Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Atlantic bridges falling down, falling down, falling down ...

The Bush administration has demonstrated once again that it will continue to use its political muscle to call the tune in Europe. As Sepoy reports, Paul Wolfowitz will be the next head of the World Bank. It's hard to read the appointment as anything other than a thumbing of the nose at diplomats abroad and Democrats at home.

I mean that. This probably shouldn't be read as anything other than a very undiplomatic and impolitic move. There are two possible ways for antiwar folks like myself to react to this news. One is to see conspiratorial designs in the appointment and prognosticate all kinds of disaster once Wolfowitz gets his hands on the Bank. The other is to see the appointment as another body blow delivered by Bush to international relations between the United States, Europe, and developing countries.

Already these two reactions are being blurred together by clear-eyed people, like Steve Clemons for instance. But I think it's important to keep them separate. If you don't like what the World Bank stands for, then it would have been possible to see any appointment to the post as conspiratorial. Let's face it: unless the Los Angeles Times had gotten its way and Bush had appointed Bono, the World Bank was going to go on doing the kinds of development projects it does. If those projects are bad, then they were bad before Wolfowitz got there and will continue to be bad once he is there. So I don't buy, at least at first glance, that his neoconservative ideology will make him steer the Bank in a significantly different direction. From the viewpoint of progressives, after all, the Bank was already about as conservative as it could be in its approach to development aid and fair trade. So it's fine and good to point out that Wolfowitz had more qualifications from an IR standpoint than other people for the job. As long as the World Bank does what it does, would it have been better for developing countries if the job had gone to someone with an even weaker resume than his?

I do buy, however, that Wolfowitz's appointment is very bad news from a diplomatic standpoint, which is basically what Mark Schmitt said last month when rumors about this first leaked out. The opposition line on this should be: Bush is not a man who means what he says, because he says he believes in diplomacy and working with allies, but he refuses to act that way. That's the main consequence of this announcement: whatever bridges we might have been rebuilding with Europe in negotiating a Syrian pull-out from Lebanon, or in working to disarm Iran, those bridges are immediately weakened if not collapsed. Apart from Wolfowitz's particular beliefs and qualifications, then, the nomination is unwise and, not to put too fine a point on it, mean. Plus, to the extent that Wolfowitz does not have credibility with the international community, he is not a good choice for a job that requires diplomacy.

It's important to hold this line and to keep it separate from the anti-World Bank line. Fox News and the Bush spin doctors would like nothing more than to portray criticism of Wolfowitz as a witch hunt run by anti-globalization "nuts." We can criticize the World Bank and the ideologues behind it, and we can criticize Wolfowitz's appointment to the World Bank, but if we conflate those criticisms, both critiques will suffer for it.

Of course, I also think that the conduct of the war in Iraq should not be rewarded by promoting one of its chief architects to the head position of international organizations. But that move, again, is primarily a sign of the Bush administration's utter disregard for the war's critics. Making that point should be kept separate from the argument that Wolfowitz's neoconservative ideology will spill over into his World Bank management in unique ways.

[I've revised this post at 9:42 p.m. I've been fussing with it because I'm not sure I believe it. Feedback and discussion welcome.]

UPDATES: Others seem to be trying to separate the question of what Wolfowitz would actually do at the World Bank from the question of what his appointment to it does to diplomatic and bipartisan relations. See, for instance, Matthew Yglesias and Daniel Drezner. The New York Times, however, runs an analysis with the headline "Wolfowitz Nod Follows Spread of Conservative Philosophy" -- but without making a very strong case that Wolfowitz's philosophy will be significantly different from that of his predecessor, who was appointed during the Clinton administration. I'm still open to being convinced, though, that Wolfowitz's neoconservatism matters here.

Drezner tries to make the case that Wolfowitz's appointment was not a strongarm move by the Bush administration. That I'm less convinced by. Even if it were true that Bush is not trying to thumb his nose at his critics, that's clearly the perception his critics have, and he had to have known that it would be. In diplomacy, perception matters, which is something that the Bush adminstration in general and Wolfowitz in particular have been signally unaware of.

Collective Improvisation:
I read your post two days ago and am coming back to it today. Still, I'm undecided about Wolfowitz' appointment. While his idealogy may be offensive to many, even the NYT article mentions his credentials are excellent. Your update was a little more convincing to me than the original post (probably because I could understand it better). World perception does matter. I'll keep thinkinga about this. One thing you have convinced me of is that my knowledge of the Wold Bank,IMF, and what is needed to run them well is too poor now to conclude anything. 

Posted by Dogwood Blue

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/17/2005 08:38:00 PM : Permalink  

DB, I agree that Wolfowitz was as qualified or more qualified than the other leading candidates as far as credentials are concerned. But my point was that picking someone for this post was not just a matter of weighing credentials in a vacuum. And given the political context surrounding Wolfowitz, selecting him was deliberately provocative.

The NYT article is confusing, though, and I think a lot of the commentary I've heard (including my own attempt at commentary here!) has been confusing. There are a lot of reasons not to like the selection, I guess, and some reasons why someone could like it. It's taking me a while to sort all of these things out as well.

Here's a loose, nutshell critique of the IMF and the World Bank. Both organizations loan money to developing nations. Critics argue that both organizations make these loans contingent on the agreement of borrowing governments' to liberalize their trade policies and privatize public services. Arguably, this is done primarily to make it easier for companies from richer nations to relocate into these countries and buy up newly privatized industries. The World Bank and IMF also often hold borrowing governments to higher standards of fiscal responsibility than even richer nations are able to meet -- like balancing their budgets.

The result of these policies is that nations either become more heavily indebted to the IMF or WB, or their markets are flooded with foreign investment capital that does not always improve the country's infrastructural stability. Critics like Joseph Stiglitz , who served as an executive at the World Bank, have argued that officials are often ideologically committed to the belief that free markets are always best, even in countries where evidence suggests that opening markets too quickly can be harmful.

Anyway, I'm not an economist and could stand to educate myself better about these things too. But that's my layman's understanding of things. Hopefully some other readers (maybe Paul Musgrave?) will come by and correct me if I've mischaracterized things.

Thanks for your comment! 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/17/2005 08:56:00 PM : Permalink  

Oops ... I meant to link to Paul so I could page him. Calling Paul Musgrave, calling Paul Musgrave. We have some IR questions to refer to you, Paul Musgrave . 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/17/2005 08:58:00 PM : Permalink  

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter