WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday named former top trade negotiator Robert Zoellick to head the World Bank, and the nominee called on bank members to move past divisions and “focus on the future.”
“He has earned the trust and support of leaders from every region of the world,” Bush said as he announced the nomination at the White House with Zoellick by his side. “He is deeply devoted to the mission of the World Bank.”
If confirmed by the World Bank board of member countries as expected, Zoellick, 53, will succeed Paul Wolfowitz, who agreed to step down on June 30 after a bank panel found he violated rules in authorizing a hefty pay raise for his companion, Middle East expert Shaha Riza.
While European countries have said they will support Washington’s choice, some developing nations had urged the United States to open the selection process to a global pool of candidates, based on qualifications and not nationality.
Since the establishment of the World Bank nearly 63 years ago, the United States has named the World Bank president, while the head of its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, has always been a European.
Given concerns with that long-standing practice among some bank member countries, other candidates could still emerge before a June 15 deadline, although it was unlikely any would present a formidable challenge to Zoellick’s nomination.
Bush made a strong pitch for Zoellick, saying he would bring a wealth of experience to the World Bank, having worked on issues ranging from Germany’s unification to the transition of post-Soviet economies to global trade issues.
Zoellick, who left his job as deputy secretary of state last year to join Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, immediately reached out in an effort to heal divides that emerged among bank staff and member countries in a bruising battle that led to Wolfowitz’s resignation.
“The World Bank has passed through a difficult time for all involved. There are frustrations, anxieties and tensions about the past that could inhibit the future. This is understandable but not without remedy,” Zoellick said.
“We need to put yesterday’s discourse behind us and focus on the future together,” he added.
The former U.S trade representative, who will meet with World Bank board members over the next few weeks, said the bank had a vital mission to overcome poverty and despair through sustainable growth and opportunity.
Zoellick has a reputation as being extremely demanding but he is also seen as a consensus builder, a valuable skill for someone who will be called upon to heal deep rifts within the poverty-fighting institution.
“It’s not easy to negotiate with him but it’s easy to make agreements with him, since he is a professional of the highest caliber and he always keeps his word,” Russian Economy Minister German Gref told reporters in Moscow.
“Mr. Zoellick is a man of the highest qualification. He is a true professional in international trade and economy circles.”
Zoellick, who served as a top foreign policy adviser to Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign, has wide-ranging interests and expertise and has studied and commented on events in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
As the Bush administration’s first U.S. trade representative, he helped launch the Doha Round of global trade talks and pushed for greater U.S. trade with Africa.
He later traveled to Sudan as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try and broker a deal to end the turmoil in western Darfur region.
Unlike Wolfowitz, who drew broad criticism because of his role in the planning of the Iraq war, Zoellick’s nomination was largely welcomed in the United States and abroad.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Zoellick must work quickly to restore confidence in the World Bank.
“I hope Mr. Zoellick will re-establish, or establish, our confidence in the World Bank. It is absolutely crucial,” Kouchner told reporters in Germany, ahead of a meeting of foreign minister from the Group of Eight industrial nations.
U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, said Zoellick had the right skills for the job. “It’s hard to imagine a more intelligent, hard-working and capable person to assume the bank’s leadership at this difficult point in its history,” he said.
Additional reporting by Vlasta Demyanenko in Moscow