Throughout his career Robert Zoellick has shown the resilience of the long distance runner that he is (his personal best for a marathon is two hours and 32 minutes). Last week he reaped the rewards of that tenacity when he was made US nominee to become the 11th president of the World Bank.
It was a moment that almost did not arrive. Until this week it had looked as if he was fated to be one of the nearly men of US public life: a highly-rated figure who never secured the top position his talent suggested. Although he had coveted the role, he was passed over as World Bank chief in favour of Paul Wolfowitz, after Dick Cheney, vice- president, intervened in 2005 to give it to his Iraq war ally. He dutifully accepted the B-prize, as number two at the State department. But after he ran second to Hank Paulson for the job of US Treasury secretary in 2006, he jumped ship to Goldman Sachs.
The fact that he has been selected now is a testament to his resumé and his politics. A Republican loyalist, Mr Zoellick is respected by both President George W. Bush and Mr Cheney, but is not part of either man’s inner circle. This time – unlike in 2005 – his semi-detached status worked to his advantage. Mr Zoellick was one of the few figures a weakened Mr Bush could nominate who could be seen as acceptable to the rest of the world.
He was born in 1953 and grew up in Napierville, Illinois. His father was a second world war and Korean war veteran and surrounded his son with military memorabilia. That left his son with a passion for military history, from the US civil war to Zulu uprisings. (Mr Zoellick has been known to deliver lectures on military strategy while taking guests on a run around the battlefield of Gettysburg.) His 84- year-old mother, Gladys, told the St Petersburg Times that her son liked books about “the Revolutionary war and all the wars. But I know he is a civil war addict. He always has been.”
As a student in Napierville he was politically active, running his own campaign to become elected student president, twice, she recalled. His ambition carried over into academia where he graduated magnum cum laude from Harvard Law School.
He first earned his Washington stripes as a protégé of James Baker, one of the éminences grises of US politics. He started with him at the US Treasury in the 1980s, becoming a central figure in dealing with the Latin America debt crisis, as well as the Louvre and Plaza currency accords. When Mr Baker moved to become secretary of state, he took Mr Zoellick with him. As a senior US diplomat at the end of the cold war he was deeply involved in German reunification, at a time when the World Bank played a key role in the transition economies of the former Soviet bloc.
From Mr Baker he learnt the lessons of foreign policy realism. While never an ideologue, Mr Zoellick has stood as a champion of US values and interests and a firm believer in the benign influence of the US. His model has been one of peaceful democratisation through development, not democratisation through occupation, as in Germany and Japan. As number two at the State department, he defined the vision of China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the world system, a phrase that is now an enduring concept of US diplomacy.
During a career that spans international economics, diplomacy, finance and politics, Mr Zoellick has prided himself on his skills as a strategist and tactician. He relishes political hardball – as he did helping Mr Bush during the 2000 election recount in Florida – as well as the technical aspects of disputes. “Most of the people who know me know me from one part of my life,” Mr Zoellick says. “I tend to draw from comparative experience.”
Even so, he lacks the instinctive charm of a politician. He is not a natural schmoozer, and can come over as arrogant and aloof. As US trade representative for Mr Bush, an official said, he liked to play offence, was in command of his brief to a “truly nerdish” degree and utterly focused on results. He is also a fastidious dresser, wearing monogrammed shirts and keeping his moustache attentively trimmed (although his mother last week noted that he needed a haircut).
As trade negotiator, Mr Zoellick was sharply attuned to the other side’s goals and political constraints, but also tough. One European official says he had “a unique negotiating style with none of the poker player about it. He says: ‘Here is my bottom line. Let me know when you have decided to accept it, preferably in the next 15 minutes.’”
Even so, he had a habit of repeatedly interrupting other trade negotiators, particularly from Japan, when he felt they were reading from a prepared brief. He famously lost his patience after driving hard for a trade deal in Cancun, and had a falling out with Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, which ended in open, childish recriminations over which of them had hung up the phone on the other.
As a manager he is seen as a tough boss, at times abrasive, who demanded the highest standards of himself and others – he commonly works 13-hour days (although he does manage some time off for reading, running and bird watching). A US trade official said: “There were those that found him thoughtful and gracious. Others thought him tough and demanding. For others what sticks out is that he yelled a lot and lost his temper.” Another former colleague said he was “not a shouter” but was “forceful” with staff. A former administration official said: “He is demanding,” but “he knows how to move a broad agenda and rally support. He also has the integrity to take a stand on issues.”
After the staff rebellion against Mr Wolfowitz, a blunt and confrontational approach would almost certainly backfire at the bank. Mr Zoellick has some management experience, but nothing on this scale and complexity. Yet aspects of the Zoellick style – efficient decision-making and a commitment to meritocracy – may appeal to bank staff. Moreover, he has shown a talent as a coalition-builder able to forge strong relationships with people, such as Pascal Lamy, Mr Mandelson’s predecessor, now head of the World Trade Organisation, who come from different political backgrounds. Mr Zoellick says he understands that a bank president must forge coalitions among stakeholders. “One can have the best strategy and ideas in the world but unless one can operationalise it, it is not a strategy.”
Additional reporting by Alan Beattie and Eoin Callan