But by leaving London Brown would take himself out of the running to succeed Tony Blair should Blair ever decide to leave 10 Downing.
Politics is still local, and often myopic. The governments that have relentlessly preached to their citizens the need to adjust to globalization should take their own words to heart and see that the IMF gets the leadership it needs at this critical moment.