If Strauss-Kahn Resigns, How about an Asian to run the IMF this Time?


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I have no particular intelligence on the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) case. I would only say what everyone would agree to: He should be investigated properly with due process and the assumption of innocence. (That we even need to say this in the US is now, unfortunately, necessary given the US flirtation with extra-judicial methods because of the war on terror.) That he was fleeing the US for his home country when he was arrested does not bode well; this is why he was denied bail. If he is found innocent, then he perhaps can stay on the job, unless this incident comes to be seen in a pattern of irresponsibility, even if formal guilt is not found. DSK was rebuked for an affair with an IMF staffer a few years ago, so perhaps this will tip him out, even if he is found innocent.

But any decision to retain him as IMF managing director (MD) should be based on the evidence, not because he has helped revive the IMF’s fortunes after a tough decade (because of heavy criticism of the IMF’s handling of the Asian Financial Crisis and globalization generally), nor because he has helped so much in the recent debt crisis, especially in Europe. I agree with both of those assessments, but they don’t really change the issue of whether or not he is personally responsible enough to complete his duties. It is also worth noting that infidelity is not a crime (DSK is married). The real issue is whether he tried to rape his alleged victim or not. If he did, he should obviously go. But the important distinction here is with the Clinton impeachment. If DSK’s wife can live with his libertinism, as Hillary Clinton was able to, then that is ultimately a personal issue. There is no need to import the ‘politics of personal destruction’ into the IMF. It is also worth noting that French politicians get far more leeway on personal indiscretions that US politicians. France’s longest serving modern president, Francois Mitterrand, had a love-child out of wedlock who was revealed after his death. Perhaps DSK never quite escaped that more tolerant expectation set.

My own sense is that, even if found innocent because it turns into ‘he-said-she-said,’ it will be hard for him to stay on. The images of him in handcuffs, being pulled off a plane, standing sullenly in a court will make it hard to keep him. Paul Wolfowitz too was forced out of the World Bank presidency several years back for a similar, less egregious, personal affair. My guess is that DSK will have to go too.

For my own previous writing on the Fund, broadly sympathetic to its role, try here or here.

The issue of his replacement brings up a long-standing dispute over the leadership of the Bank and Fund. Precedent says the Europeans pick the IMF MD, and the US picks the World Bank president. This logic was based on the, previously reasonably accurate, claim that the North Atlantic represented the core of the world economy. Of course, it was more than this; prestige has always played a huge role, particularly for the Europeans. Having the IMF sinecure helped buttress Europe’s self-image as important central to global governance.

But you hardly need to be an economist to know that Europe’s role, relative to that of the US and Asia, has been in decline for awhile. Decolonization generally reduced Europe’s global footprint. Decades of slow growth and declining military spending has vaulted the US past the EU in the transatlantic partnership. The seemingly endless inability of the Europeans to put the EU into good working order – the euro mess, the constitutional-institutional rube goldberg structure of the EU itself, the continuing inability of outsiders to know who ‘speaks’ for Europe – cripples an EU global role. Just about everyone outside Europe thinks that the EU should have one EU seat on the UN Security Council, not two for Britain and France. Henry Kissinger famously quipped that he did not know whom to call if he wanted to talk to Europe, and that question is still unresolved. And of course, the rise of Asia has relatively squeezed the EU more than the US. I was at a conference last year where I made this point, and the EU speaker could at best only respond that the EU was a ‘foreign aid superpower.’ If that is all you got, it is time to step aside and allow the ‘New Core,’ Asia, to have a crack at the top-table of world politics. And last year, when I was at an IMF conference in Korea, Asian questioners did in fact ask DSK this, and he was response was, yes, the MD after him should be an Asian.

Everyone knows that Asia’s weight in the global economy has grown dramatically in the last several decades. The IMF’s own voting quotas have been re-ordered to reflect this. Chinese, Japanese, and Indians have already been pretty high up in the managerial order in both the Bank and the Fund.

My own sense is that a Japanese banker would be an excellent choice. Japan is the most open and mature of the Asian economies. The Bank of Japan has been downright heroic in its battle against deflation for years now; it is vastly more serious about Japan’s economic problems that Japan’s politicians. The BoJ has tremendous skills on issues that dog IMF debtors, like government debt, the money supply, or slow growth. A Chinese might be a more controversial choice, one the US and EU might veto, because China is highly interventionist and still a formally communist country. If China would object to a Japanese, likely out of sheerly nationalist resentment, then what about a Korean, Indian or Singaporean?

In short, Asia’s time to run one of the two Bretton Woods Institutions has arrived. Europe’s economic claim to that leadership role is now much-reduced. The euro is a mess; EU economies are carrying huge debt burdens; the EU remains unable to find a common voice despite decades of waiting and endless speculation; and the last few Europeans to run the IMF have been been pretty meager – Rodrigo De Rato lasted just three years (2004-07) and used the position to jockey for political position at home in Spain; before him, Horst Koehler (2000-04) did the same.

In fact, the only argument to keep a European one more time, is based on Europe’s weakness, not its strength; that is, because the IMF’s most important work in the next few years will be in Europe, it should have a European. But this strikes me as too clever by half and yet another gimmick to keep Asia from its clearly-earned place to run these institutions occasionally. By any reasonable criteria, Asia is qualified – probably more qualified actually given Europe’s economic state today – to take the MD-ship. The inevitable arguments to be heard in the next few weeks about Europe’s ‘weight’ in the global economy will just be mask the real,  tribal and prestige-driven desire to hang onto the last shreds of influence in an increasingly ‘post-atlantic’ world.

One thought on “If Strauss-Kahn Resigns, How about an Asian to run the IMF this Time?

  1. Pingback: The EU has Sewn Up the IMF Race Already? …. plus some media « Asian Security Blog

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