Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

As soon as the World Bank confirmed Wednesday that Robert Zoellick will step down as president this summer, the tussle over who should succeed him began.

The Obama administration, abiding by a decades-long custom, says it expects to name the replacement. That custom has outlived any semblance of propriety. The White House should think again.

For seven decades it was accepted that a U.S.-nominated American would lead the World Bank and a European backed by Europe’s main powers would head the International Monetary Fund. This cozy arrangement, always lacking in legitimacy, was once defensible as a practical matter.

It’s telling that nobody any longer even attempts such a defense. The arrangement is rightly seen as an affront to Brazil, China, India and the other fast-growing developing economies. It’s also inimical to the very idea of international cooperation on terms of mutual respect -- and not just for the countries excluded from any say in the matter.

Bending to this nearly universal view, both institutions now pay lip service to the idea of an open, merit-based selection process. Supposedly, guidelines to provide for that are in place. Over the next few weeks you can expect the World Bank to make a display of going through those motions, just as the IMF did last year when Dominique Strauss-Kahn had to quit as its managing director.

Nonetheless, the recently appointed head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, just happens to be French, and after the announcement that Zoellick was leaving, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner promptly said, “In the coming weeks, we plan to put forward a candidate with the experience and requisite qualities to take this institution forward.”

In whose judgment would that be? Officials have been quoted as saying that U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew -- not previously noted for their expertise in international aid and development -- would lead the search.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Obama economic adviser Larry Summers and Geithner himself are widely discussed as possible replacements. All are exceptionally competent, and have far more relevant experience than the picks of some previous U.S. administrations. But it should go without saying that many extremely able candidates are available for the World Bank job who don’t happen to be American. To exclude them at the outset is indefensible.

Obama should see this as an opportunity not just to appoint an excellent new leader of the World Bank but also to start a new chapter in global economic governance. A genuinely open, merit-based selection not managed by White House officials would announce a shift from a model in which the U.S. and Europe preside over lesser nations, to one of more equal partnership. Obama, more than any other recent U.S. president, has said he subscribes to that vision. Here’s his chance to prove it.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.