The US has rejected the front-running candidate to head the World Trade Organization, defying the body’s other 160 member nations and leaving the outcome of the race uncertain.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigeria finance minister, has attracted more widespread support to become the next director-general than her rival, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, the WTO said on Wednesday. But the US has refused to back her, a move which delays the decision on the process until after the US presidential election next week.
The process requires all WTO members to reach a consensus, rather than involving a formal vote. Candidates from Egypt, the UK, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Moldova and Kenya were eliminated in previous rounds.
In recent days three leading WTO ambassadors nicknamed “the troika” have been holding private consultations among the Geneva-based body’s members to establish which of the two remaining candidates attracts the widest support.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala, who holds US as well as Nigerian citizenship, has emphasised her experience as a World Bank managing director and her role as chair of the board of Gavi, a public-private alliance to develop vaccines for low-income countries. The drive to create a Covid vaccine has sparked a debate about patents, which are protected by WTO agreements.
But Keith Rockwell, a spokesperson for the WTO, said US delegates backed Ms Yoo because of her 25 years of trade experience; she currently serves as South Korea’s trade minister. “[They said] she would be able to hit the ground running,” Mr Rockwell said. “They said they could not endorse Dr Ngozi. I don’t know the reasons for that.”
In a statement, the US trade representative’s office confirmed Washington’s support for Ms Yoo, describing her as a “bona fide trade expert”, and arguing that the WTO was facing a “difficult time” and should be “led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field”.
The WTO’s members will next meet on November 9.
The role became available because of the unexpected early resignation of Roberto Azevêdo, a Brazilian who had held the job since 2013. He had another year remaining in his term of office but stepped down in September.
The organisation is currently without an interim director-general after China vetoed a US suggestion that the American Alan Wolff, one of the deputy directors-general, should take over in an acting capacity.
The new director-general will take over at a time when the WTO’s capacity to promote rules-based trade has been undermined by geopolitical tensions, including China’s model of capitalism and US president Donald Trump’s propensity for taking unilateral action to hit back against perceived ill-treatment of American companies.
They will also face a turbulent economic landscape as the coronavirus pandemic causes growing damage to global growth.
Additional reporting by Jim Brunsden in Brussels