ONE way or another you're going to be hearing a lot more about Robert Zoellick. Until recently the donnish-looking Harvard law graduate was the indefatigable US Trade Representative under US President George W Bush. Initially, there was speculation that Zoellick, a longtime Bush loyalist, would replace James Wolfensohn as President of the World Bank when his term ends this June.
But it's clear Bob Zoellick has his eye on a bigger prize. If you're a career diplomat, why not reach for the top?
That looks to be Zoellick's game plan. Instead of the World Bank he's opted for the State Department, having been kicked up the ladder in the post-election housekeeping of the new Bush administration. The 51-year-old Washington insider accepted the job as number two to Condoleezza Rice, the African-American woman chosen to fill the shoes of Colin Powell as Secretary of State.
Zoellick is a curious mix. An ambitious policy wonk with a towering intellect, he has an impressive résumé, including degrees from Swarthmore and Harvard and a long stint with the administration of George the First. Zoellick was Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House from 1985-88, then was Deputy Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department in 1992-93 under James Baker and a key architect of US foreign policy for George W's dad. Later he spent four years as Executive Vice-President of Fannie Mae, the country's biggest mortgage provider. In 1997-98 he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval Academy.
He was handed the US Trade Representative portfolio by George W Bush in 2001 where he crusaded for free trade with an evangelical passion. Despite the zeal, Zoellick is no crude neocon. His blunt, intellectual style differs from hardline warmongers like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The head of one US environmental NGO who crossed swords with Zoellick remarked: 'If you raised questions with some previous trade representatives, they'd disagree in a roundabout way; Zoellick will just tell you to buzz off.' Another ex-colleague called him 'the most impressive thinker of my time in government.' He was a lead negotiator in the NAFTA trade talks in the 1980s but according to the New York Times his biggest success was German reunification. 'He persuaded the Bush Administration [George H Bush] to embrace German unity despite qualms of allies and alarm in the former Soviet Union.'
Although the White House values his brain, Zoellick and George W are not good buddies. Instead of hunt'n', fish'n' and gallop'n' across the range his hobbies are reading, long-distance running and military history. On one trip to Africa he reportedly regaled his hosts with his knowledge of famous battles of the Boer War and the Zulu uprising. And in another meeting with Colombian trade negotiators he amazed the room with a mini-lecture on Latin American history and economics. When he helped run both George W Bush's election campaigns Zoellick was nicknamed 'the adding machine' by fellow campaigners for his number-crunching skills on key policy issues.
Zoellick may not be a neocon clone but he is a solid team player. He was one of the signatories to a prominent letter by the Project for a New American Century in 1998 calling for 'regime change' in Iraq. And he is a militant about using trade policy to pursue US foreign policy goals. 'The US seeks co-operation - or better - on foreign policy and security... Given that the US has international interests beyond trade, why not try to urge people to support our overall policies? Negotiating a free-trade agreement with the US is not something one has a right to - it's a privilege.'
In the aftermath of 9/11 he pushed Congress for 'fast track' authority on trade in order to fight terrorism. With fast track the democratic process takes a back seat - the President and his advisors draft the legislation while Congress is sidelined.
In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post a week after the attacks, Zoellick wrote: 'Open markets are vital for developing nations, many of them are fragile democracies that rely on the international economy to overcome poverty and create opportunity; we need answers for those who ask for economic hope to counter internal threats to our common values... The terrorists deliberately chose the World Trade towers as their target [but] their blow... will not shake the foundation of world trade and freedom.'
Zoellick didn't get his way on 'fast track' but that didn't slow him down. As US Trade Representative he was hyper-active - ignoring the WTO after the Doha round in December 2001 and hammering out one-on-one deals with dozens of nations, including Singapore, Morocco, Central America, the Andean countries, Chile, Australia and South Africa. He coined the term 'competitive liberalization' as the rationale for his pursuit of these bilateral and regional trade agreements. By this he meant that desperate countries would compete with each other to open their markets to US business in return for favours from Washington.
Given Zoellick's love affair with free trade, you'd think that America's trade balance was A-OK. Not exactly: the US now has the largest trade deficit in history, amounting to more than $600 billion last year. That's nearly six per cent of GDP, well above the mark where economists start to sweat.The falling US dollar could boost exports and begin to close the trade gap. Or it could stabilize and the trade deficit could balloon even more.
Whatever happens, Bob Zoellick has bigger fish to fry. As Deputy Secretary of State he'll be at the cutting edge of US foreign policy. And if Condy Rice runs for the Senate next year, as observers say she might, then Zoellick would be a shoo-in for her job. Who needs the World Bank anyway?
If infamous or not-so-famous big shots are beating up
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