When the president of the World Bank comes to town, one expects there to be fireworks. Memories of the so-called Battle in Seattle still loom large in the public consciousness and global macroeconomic imbalances are capturing swaths of media coverage. Yet, when Bank President Robert Zoellick breezed through campus on Wednesday afternoon, my expectations went unfulfilled. There was in fact more glad-handing than debate. Why? Was it Zoellick’s diplomatic nature? The limited time allotted for questions? The weather? Or has the constant stream of high-profile individuals through campus gates deadened our appreciation of the opportunities they present?
Certainly, Zoellick was cautious and measured in his statements. The general nature of the discussion, “A Conversation on Global Challenges in the 21st Century,” facilitated more than the occasional digression. Moderated by the forever smooth Ernesto Zedillo, the conversation floated from trends is international diplomacy to possibilities for remodeling the outdated Bretton Woods System. Not once did Zoellick mention the World Bank by name or implication. Instead, he dropped a few pleasantries about the importance of the completion of Doha Rounds and denied claims that he had ever suggested anything like a return to the gold standard. That was the extent of it.
Nonetheless, one would still expect some challenges to his assertions, which were not entirely uncontroversial. Those challenges didn’t come. Considering the composition of the audience, I can’t say I’m surprised. My rough estimate is that only one third of the audience was Yale students; the other two thirds were composed of faculty, local residents, and an enormous contingent of visitors straight from Beijing. It felt like any other lecture – several listeners had pens and paper out and were taking notes while the others seemed to have fallen into a trance. It was hardly the charged environment that Zoellick faces elsewhere.
During the discussion, the former Deputy Secretary of State played his cards diplomatically. He praised multilateralism and even gave Zedillo extensive credit for successfully modernizing Mexico. His sincerity on these subjects is suspicious – after all, during his tenure in the Bush administrations, Zoellick frequently showed himself to be a unilateralist. While he eventually did admit to firm loyalty and close ties to the American political establishment, he also offered a justification: every international actor, he alleged, must have a firm grasp of domestic politics at home. With a smile and a nod, the crowd accepted his claim.
I’m not saying that I oppose Zoellick’s policies. I simply think they should face greater scrutiny. This campus must embrace active debate, not passive acceptance. The president of the World Bank deserves more attention than he received on Wednesday. Fortunately, we have a second chance on that count. Zoellick’s controversial predecessor, Paul Wolfowitz, is due to make his appearance at the end of the month.