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Bush Taps Robert Zoellick as World Bank President

Robert Zoellick is President Bush's choice to head the World Bank, administration officials say. He is shown testifying before the House International Relations Committee on China's resurgence in May 2006.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Robert Zoellick is President Bush's choice to head the World Bank, administration officials say. He is shown testifying before the House International Relations Committee on China's resurgence in May 2006.

President Bush has selected former U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick to replace Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank, senior administration officials say. Zoellick's nomination, expected to be made official Wednesday, comes less than two weeks after Wolfowitz resigned amid a growing controversy over how he handled a compensation package for his companion, Shaha Riza, a bank employee.

Zoellick previously held two high-ranking jobs within the Bush administration. Until last summer, he was deputy secretary of state and played a key role in shaping the White House policy on Sudan. He previously served as the U.S. trade representative, negotiating trade deals with other countries.

The White House says Zoellick has the trust and respect of many officials around the world, adding that his experience in international trade, finance and diplomacy make him uniquely prepared to take on the challenge of leading the World Bank. Early indications are that Zoellick's nomination is being greeted positively by other countries, administration officials say.

Robert Siegel discussed Zoellick's nomination with NPR International Business Correspondent Adam Davidson. Excerpts from the conversation:

One can hardly imagine a better resume than Zoellick's for becoming president of the World Bank.

Yes, especially for a Republican Washington insider, Zoellick is about as golden as it gets. He has had very prominent positions in President Reagan's administration and the first President Bush's State Department. And the current President Bush has already appointed him to two prominent positions. However, Zoellick has let it be known quite openly that he was very upset that he was not named treasury secretary in 2005. And he was also upset that he was not named World Bank president in 2005, when Wolfowitz was given the job.

So Zoellick gave up Washington and entered private industry at Goldman Sachs — which is one of the world's most powerful and important financial institutions, so he probably had the same access to government leaders over the past few years.

There is a process for approval of the U.S. president's choice of a president of the World Bank. We assume Zoellick will be approved. But explain what the process is.

Since the World Bank started in 1946, the tradition has been that [the president] is always an American appointed by the U.S. president. Technically, that person does need to get approval from the World Bank's executive directors — a group of 24 people from different countries all over the world. But nobody expects them to turn this guy down.

There were some calls to reform that system, but it doesn't seem that the U.S. is interested in reforming that system and opening up the leadership of the bank to the world. It's just like the International Monetary Fund — traditionally, a European runs that, and Europe doesn't seem very interested in opening that position up.

Apart from the issues surrounding Wolfowitz's companion, there were questions about his approach to running the World Bank — the way he managed it and his concern with corruption. What challenges face Zoellick when he takes over?

Paul Wolfowit'z problems at the World Bank started long before any issues about his companion surfaced. This is one of the most complex, bureaucratic institutions that man has ever devised. It is 10,000 people from all over the world with very different politics. It's one of these places where you really need a brilliant, bureaucratic mind to negotiate, and Wolfowitz was seen as unsuccessful.

Now, Zoellick almost universally is considered a brilliant, capable person. But he has never run a huge staff. At the State Department, he was technically in charge of much of the staff, and people say he didn't do a great job with the politics, so that is a concern. Is he an idea man? Yes. Is he a manager? We'll have to see.

This transcript includes only a portion of the conversation and has been edited for clarity.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Davidson
Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.