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Robert Zoellick Tapped to Lead World Bank

President Bush on Wednesday nominated Robert Zoellick to be the next president of the World Bank, replacing Paul Wolfowitz.

If approved by the World Bank board as most expect, Zoellick would step in to the role at a tough time in the bank's history because of the controversy surrounding Wolfowitz's departure and the broader suspicion about the bank around the globe.

When you talk to people about Zoellick, you hear the same words over and over. Some are positive: smart, even brilliant. Then, there are the negatives: tough, even arrogant.

"He can be very blunt," says Grant Aldonas of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And so, to the extent he's demanding, it can be tough on people who have gotten comfortable with the standard operating procedure."

Aldonas worked closely with Zoellick from 2001 to 2005, when Zoellick was U.S. Trade Representative and Aldonas was head of trade for the U.S. Commerce Department. By then, Zoellick had already established himself as a major Republican insider. He was high up in President Reagan's Treasury Department and in the State Department under the first President Bush.

Aldonas says Zoellick's greatest accomplishment came at the World Trade Organization talks in Doha, Qatar. This was shortly after the disastrous trade meetings in Seattle and Cancun, Mexico — and just two months after September 11.

"You not only had the trading system off the rails — not going off the rails, but off the rails — but you also had a crisis globally. It was a moment of high drama, frankly," Aldonas recalls

Aldonas remembers sitting in this negotiating room in Doha with Zoellick. President Bush wanted Zoellick to get WTO talks back on track, a task many thought was impossible. Poor nations said the U.S. was being too greedy. Europe was being stubborn, and many U.S. business interests were suspicious of the whole process.

"He had to persuade India that it was in their interest to be a part of the process," Aldonas says. "He had to persuade the Europeans that they needed to move further on agriculture than they wanted to. He had to persuade the Japanese that they had to get out from behind everybody else's skirts and actually make a down payment themselves. And he had to persuade an awful lot of people in the U.S. Congress that he could be trusted to take care of our interests at negotiating table."

Aldonas says Zoellick got everyone on board by being blunt, but honest. He is credited with getting the WTO talks on track — at least for a while.

Aldonas says that moment at Doha showed that Zoellick can be true to President Bush's vision, while winning over leaders in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Seto Bagdoyan of the Eurasia Group says Zoellick is not the typical Bush insider.

"Policy wise, he's an establishment internationalist," Bagdoyan says, explaining that means Zoellick is in favor of engagement with the rest of the world — that the U.S. should work closely and collegially with Europe, China and others.

That's different from Wolfowitz's neo-conservative views, which, Bagdoyan says, generally promote a more unilateralist foreign policy.

Bagdoyan says Zoellick is the rare hybrid: he's trusted in President Bush's inner circle and in capitals around the world. That means he has a shot at winning over a World Bank staff that is suffering from a horrible morale crisis after the messy departure of Wolfowitz.

But Bagdoyan says it's not a shoe-in.

"I think on balance right now I would give it a 50-50," he says.

Technically, Zoellick needs approval from the World Bank board. Though most expect the body to rubber-stamp the U.S. choice.

Zoellick is expected to become Bank president at the end of June.

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

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.