Robert B Zoellick

The last time Worldbeaters profiled Bob Zoellick, in March 2005, he had just been appointed US Deputy Secretary of State. We predicted the longtime Bush loyalist had bigger fish to fry and was secretly longing to replace then-World Bank President James Wolfensohn. ‘It’s clear Bob Zoellick has his eye on a bigger prize,’ we opined. ‘If you’re a career diplomat, why not reach for the top? One way or another you’re going to be hearing a lot more about Robert Zoellick.’

Hey, were we right or what? The boy wonder finally got his wish when he was nominated on 30 May by George W Bush to replace the disgraced Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank. Until recently the donnish-looking Harvard law graduate was vice-chair of international operations at the Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs. Before his last post with the Bush Administration, working under Condoleezza Rice, he was Bush’s globetrotting Trade Representative, responsible for selling free trade internationally.

The 53-year-old Washington insider 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 Bush Senior. Zoellick was Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House from 1985-88 and the President’s Personal Representative at the G7 Economic Summits in 1991 and 1992. He was then Deputy Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department from 1992-93 under James Baker and a key architect of US foreign policy. 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.

Zoellick’s appointment as Condy Rice’s number two was meant to signal a shift in foreign policy from hardliners like VP Dick Cheney and then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld. But Zoellick was not a happy camper. Although he was active on the Sudan and China files, he was sidelined on the Middle East, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. His most ill-advised press moment came in January 2006 when he was photographed in China hugging a baby panda. According to the right-wing Heritage Foundation: ‘Zoellick believed the appearance with the panda would reassure the Chinese that he is still open to global dialogue – provided the Chinese start to act like they’re interested.’ Finally, feeling unwanted at State, he left for the private sector and Goldman Sachs.

As US Trade Representative from 2001-05, Zoellick was more in his element. He crusaded for free trade with an evangelical passion and a blunt, intellectual style. One 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 [George H] Bush Administration to embrace German unity despite qualms of allies and alarm in the former Soviet Union.’

The White House values his brain, but Bob and George are not good buddies. Instead of hunt’n and fish’n, Zoellick’s hobbies are reading, long-distance running and military history. On a 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.

Zoellick 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 militant about using trade policy to pursue US foreign policy goals.

At the press conference announcing Zoellick’s nomination as World Bank President, Bush lauded him as ‘a committed internationalist’ who is ‘deeply devoted to the mission’ of the bank.

That’s one view. Others see a shrewd neoliberal who pushes free trade as a way of promoting US national interests at all costs. When developing countries had the gall to argue that free trade might actually worsen poverty, Zoellick was incensed. After the failed 2003 WTO meetings in Cancún he changed tactics – pursuing individual free trade deals on a bilateral or regional basis. Ever the democrat, he bragged: ‘We’re going to keep opening markets one way or another.’

In a 2003 _Wall Street Journal_ opinion piece he bemoaned the WTO’s slow-paced consensus model, suggesting menacingly: ‘It would be a grave mistake to permit any one country to veto America’s drive for global free trade.’

As US Trade Representative he was hyper-active – sidestepping the WTO and hammering out one-on-one deals with dozens of nations and regions, including Singapore, Morocco, Central America, the Andean countries, Chile, Australia and South Africa. He called the new tack ‘competitive liberalization’, by which he meant that desperate countries would compete with each other to open their markets to US business in return for handouts from Washington.

So what are the odds this single-minded apologist for the Bush imperium will actually turn the World Bank into a poverty-fighting institution?

Don’t ask.

New Internationalist issue 404 magazine cover This article is from the September 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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