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David Rubenstein Does an Exit Interview With Robert Zoellick, the Head of the World Bank

Before his term runs out next month, Zoellick talks about his successor, his career, and the rumors that he’ll become Romney’s adviser.

World Bank head Robert Zoellick with the president of the Economic Club of Washington, David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group. Photograph by Ralph Alswang/Economic Club of Washington.
Robert Zoellick has been head of the World Bank for the past five years, a position he’s giving up willingly next month amid rumors he will become an advisor to likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. He’s also worked, in one capacity or another, for five presidents: Clinton, Ford, Reagan, and both Bushes. He says, “My true love is history, but I didn’t know how I could make a living at it.” Instead he chose public service, with a few side trips in business (Goldman Sachs, Fannie Mae), academia (US Naval Academy professor), and politics (the campaign of George W. Bush).

“I’ve learned how to survive in Washington,” Zoellick said drolly to Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein during a Q&A Wednesday hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, of which Rubenstein is president. “The good fortune in my life is that I have had some very good bosses,” Zoellick continued. Asked to name the most impressive, he at first said, “This is tricky,” but then mentioned former secretary of treasury and state James A. Baker III. “I started with Secretary Baker at Treasury,” Zoellick said. “I have enormous respect for him. He understands government and politics.” He said he especially admired Baker’s work ethic: “Every day was, ‘What can we do to get something done?’”

Because the audience was largely composed of members of the Washington business community, much of the conversation focused on the nuts-and-bolts work of the World Bank and its global focus on markets and development. While the language may be arcane to some, for this audience no translation was necessary. “Our problem is we’re called a bank, which people think means putting money out,” said Zoellick. “Where we’re most effective is when we look for things that can help develop markets, as being about development solutions.”

Rubenstein focused some of his inquiries on the turmoil in the Eurozone, which Zoellick identified as his greatest global concern and frustration. “Would you be happier or sadder if Greece got out of the Eurozone?” Rubenstein asked. Zoellick didn’t answer, but did say, “The danger for Greece, if it does leave, is there will have to be a lot of care in how that’s done. I’ve been pushing on how to get ahead of this and be ready for it.”

Zoellick said he chose to leave now rather than seek reappointment because “to run these institutions effectively, you have to anticipate, innovate, and deal with real political problems. It’s time to move on. I believe in change.” Which brought the conversation to the Romney campaign. Rubenstein mentioned the talk that Zoellick might be treasury secretary in a Romney Administration. “If Romney were to call you, will you give him advice?” Again, Zoellick was coy. He rattled off some references to the importance of a budget deal and fiscal consolidation, but he didn’t give up much more than that.

After he was nominated by President Obama, Dartmouth College president Jim Young Kim was chosen by the bank’s executive directors as Zoellick’s successor. The choice was considered unusual because Kim is a scientist and a doctor and not a financier or economist. Obama called him a “development professional.” Rubenstein pressed for an analysis of the decision. All Zoellick would say was, “It did surprise me. I hope Kim will build on some of the things I have done.”

It was easier ground when the questions turned to Zoellick’s career and the world leaders he has met. When asked who among them was impressive, he mentioned the late Deng Xiaoping, who was effectively the leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 until 1992. He also mentioned former German chancellor Helmut Kohl and the former (and last) president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. What gets his respect, he said, was “moral courage,” people who, even in emerging markets, “take courageous decisions to make their system and country better.”

As one gamer to another, Rubenstein posed this fun question: “What if I said, ‘Here’s a billion dollars to invest.’ Where would you put it in emerging markets?” Zoellick responded immediately: “I’d go to the Carlyle Group.” Point taken.

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