President Bush, not one to put much stock in multilateral institutions, seems to have a vision of the World Bank doing better than it's done up to now. Otherwise, why would he nominate a top visionary in his administration, Paul Wolfowitz, to lead the premier global lender for antipoverty projects?
As the Pentagon's No. 2, Mr. Wolfowitz was a driving force behind the Iraq war, as well as a shaper of the "revolution" underway in the US military's global strategy. Both those ventures so far have had mixed success. But underlying both is this constant: A belief that antidemocratic leaders and poor nations prone to host terrorists must be dealt with preemptively and in innovative ways.
That "neoconservative" outlook, which Wolfowitz is likely to bring to the World Bank, may not sit well with its European donors or its 10,000 workers. But assuming he's approved by the bank's board, as seems likely, his portfolio will be purely economic - an opportunity to achieve the same aims but through the "soft power" of strategy financing. In directing how more than $20 billion a year in aid money is spent, he can promote democracy and civil liberties, even if indirectly.
At the least, the World Bank needs fresh ideas on economic development. It's long since lost its role of half a century ago to rebuild nations devastated by World War II. It's stopped reinforcing dictators' socialist planning. In the 1980s, it focused on how to reach the poorest of the poor and tried to deal with overdebted nations. It's adopted the idea that open markets, deregulation, and privatization can do as much good as roads, dams, or power plants. But it must improve its ability to reduce poverty.
Lately, under incumbent President James Wolfensohn, it's demanded more transparency in governments, mainly to prevent its money from enriching a nation's elite.
Wolfowitz's experience as ambassador to Indonesia and as dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies will do him well. He's seen poverty up close and knows past mistakes in trying to end it. He'll bring strong Bush support to the bank.
His record of boldness may serve the bank well in, for instance, persuading rich-country donors to provide more support or in pushing more aid money to private groups. In nations with violent extremist groups, he may be more aggressive on projects that not only reduce poverty but create conditions for liberal values, such as rule of law and universal rights.
Making the shift from a polarizing war planner to a leading international civil servant against poverty may not be easy. But Wolfowitz's basic qualifiers add up to a plus for the bank.