With the abrupt departure of Jim Yong Kim from the presidency of the World Bank, seven decades of unbroken American service at the helm of the largest international financial institution are now in jeopardy. Kim will be leaving the job nearly three years before his term ends. This may be the year that the bank’s board of executive directors, representing more than 100 countries, will decide that the time has come to end American control.
In recent years, the United States has faced murmured expressions of discontent with the traditional role of an American occupying the president’s chair. But as the bank’s largest shareholder, the United States has always had enough clout and enough international support to maintain the status quo.
Perhaps not this time around. The thought of President Trump, noted for his hostility to multilateralism and coolness toward the notions of reducing global poverty, picking the bank’s new president is a cause for heartburn in many world capitals. Unlike previous U.S. administrations since World War II, the Trump administration may not get its way should it seek to appoint the bank’s 13th president. The idea of a Trump selection — his daughter Ivanka was one name apparently being considered — heading the bank conjures images of a fox guarding the chicken coop.
I know something about getting an American elected as World Bank president. In 1980, as the U.S. representative on the World Bank’s board of executive directors, I nominated A.W. Clausen to be the bank’s sixth president. Because groundwork for Clausen’s acceptance was started months earlier by President Jimmy Carter’s administration, major world capitals were on board with Clausen’s election, which came by acclamation. My task at the board meeting was all but a formality.
It won’t be like that this time. Trump’s go-it-alone strategy, which regards consultation with either Congress or key international counterparts as a waste of time, is likely to encounter opposition to continuing American leadership of a global institution that serves the interests of both the developing world and the United States. Losing the legacy of U.S. reign at the World Bank would make America the biggest loser. That, sadly, may be in the offing.