I published an op-ed in the Korea Times last week on the IMF managing director (MD) race. For readers outside of Korea, the KT is a mid-level paper here in Korea, sort of like the Plain Dealer from my hometown Cleveland. The biggest paper in Korea’s landscape is the conservative Chosun Ilbo. The KT is smaller, and because it is written only in English, it has a substantial foreign readership beyond Korea. My op-ed is based on this post last week.
I am amazed at how quickly the replacement for Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) is emerging as a European once again – the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde (above). The Europeans seem to be moving lightning fast on this, before Asians or developing states can get their act together and congeal around one or two non-European alternatives. As I noted in the op-ed, there is no functional reason for the IMF MD to be a European. It has simply been precedent, justifiable so long as Europe was the second major pole in the global economy with the US. Well now there is a third, in East Asia, what Barnett calls the ‘New Core’ (the North Atlantic being the Old Core). Surely it’s time to give the new Core a shot at running one of the big international economic organizations of the world?
The EU has driven its economy into a ditch in the last few years, so I see no ‘competence’ reason why a European finance minister would be better than a Japanese or Singaporean banker, e.g. Nor have the last three European MDs of the IMF been very good. Horst Koehler (2000-04) and Rodriego de Rato (2004-07) were placeholding non-leaders who took the MD-ship in order to springboard into higher office back home. And of course, DSK just globally embarrassed the institution in a manner that basically epitomizes its critics’ worst fears. The narrative of a powerful wealthy white man assaulting an black immigrant female maid is straight out of the antiglobalization movement’s nightmare imagery. So there is no particularly history of ‘quality leadership’ from the EU to justify its sinecure either. In fact, quite given how bad the last three MDs in a row have been, it would be a good idea to drop the EU for a round or two.
So where is substance to the argument that somehow Europeans are somehow entitled to the MD-ship? There is none. It’s bogus. The real claim is tribal – the EU wants the position, because it bolsters Europe’s otherwise declining claim to global leadership and relevance. The EU is like a child running around the adult table waving its hands demanding attention. As Martin Wolf noted on this issue, if the IMF can’t change to accept new realities (the rise of the rest, especially Asia and the BRICS), then unfairly excluded states will simply walk away from the institution. Asia has already flirted with this because it felt so high-handedly treated in the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC).
Finally, the argument that the IMF should have a European leader right now because the IMF will be working so much in Europe in the near-future, is so specious as to be nearly racist. I find this almost revolting. Back when the AFC hit (1997-98) and westerners were dispensing painful but necessary advice to Asia, no one in the West worried about white bankers dispensing hard medicine to Asians. To say, today, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel won’t trust anyone to run the IMF unless it’s a European she knows, is so ridiculous, hypocritical, self-serving, and borderline racist, that it really should shock the non-western IMF members into some pretty harsh language in response. If the EU wants to run its economy over a cliff, that’s its own choice. But the EU has no special claim to line up the globe’s resources (through the IMF) to bail out foolish German bondholders badly exposed in Greece, Spain and Ireland. For a counter-example, ask if California, with its own nasty budget crunch, is getting a bail-out from the IMF? No; Americans will wrestle through that on their own, and the EU should too on Greece and the other euro-miscreants.
I find the sheer, bald-faced selfishness and parochialism of this just shocking, especially given how often the EU preens about the importance of multilateralism and international institutions, in obvious contradistinction to ‘mercantilist’ Asians and ‘cowboy unilateralist’ Americans. So here is a golden chance for the EU to really improve global governance, to make it fairer and more democratic. But no, they’d rather insist on tribal privileges. Bleh.
Does it need to be restated that the IMF is a global institution, not a European regional one? The IMF does have other lending responsibilities, and most of its non-European borrowers are vastly poorer than Greece or Ireland. The EU has huge resources compared to the many LDCs (less developed countries) of Africa, but I guess the IMF is really supposed to be a global slush fund for the euro mess.
As best I can tell, Lagarde is pretty competent, and may do a good job. I certainly hope so, and her first trip as MD should be to non-European borrowers, especially in Africa, to prove her credibility. But there is no substantive argument from her resume to set her apart. Try here and here for a nice run-down of all the good non-western candidates who won’t be considered, because Merkel couldn’t care less about global governance and multilateralism when her campaign contributors’ South European bond-holdings are about to be ‘hair cut.’ It’s all just tribalism and selfishness. The real European claim is narcissism – put off succumbing to the new global reality where Asian economies are easily as influential as the old Core’s.