Global financial reformers must heed Asia's clout

The IMF and the World Bank are becoming relics of a bygone era. They are too narrowly focused on Europe and America.

Major international crises often produce tectonic shifts in international relations. Under pressure from key European counterparts, President Bush has agreed to a "new Bretton Woods" summit on Nov. 15.

It would be hard to overstate the potential significance of this meeting. The first Bretton Woods, in 1944, set the rules for monetary relations among nations, and it created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

While European leaders are pushing for greater regulation and a major overhaul of the international financial order, US policymakers have been lukewarm, emphasizing the preservation of free-market capitalism. This transatlantic drama has obscured the more fundamental problem – how to accommodate the historic shift of economic power away from the West toward Asia.

Including India, broader East Asia encompasses more than half of the world's population. The region already accounts for about one-third of global economic output, oil consumption, and CO2 emissions, and this is only likely to grow in the future. Over the course of the 21st century, Asia's economic and geopolitical weight in the world will, in all likelihood, come to rival that of Europe in the 19th century. Asian problems will become increasingly indistinguishable from global problems.

In the face of such dramatic change, the IMF and World Bank are becoming relics of a bygone era. At the time of their creation, by US and European negotiators, the major challenge was to get capital flowing from the US to war-ravaged Europe. The days of the US as creditor state are long gone – our massive current account deficit is financed by importing nearly $1 trillion in foreign capital every year. Major US banks are being rescued by sovereign wealth funds and financial institutions from the Middle East and East Asia. China and Japan alone held over $600 billion of securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, making the bailout of those institutions a major foreign policy issue.

Despite these changed realities, both Bretton Woods institutions remain dominated by the West. By convention, the IMF is led by a European, the World Bank by a US national. The US is the only country with veto power over important decisions in either body.

My analysis of voting shares in the IMF indicates that the Allied powers of World War II have been consistently overrepresented compared to Axis powers despite the passing of more than 60 years since the end of that war. Studies show that IMF lending is biased in favor of recipients with strong economic and diplomatic ties to the US and key European states at the expense of other members.

This unbalanced representation had real consequences during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, when the IMF, as part of its rescue operation, implemented policies widely viewed as contrary to Asian interests. During the crisis, Japanese financial authorities proposed an Asian Monetary Fund as a potential alternative source of liquidity. This proposal was rejected by US officials, who feared dilution of IMF authority. However, over the past decade, East Asian states have stockpiled foreign currency reserves and developed regional cooperation that may eventually develop into a credible alternative to the IMF.

The IMF and World Bank should be reformed to better reflect the interests and concerns of rising economic powers. Voting shares need to be further redistributed to reflect underlying economic realities. Decisionmaking rules should be modified to give greater weight or agenda-setting authority to regional actors – the US may have a strong interest in loans to Mexico, but Japan may have a greater stake in Indonesia. Assignment of the top positions should be made truly competitive. Core functions should be decentralized – both institutions are headquartered in Washington, impeding employment of top talent from Asia and limiting intellectual exchange.

An international financial architecture that fragments or remains centered on the West as Asia rises will probably prove grossly ineffective. Europe attempted much the same during the turbulent period between the two World Wars, resurrecting a system based on British hegemony even as Britain was in relative decline. Those were scary times, with free riding and beggar-thy-neighbor policies feeding mutual distrust and economic catastrophe.

This will not be the last financial crisis we face. Next time, ad hoc cooperation by the US and Europe may prove insufficient. Franklin Roosevelt had the foresight to include China on the United Nations Security Council long before that nation became a geopolitical heavyweight. Similar foresight should be brought to bear as world leaders debate the future of the international financial architecture.

Phillip Y. Lipscy is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, and center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies and the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

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