European Affairs

A Better Way to Choose International Leaders     Print Email
John Andrews

Paris Bureau Chief, The Economist

The way in which the world's top international positions are filled is a perplexing and frustrating business, not just for those who want to see the best candidate appointed, but often also for the candidates themselves.

Only the truly callous will feel no sympathy for Caio Koch-Weser, who not so long ago imagined he was being plucked from relative obscurity as Germany's deputy finance minister to be managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a position that commands a seat at the top table whenever world leaders are confronted by economic or financial crisis.


Instead, Mr. Koch-Weser was roundly trashed by the very politicians and economic officials with whom he would have to deal. Most of the criticism, especially from Germany's European partners, was in private or by inference. But the White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart, inelegantly declared: "We do not believe that he meets the criteria of maximum stature who would be able to command support from around the world."

In other words, Mr. Koch-Weser was doomed, even though he had been selected by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and was supposedly the unanimous choice of the European Union for a post that has "belonged" to Europe ever since the IMF was established at the Bretton Woods conference half a century ago.

In a dignified letter to Mr. Schroeder on March 4, he wrote: "In order not to stand in the way of an improved atmosphere with the United States, I would request to you that I be allowed to withdraw my candidacy. In retrospect, I believe it has become urgently apparent that a thorough rethink about the selection process for international leadership positions is needed. The process now is often humiliating for the candidates and damages the institutions (as we saw, for example, with the World Trade Organization)."

Quite so. The disappointed Mr. Koch-Weser might well have cited the failure in 1995 of Jean-Luc Dehaene, at the time prime minister of Belgium, to be chosen as president of the European Commission - all because of a veto cast, for reasons of British domestic politics, by his British counterpart, John Major.

Or, for that matter, the ludicrous intra-EU squabbling over who should govern the new European Central Bank (settled, finally, by a gentlemen's agreement that Wim Duisenberg of the Netherlands would step down halfway through his term in favor of Jean-Claude Trichet, governor of the Bank of France). Or the unseemly haggling over last year's appointment of a new secretary-general for UNESCO, in which accusations of bribery and diplomatic intimidation flew fast and furious. Indeed, there is scarcely a single international organization that has not been dogged by controversy in the choice of its leader.

The question is how to improve the process. Unhappily, Mr. Koch-Weser's call for "a thorough rethink" is more easily preached than practiced. One reason is that international organizations are viewed - paradoxical though it may seem - through national eyes. Just as the IMF "belongs" to Europe, so the World Bank belongs to the United States; just as NATO's secretary-general must be a European, so the commander of NATO's forces must be an American.

Perhaps because the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are mainly from the industrialized world (China is the exception), it has of late been the "turn" of the developing world to occupy the post of secretary-general - witness the succession of Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt and now Kofi Annan of Ghana.

The paradox is not irrational. After all, leading an international organization means exercising power. Since western countries are the biggest donors (along with Japan) to the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, they have a legitimate interest in influencing how that institutional power is wielded - and the assumption is that the boss of an international institution, for all the talk of "world citizenship," will always feel a tie of loyalty to his or her country of origin.

Yet at the same time, the constraints of this policy of national self-interest are becoming steadily less defensible as older powers decline and younger powers emerge. For its economic weight alone, Japan, for example, deserves a greater presence in international fora than its current sprinkling of posts in the United Nations. So too, because of their weight of population and their regional power, do India and Brazil.

One reason that Chancellor Schroeder persisted for so long with Mr. Koch-Weser was his feeling that Germany is now a grown-up country, no longer compelled to apologize for its Nazi past. Indeed, Mr. Schroeder's second choice for the IMF, Horst Koehler (hitherto the little-known head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), was instantly acceptable mainly because Washington did not want the game of transatlantic amour propre to escalate out of control.

The obvious problem is that while the nationalist sentiment may be dismaying, it cannot simply be wished away. Instead, the challenge in rethinking the selection process is to ensure that national preferences do not damage an institution to the detriment of all (witness in the past the long years of corruption and mismanagement at UNESCO, prompting a boycott of the organization by the United States and, for a time, by Britain).

The cynics may say the challenge is insurmountable: human nature and realpolitik will always conspire to select the expedient rather than the best. Yet there are at least three ways to prove the cynics wrong.

The first is to remove the frequent requirement for consensus - defined as unanimity - in the appointment of bosses. When the EU heads of government met to appoint a successor to France's Jacques Delors as Commission president, they limited their options by wanting the new president to be from a small country and preferably of prime ministerial rank.

Fair enough, perhaps, in order to make all members of the European club - whatever their size - feel equally valued. But why allow Mr. Major to veto the talented Mr. Dehaene, or Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany to rule out the capable Ruud Lubbers of the Netherlands?

The better formula for all international organizations (and one which will be all the more needed by the EU if its enlargement proceeds as planned) is some form of qualified majority voting - say, four-fifths of an institution's members and an equivalent share of the population. In this way, no single member state can hold others hostage, nor can a bare majority leave a large minority feeling aggrieved.

The second riposte to the cynics is to enlarge the talent pool by including the private sector. There is, after all, no obvious reason why academic economists or senior civil servants or former politicians should be the only candidates to run the IMF or the World Bank or the various agencies of the United Nations. Indeed, it can be argued that private sector experience and discipline is precisely what many agencies need.

Meanwhile, the success of Wall Street's Robert Rubin as America's Treasury Secretary for most of the Clinton years, and the impact of Richard Holbrooke, a diplomat-turned banker-turned diplomat, in international negotiations surely refute the charge that the private sector does not equip its people for the politicking and diplomacy involved in international organizations.

The third way to answer the challenge is to "systematize" the selection process. It is extraordinary that the appointments to international bodies are made so haphazardly, with civil-service factions lobbying their political masters and with the great and the good opportunistically throwing their hats into the ring (witness the way the former French prime minister, Laurent Fabius, bored as president of the National Assembly, put his name forward for the IMF job). It is also damaging, since the temptation for the political masters is always to seek short-term gain, not least by favoring either their cronies or those who will do their bidding.

Is there an ideal system? Of course not. Any selection process, be it for a UN agency or a local sports team, will always involve a certain amount of lobbying and factionalism. But the damage can at least be limited. Let the organization in question have a representative selection committee. In the case of the United Nations, for example, the Security Council of the day would provide officials with the necessary geographic and cultural diversity, while in the EU the committee could be drawn from the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, to ensure a mix of the political and the bureaucratic. The committee should provide a publicly-disclosed short-list of candidates. Let those candidates, in turn, plead their cause before the governing bodies - but in public.

Doubtless there would still be errors of selection. After all, the office can make the man - witness the success of Michel Camdessus at the IMF - and the man can mar the office, as Jacques Attali proved as the first head of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Develop-ment. But the errors would be fewer, if only because the politicians would find it harder - and certainly more embarrassing - to pander to short-term gain or narrow national interest.

In other words, one thing is for sure: Chancellor Schroeder would not have been able to foist an inadequate candidate on his European colleagues; the United States would not have felt compelled to act as an international bully; and Mr. Koch-Weser would have been spared his public humiliation.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number III in the Summer of 2000.

 
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