Three years ago, the International Monetary Fund was irrelevant, an object of derision for all opponents of globalization. Under director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and as a result of the global economic crisis, the IMF has since become more influential — governing like a global financial authority. It is also putting Europe under pressure to reform.
The building that houses the headquarters of the global economy is a heavily guarded, 12-story, beige structure in downtown Washington with a large, glass atrium and water bubbling in fountains. The flags of the 187 member states are lined up in tight formation.
Visitors walking into the office building find the cafeteria on the right, where many meetings are held. There, experts in their shirtsleeves, their jackets draped over the backs of chairs, drink lattes out of paper cups and talk countries into crises or upturns. A little farther down the hallway is The Terrace, the IMF building’s upscale restaurant where the director receives official guests.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late September, as the first leaves are falling from trees outside, the director, wearing a blue suit and a blue tie, is sitting on a blue couch high up in his office at the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), outlining his idea of a new world. Some of it already exists, in the form of a new world order established in September 2008 to replace the one that was collapsing at the time. The result wasn’t half bad, but it is robust?
’The Money Is The Medicine’
These are important times for humanity. The crisis has forced everyone to see many things from a new perspective. Now the IMF is preparing for its annual meeting on Oct. 8. Can it live up to expectations, and can it police the new global economic order and keep global banks in check?
“You have to imagine the IMF as a doctor,” says Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the 61-year-old director of the International Monetary Fund. “The money is the medicine. But the countries — the patients — have to change their habits if they want to recover. It doesn’t work any other way.” He smiles benevolently as he says these things, his eyes disappearing behind small cushions of wrinkled skin.
The IMF, says Strauss-Kahn, warned the world about the collapse and about the American real estate bubble and its consequences, but “politicians don’t want to hear bad news.” And when the crisis arrived in the fall of 2008, as predicted, it took the old world — Europe, which always takes six months to make a decision — too long to react.
That was the time when the world was laying the foundation for a new order.
The New World Order
There are two telephones to Strauss-Kahn’s left and two to his right. The room has high ceilings, beige carpets and white curtains. An old clock and books about Mexican painting stand on the bookshelf. The IMF’s director is sometimes referred to as DSK, which makes Strauss-Kahn sound like a three-letter brand like IMF or USA, and yet he speaks English with a soft French accent.
DSK leans back in his chair, weighing his words, glancing at the audio recorder and smiling. The new world order? Well, let’s talk about it, he says.
Countries like China and India are becoming important, countries with rising markets that have long been stable and are clearly powerful. Whenever he is in China or other parts of Asia, says Strauss-Kahn, the leaders there tell him that they have written off Europe for now. “They say they want a strong Europe, but there is always one part of the world that is lagging behind. They say that in the past it was them, and now it is Europe. It’s a shame, but the world can live without Europe.”
The new world could be a frightening place. The IMF director says: “The Europeans still believe they are the center of the world, but in reality this is not clear any longer. Currently, the question is whether Europe will remain a participant in a game with many players — that is not necessarily a given.”
The Rise of the G-20
The United Nations will probably become less important; the organization is far too slow-moving and sluggish. And, if one understands DSK correctly in this point, the importance of the United States — that egomaniacal country which is incapable of action — will also decline. Of course, Strauss-Kahn would never speak in such terms, but he does point out that it was the United States that reacted to the 2008 crisis, not with a long-term view, but bank by bank. “They tried to solve Bear Stearns first, and then Fannie and Freddie, and really believed that each hurdle was the last one,” he says.
What will become important, however, is the G-20, that coalition of the strongest economies, the center of power in a new world. The G-20 gave the IMF $850 billion (€620 billion) and the mission to solve the crisis. What followed, says, Strauss-Kahn, was “the biggest global coordination ever.”
Does this mean that the IMF became the first post-crisis world government?
Strauss-Kahn stretches when he hears the question, and pauses for 20 seconds before responding. He is an elegant man, a white-haired Parisian with three deep furrows in his brow, who smiles slyly and flirtatiously. He is a ladies’ man, not particularly tall and even a little stooped.
Solving Global Problems
Sitting in his cool office, a room that smells of fresh flowers, he says: “No, no, the government has to consist of elected people, and that’s more like the G-20. But the reality is the G20 — or any other grouping — doesn’t operate like a government. Their willingness to work together was very strong during the crisis, but frankly I think it’s fair to say that it’s decreasing. The more leaders and finance ministers believe that the crisis is over — even if they are mistaken — the more they are concerned about their own problems and less so about coordination and consensus.”
In Strauss-Kahn’s view, the IMF should become an administrative unit of sorts for the G-20, an agency that “tries to find solutions for global and national problems,” come up with plans and create values. “In the end we aim at much more than just the right financial and economic policies. The ultimate goal of course is world peace through economic stability.” This is the way Strauss-Kahn views his organization, and the astonishing thing is that hardly anyone, with the exception of a lone professor in Boston, disagrees with him anymore.
The IMF, of all organizations?
By Klaus Brinkbäumer and Ullrich Fichtner