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Emerging Nations Seek Non-European IMF Chief

A new director of the International Monetary Fund is due to be chosen by the end of this month. But while the institution's reputation has been tainted by the scandal that followed the arrest last month of its previous chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in New York in connection with the attempted rape of a hotel maid, there's no shortage of interest in the top job.

The head of Mexico's central bank, Agustin Carstens, was in Washington, D.C., on Monday, but not to discuss his country's economic issues. Carstens, a candidate to become the IMF's next managing director, was looking for U.S. support. Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, is also running, as is Stanley Fischer, the governor of Israel's central bank.

The candidates have been flying around the world, in full campaign mode.


"I am who I am and I come with my set of background and skills and expertise which I think might be very successful for the job of managing the Fund in the current circumstances," Lagarde told Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned news channel, last week.

As the French finance minister, Lagarde has played a leading role in managing Europe's worst financial crisis in many years. But by unofficial consensus, every IMF managing director since the Fund's creation has been a European; that's how the Fund's creators envisioned it.

'Position Has Become Contestable'

The world's emerging economic powers say it's time to open the job to other candidates. That's why Mexico's Carstens is running.

"My participation in this process is inspired by the principle that we emerging markets have been claiming for many years — that there needs to be open and transparent process," he said.

There is a debate, there is a conversation going on. But the outcome is exactly the same as it was when it was done in a smoke-filled room without a lot of participation. That is, a European is going to be the next head of the IMF.

With Israel's Fischer throwing his hat in the ring last Friday, the IMF race has actually become interesting. Among those following it is Arvind Subramanian, who worked for years in the IMF's research department.

"This position has become contestable for the first time ever, and that's a reflection that the world is changing," he said. "Emerging market economies have become bigger, and the world has recognized that institutions need to change to adapt to these changing realities."

That's in theory. In practice, the global economy is still largely under the control of the big, rich countries. The U.S. and its Western allies hold most of the votes on the IMF board. Officials in Washington say the United States and its Western allies will unite behind Lagarde.

Moises Naim, a former minister of trade in Venezuela, is not all that impressed that the selection of a new IMF chief has really become a wide-open process.

"There is a debate, there is a conversation going on. But the outcome is exactly the same as it was when it was done in a smoke-filled room without a lot of participation," he said. "That is, a European is going to be the next head of the IMF."

Cooperation Among Emerging Nations

Here's another reason: Rising powers like China, Brazil, India and Mexico may all want a bigger voice in the global economy, but they still have their own interests — and apparently they are not yet ready to unite behind a candidate from outside Europe.

Brazil is supporting Lagarde; so are Indonesia and many Arab and African countries.

Subramanian, now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says historical reasons may still be important.

"Brazil has been reluctant to support Mexico, because there are longstanding issues between Brazil and Mexico," he said. "I don't think that the Chinese would have supported an Indian or vice versa."

So countries like Brazil and China are becoming more assertive individually, but that doesn't mean they're ready to cooperate.

"What we have not yet seen is these countries acting together and shaping outcomes in a way that is defined by them," said Naim, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Some analysts think that China, Brazil and the other big emerging powers have not yet concluded that the IMF is so important to them that they care that much who runs it.

But the IMF still has a lot of power, and there's at least one indication the institution still matters to someone. The Fund last week reported that it's been the target of a major cyberattack. The current thinking among security experts is that some nation state has been trying to get access to secret IMF data, for its own national purposes.

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