AN OPPORTUNITY LOST

IT IS NO REFLECTION on Michel Camdessus, the able French central banker elected to succeed Jacques de Larosiere as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to say that his choice was an opportunity lost.

Some have deemed the fact that the election was contested, the first time in the 40-year history of the IMF, as unseemly. This is nonsense. Certainly, after four decades an institution as important to the functioning of the Western world should be mature enough and vital enough to encourage democratic competition for its top office.Certainly also, the outcome speaks to the effectiveness of the process. Mr. Camdessus brings impressive credentials to the task he faces: In addition to heading the French central bank, he was formerly French finance minister and at one time president of the Paris Club, the informal and somewhat secretive association of finance ministers and central bankers of the leading industrial nations that has helped arrange new lending terms for Third World countries facing difficulty in restructuring their debts.

The Reagan administration balked initially at casting its vote for someone originally appointed to high office by a Socialist, French President Francois Mitterand. But closer examination of the record apparently convinced it that Mr. Camdessus as finance minister was capable of switching from an expansive policy to a much more conservative one and subsequently as central banker was able to pursue a policy of tough anti-inflationary measures and financial deregulation.

In addition to this impressive resume, Mr. Camdessus enjoys a reputation as a skillful mediator and conciliator, among other things having an ability to converse readily in Spanish, the language of the debt-plagued Latin nations.

That an opportunity was lost arises not from man selected for the job but

from the fact that any European at all was named. Historically, leadership of the Bretton Woods twins - the World Bank and the IMF - has been divided between the United States and Europe.

That made sense when, in the waning years of World War II, the pair were founded at a historic meeting in Bretton Woods, N.H. The United States then was the leading capital generator and exporter, indeed virtually the only one. If the World Bank was to establish its credit and tap the coffers of Wall Street, it behooved it to be nice to the Americans. By the same token, Europe was the area most in need of currency realignment.

But the world has changed, radically. The United States, laboring under massive budget and trade deficits, has become a net debtor nation. By the end of the decade, its external debt is expected to approach $1 trillion. Europe, which enjoyed rapid growth in the early postwar years, has slipped into stagnation. And Japan, a nation that was not even represented at Bretton Woods, has become the second largest economy and the world's largest capital exporter.

It is this last fact that requires recognition now, not five years from now when the post of again comes up for grabs.

In the years between World War I and World War II, when the United States first realized its might as the world's No. 1 economic power, it behaved as an international adolescent. That is, it enjoyed the privileges but eschewed the responsibilities of power.

Today, Japan is cast in much the same role. It talks a good game - about wanting a liberal international trading order and opening its market to international competition.

Of course, the United States is not much better. For all the talk of international morality, neither Congress nor the Reagan administration is doing anything to bring down the budget deficit, the source of much of our international ills.

The problem is one of belling the cat. Mr. Camdessus may be able to talk sternly, or if necessary more softly, to the debt-burdened developing countries. But who is to talk tough to Japan, the United States and Germany?

If a Japanese had been named IMF managing director, there might have been a bit more hope.

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