It's getting harder to run the world - so spare some sympathy for the French.

By: /
July 6, 2011

Christine Lagarde, recently French Finance Minister, has finally been confirmed as IMF head – but not without having to beat back challenges from pesky upstarts like Mexico, Singapore, and India – and following the trials (literally) and tribulations of former French head, Dominique Straus Khan. Then there's poor Jean-Claud Trichet, the Frenchman in charge the European Central Bank, who's spent a frenetic year bailing and bailing to keep the Euro afloat. Or Pascal Lamy, the cerebral French head of the WTO, and his herculean efforts to conclude the Doha Round of trade talks. Come to think of it, no major global economic institution, save the World Bank, is not currently run by a Frenchman (or woman) - and this from a country at best ambivalent about globalization. Talk about noblesse oblige.

All this leads one to ask three questions: First, why are the French in charge of so many of the world's economic organizations anyway? After all, France's world power status effectively ended with the Battle of Waterloo, and it has been living off past glory ever since. Why is it in control? The answer is twofold: French bureaucrats are excellent. And France is adept at playing the hardball of international realpolitik. There are countries – like, say, Canada - that try to get what they want by being nice and solicitous team players; then there are countries that are pricklier, assertive, even obstructionist. To know which approach works best in the fierce lobbying and horse-trading for top international jobs, just ask how many Canadians hold them. Answer: none. We need to brush up on our Cardinal Richelieu.

Second, why do countries want these jobs so badly? The hours are brutal, the travel is punishing, and managing the so-called "international community" is as easy as herding cats. Plus, it's not as if running the IMF or the WTO allows you to bestow special favours on your country – just the opposite in fact. When Don Johnston headed the OECD between 1996 and 2006 - Canada's first and last recent "big" international post - he was so keen to avoid perceptions of favouritism that Canada was actually prejudiced against. What motivates countries to expend vast diplomatic currency on international appointments comes down to a combination of two things: patronage and prestige. There's no patronage like bureaucratic patronage, and jobs at international organizations remain the plumiest of postings – or at least a pleasant exile for potential political rivals. Plus they're prestigious. Heading the World Bank or sitting on the IMF board is a visible sign that a country still matters, that its opinion counts, and that its Great Power status is intact.

These points raise the most important question of all: If it's all about prestige and symbolism, why aren't mature powers like the US and France sharing centre stage more gracefully with newly emerging powers like China or Brazil? In a recent Foreign Affairs article, John Ikenberry argues that "even as China and other leading states try to contest US leadership… the deeper international order remains intact…. For these states, the road to modernity runs through – not away from – the existing international order".

I hope he's right, but the jury is still out. The post-war bargain that gave the Europeans the IMF and the US the World Bank shows no sign of modernizing, as the Lagarde coronation proves. Even last year's no-brainer suggestion that China – currently banker to the world, and holder of the biggest foreign reserves in history – be given a greater say on the IMF board at the expense of mighty economies like Belgium resulted in its voting shares rising by just 1% to 3% - compared to America's 17%. How to expect emerging powers to uphold the current international order – and take responsibility for leading our interdependent world – if they are shut out of influence? Faced with the West's tenacious efforts to remain in control, Asians are already musing about the need for an Asian monetary fund and a more robust Asian trade bloc.

History tells us that the international order periodically blows apart mainly because declining powers cannot accommodate – or accept - rising powers. Spain's accent in the 16th century helped spark the Thirty Years War; France's rise in the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars; Germany's rise in the 19th century, the First and Second World Wars. Only the transfer of global power from Britain to the US after 1945 went relatively peacefully – probably because Britain took solace that it could still play Greece to America's Rome.

Will the current power shifts thrown up by globalization look more like 1945 or 1914? The West should reflect on this question when the next big international job opens up. France can claim victory – once again - but it looks like a pyrrhic one.

Photo courtesy  of Reuters.