Can former representative Barber Conable turn around a troubled World Bank? That is the question being asked as the July 1 date approaches for the Republican from upstate New York to take over from A. W. (Tom) Clausen.
To a considerable extent, Clausen's problems over the past five years can be traced to a rigid bureaucracy and to the persistent sniping he suffered at the hands of an untrusting Treasury team headed by former secretary Donald T. Regan. The United States forced a cutback of the funds available to the International Development Association -- the bank's soft-loan arm -- and turned a deaf ear to Clausen's drive to expand the bank's capital.
3 Clausen, it turned out, didn't have the personality or ability to deal with political infighting in the nation's capital. Nor did he seek out new ways of dealing with the exploding Third World debt crisis that began in 1982.
A high bank official says the essential difference between the ex-congressman and Clausen, a former BankAmerica chairman, ''is that Conable is a politician. For example, he will be able to go to Argentina and say to President Raoul Alfonsin -- 'let's make a deal.' That's something that never would occur to Clausen.''
Critics say that Clausen was slow to support the IMF, as the debt crisis developed, with enough quick-disbursing ''structural-adjustment loans.''
That awkward phrase refers to loans to induce countries to change their policies -- say, to encourage exports or boost economic growth. Instead, the bank stuck to big projects (roads, dams and the like), not much help in the middle of an economic crisis when a country doesn't have money to pay interest on old debt.
It now falls to Conable, who has had no experience in banking or development finance, to take over at a time when, almost universally, the Bank is expected to play a central role in regenerating economic growth in the poorer nations.
''The world has a perception,'' says John Sewell of the Overseas Development Council, ''that the current financial crisis has to be addressed by long-term structural change, and the best place to do that is at the World Bank.''
In fact, that is the underlying rationale of the much-touted ''debt initiative'' launched by Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III. The Baker plan calls for economic reforms in the borrowing countries sufficient to attract a boost in loans by commercial banks and by multilateral development banks such as the World Bank.
Conable's precise agenda is unknown, but it has to be assumed that it's compatible with those at Treasury who recruited him. Clausen was never regarded as part of the Reagan team -- even though he is a conservative Republican -- inasmuch as he was selected by President Carter. Moreover, as an international civil servant, he maintained what he thought was a proper political distance from U.S. officials.
Conable won't ignore other country-shareholders. But foreign governments aren't likely to view him as an outsider to the Reagan administration; rather, their perception is likely to be that the new president closely identifies with Reagan policies and goals.
During the period since his appointment was announced, Conable has maintained an exceedingly low profile, while pursuing a series of intensive briefings in the bank arranged by Nigel Roberts, a Clausen aide. He has also had in-depth talks with Treasury and congressional personnel and other outsiders known only to himself and his secretary.
Will Conable bring some new faces into the bank immediately? There is a degree of panic, as might be expected, from bureaucrats who fear a shake-up. One person close to Conable says: ''He's given the impression here that he prefers to come aboard, make firsthand observations, then make decisions on new personnel or a reorganization.'' He has given no indication, for example, whether he will retain Executive Vice President Ernest Stern, long a target of right-wing congressional critics of the bank.
The Conable appointment was almost universally considered a ten-strike because of his high standing on Capitol Hill. But getting money out of Congress, especially for the IDA soft-loans, will be exceedingly difficult, even for Conable, in the face of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget limitations.
There is this additional hazard: The American foreign-aid commitment is schizophrenic. The State Department, Pentagon and some on the White House staff want to concentrate funds in a way that reinforces military security, through bilateral agreements. That particular internal axis would spend most of its money abroad on Egypt, Israel and fighting Nicaragua. It's only the Treasury that has a commitment to economic security through multilateral development bank (MDB) activity, largely because Treasury sees a negative impact on commercial banks if the MDBs aren't there to help out.
That Reagan administration split won't make it any easier for Conable. In the end, he is likely to succeed only if the administration as a whole backs him up. Clausen can tell him a thing or two about that.