A challenging time awaits WTO’s next chief

The head of the World Trade Organization is not a boss in the traditional sense of the word. She neither sets the agenda, nor has the final say on decisions. The power for both lies with the membership, made up of representatives of 164 different jurisdictions. Yet it is with the director-general that responsibility for the reputation of the institution lies. In an era of discord over globalisation, then, the job might sound less of a crowning achievement and more of a poisoned chalice. Yet a heavyweight successor to Roberto Azevêdo can help heal rifts that have left the multilateral negotiating process in tatters.

There are two candidates left — South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Ms Yoo, Korea’s trade minister, is well versed in the rules and processes that govern the multilateral system having specialised in this area since the mid-1990s. She is considered unlikely to win the backing of China, however. Ms Okonjo-Iweala, the favourite, has less in-depth knowledge of trade policy but is an economist and, as a former finance minister, also politically savvy. She has displayed a knack for slick communications during her candidacy, while Ms Yoo has been more tight-lipped throughout the process. Ms Okonjo-Iweala has the advantage of experience in running a big international organisation, having chaired the board of Gavi, the vaccine alliance.

The new boss will join a body facing some of the stiffest challenges in its history. The WTO is only 26 years old but has its origins in the aftermath of the second world war, when there was broad recognition of the need to rebuild economies through trade. No longer can it rely on such a consensus. Distrust between the three major economic blocs — China, the US and the EU — has meant that deals in recent decades have been struck regionally.

The woes of the organisation go beyond the waning impulse towards liberalisation. Internal conflict abounds as insiders grow weary of a legislative process seen to have made no progress since 2013. On top of that the judicial process, by which countries use the WTO as a forum to resolve disputes, has been undermined by the US’s decision to block the new appointees to the appellate body last year. Most agree it is in dire need of reform too. Many viewed the early resignation of Mr Azevêdo as indicative of this sense of frustration.

So where, amid the gloom, do the opportunities lie? A clear one is in helping to shape an economic landscape that is set to look vastly different post-pandemic. The new order will need not only stability in the rules and processes that govern global trade, but a mechanism to help build consensus on how to regulate emerging industries. The WTO is a natural forum for both. The progress on the long-running dispute between Boeing and Airbus should — despite the need to review the appellate process — serve as evidence of the vital role the WTO can play in policing trade. Indeed, with tensions rife, a just, respected referee is vital.

The decision is set for early November. Both candidates are eminently qualified. Either can cite a wealth of experience, which will build trust among the membership. Key to achieving more co-operation is a capacity to ease tensions with the US, where both have studied. The role requires a dealmaker — a skill that Ms Okonjo-Iweala clearly possesses. The new DG must also advocate the benefits of trade in the production and distribution of possible vaccines against Covid-19 and fight critics who argue for reshoring. Given her experience, and the internal politics of the organisation, Nigeria’s candidate seems likely to have the edge.

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