There has been a growing interest in the heavily lobbied Director-General, World Trade Organization role, following the stepping down of Roberto Azevedo on August 31. For the first time ever, two African women – Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and Kenya’s Amina Mohammed, have a real chance at emerging as the first female leader of the embattled multilateral organization, in its 25 years history.
However, beyond their impressive resumes as a criterion for appointment, the eventual winner of the top job is expected to be dependent on the outcome of the November 3 US Presidential elections, keenly contested by Republican incumbent Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The WTO’s effort to select a new leader entered a new stage this week, as the ambassadors from 164-member countries met for private consultations, on who they would support.
Six former WTO officials and trade experts revealed that the politicking in Geneva, Switzerland – WTO headquarters, could be a wild goose chase, as the decisive developments that will shape the future of the embattled global trade organization, are unfolding miles away in Washington, ahead of the November 3 presidential elections.
Although, the support of a particular candidate by the United States is critical; 4 trade experts, including former WTO employees, believe that the Trump administration is unlikely to breathe life into a multilateral body that he once threatened to leave. Donald Trump launched a trade war with China, repeatedly imposed tariffs on US allies, and destroyed WTO’s ability to intervene in disputes, by blocking the appointment of members to its Appellate Body.
David Tinline, a former adviser to Azevedo said, “I find it hard to imagine that the Trump administration would shift tack and do something very positive for the system.’’
The US Trade Representative (USTR), Robert Lighthizer, had in June told US lawmakers that, “the WTO needed a reform-driven leader and that he would veto any candidate who showed any whiff of anti-Americanism.”
The former WTO officials and trade experts said that the US-China economic conflict is a further divisive factor, as both countries will likely reject any candidate backed by the other.
The 8 candidates in contention for the top job, are expected to be trimmed down to 5 after the first confessional meetings on September 16. This will be further cut down to 2, and the final decision designed to be taken by convention before the November 7 deadline – just four days after the US elections.
Aside from the two influential African women vying for the role, Liam Fox, Britain’s former Trade Secretary, is a force to reckon with. If a favorite candidate does not emerge, some WTO members might prefer to wait until after the US election in case Joe Biden wins the US presidential election; especially, as Voting, seen as a last resort, has never occurred in WTO’s history.
A former member of WTO, Peter Van Den Bossche said, “They could play a waiting game, but that would push the decision until at least February or March 2021.”
Even though WTO is member-led, a strong leader who can facilitate decision making, and galvanize its 164 member nations, is crucial to reviving a severely embattled global organization.