© Bloomberg. Former Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala smiles during a press conference on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, following his hearing before representatives of the 164 member states of the World Organization. trade, as part of the application process for the head of the WTO as Director General. Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images
Members of the World Trade Organization are faced with the fact that the future of the Geneva-based institution is now in the hands of the American electorate.
Trade officials in capitals around the world are weighing their options following the Trump administration’s decision on Wednesday to block the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next WTO director general. The United States is backing South Korean Commerce Minister Yoo Myung-hee, despite overwhelming support from other countries for Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister who also holds US citizenship.
Some officials conclude that if President Donald Trump loses the presidential election on November 3, as numerous polls indicate, they should postpone the selection process until Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20. A Trump victory would give U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. a new impetus to rethink the surveillance of global trade rules and the WTO has been its enemy for years.
“The US elections are obviously crucial now,” said Rufus Yerxa, chairman of the National Council for Foreign Trade in Washington and former deputy director general of the WTO. “The decision by the WTO General Council hinges on whether they are in yet another brutal confrontation with Lighthizer or if they can afford to wait and strike a deal with a new Biden administration . “
Lighthizer issued a strong statement of support for Yoo, signaling the lack of leeway in the US position.
According to people close to Lighthizer, he views Okonjo-Iweala, a longtime senior World Bank official, as being too ideologically aligned with internationalists like Robert Zoellick, a former USTR in the Bush administration who worked with her when he was president of the Washington-based bank.
“Minister Yoo is a true trade expert who has distinguished herself over a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker,” the USTR office said in a statement. . “The WTO is in dire need of major reform. It must be led by a person with real practical experience in the field. “
Molly Toomey, a spokeswoman for Okonjo-Iweala, responded by saying: “WTO members would not have selected a DG who does not have any skills or qualifications.”
For WTO members, there are few desirable options if Trump emerges victorious in next week’s vote. Most do not want to support Yoo, who decided not to withdraw from the race after the WTO Selection Board named Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to achieve consensus among members of the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala “has clearly received the greatest support from members” and “has clearly received broad support from members at all levels of development and all geographic regions,” said the Chairman of the General Council. WTO, David Walker, New Zealand, in a statement on Wednesday.
Yoo did not respond to requests for comment.
It is possible that members could force a stalemate resolution by holding a vote to select the next WTO Director General by qualified majority. Okonjo-Iweala would likely win such a vote, but this path would be unprecedented and detrimental to the consensus-driven WTO.
The decisions of the WTO are taken by consensus of its 164 members, which means that one country can put pressure on the others.
A fundamental tenet of Lighthizer’s approach to international trade is its desire to uphold US national sovereignty over trade policy. Thus, any decision by WTO members to go against American interests could provoke a scathing response from Trump, who threatened to withdraw from the WTO altogether.
Advisers to the Biden administration, meanwhile, pleaded for greater engagement with US allies and to strengthen multilateral institutions like the WTO.
“Reaffirming and strengthening our grassroots alliances and partnerships with democratic countries is probably (Biden’s) top international priority,” Tony Blinken, foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign, said in a recent webinar hosted by the House of American trade. “We need to fix the messy trade and economic relationship.”
Wednesday’s setback came after Okonjo-Iweala won support from the European Union, Japan and much of Africa and Latin America.
“The resolute global majority and that of the Council to nominate Dr Okonjo-Iweala as the new WTO DG is testament to the overwhelming global consensus in favor of his candidacy,” said Ebba Kalondo, spokesperson for the President of the WTO Commission. African Union Moussa Faki in a statement Thursday. “We are convinced that this global consensus will prevail.”
China said it supports the outcome of the WTO process and the EU reiterated its commitment to remain engaged.
To avoid a prolonged standoff, members will work until November 9 to try to reach consensus. Meanwhile, some WTO staff took a break on Thursday for a dose of levity as a tongue-in-cheek reminder circulated that four deputy directors-general still run the organization.
“Keep calm, the four DDGs are still here,” the slogan read.
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.