News & Politics

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
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

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.