By Lesley Wroughton
Washington - The United States nomination of Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank chief drew a cool response from European officials on the bank's board but they had little chance of blocking it, board sources said on Wednesday.
Sources close to the World Bank board said Wolfowitz's name was informally circulated several weeks ago among the 23-member board, which represents the bank's 184 member countries, and the reaction was made clear to US Treasury Secretary John Snow.
"Mr. Snow knows that the reaction from the board was unfavourable," one source said. "Mr. Wolfowitz's nomination today tells us the US couldn't care less what the rest of the world thinks."
Wolfowitz, the No. 2 man at the Pentagon, is a controversial pick because of his role in designing and promoting the 2003 Iraq invasion, which was bitterly opposed in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
Some World Bank staff reacted with cynicism. Many in the bank had rooted for former US secretary of state Colin Powell.
Wolfowitz has had three stints at the defence department, but also served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and as ambassador to Indonesia and headed the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.
The sources said acting US Executive Director Bob Holland told board members at a meeting on Wednesday Wolfowitz was prepared to face them in a formal interview as they decide on his nomination.
"The enthusiasm in old Europe is not exactly overwhelming," German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said.
Wolfowitz's current boss, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, once dismissed states like France and Germany that resisted the Iraq war as "old Europe," as opposed to the "new Europe" of former communist states that were more sympathetic.
Despite some European objections, Wolfowitz's approval is likely a foregone conclusion as the United States has the most muscle on the board. The United States is the bank's largest shareholder, followed by Japan, Germany, Britain and France.
By tradition, Washington selects the World Bank president, while Europeans choose the head of its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund.
But five years ago Washington blocked the Europeans' choice of Caio Koch-Weser, Germany's deputy finance minister, as IMF candidate. The job eventually went to Horst Koehler, who is now Germany's president.
With Wolfowitz at the helm, many countries and bank staff fear the United States will more forcefully impose the US development agenda on the bank and its members.
In his first comments on his nomination, Wolfowitz said he had a strong interest in development and believed deeply in the institution's "noble mission," which he had first-hand experience with in Indonesia.
He said he also understood he would have to work with governments that opposed his role in the Iraq war.
"I understand that in this job I'll be an international civil servant reporting to a multinational board, responsible for hearing all their views," he told reporters.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said his country would have to examine the proposal more closely.
US President George Bush told reporters he telephoned Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other world leaders to explain why Wolfowitz would be a "strong" leader for the bank.
Britain, which backed the US-led war in Iraq and has unveiled an ambitious aid and development agenda this year, offered a relatively hollow endorsement.
"It is for the bank's board to decide on the appointment of the presidency of the bank," an official from the British government's department for international development said. "The bank board also confirmed they will follow their long tradition of consultation with countries they represent."
The official said it was important the United States consult developing countries, the bank's biggest borrowers.