The World of International Organizations

Candidates vie to become next WTO chief

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, center, at an UNCTAD meeting in Geneva on April 1, 2019 (AN/Timothy Sullivan)
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GENEVA — The embattled World Trade Organization shifted to the job of selecting a new director-general as the nominating period opened on Monday in an expected race between candidates from Mexico, Africa and Europe.

The selection of a successor to WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, who will step down at the end of August, comes at a crucial time. As the only international organization that deals with the global rules of trade, the 164-nation WTO has been in U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-multilateralism crosshairs for some time.

Mexico led off the month-long nominating period by putting forward its candidate, Jesús Seade Kuri, an economist and chemical engineer with dual Mexican-Lebanese citizenship who has been Mexico’s chief diplomat for North America.

Seade, who oversaw his country’s negotiations on a new trade pact with the United States and Canada in 2018, also was Mexico’s ambassador to the WTO and its chief negotiator for the Uruguay Round of trade talks.

He is expected to have competition from several African and European candidates. The nominating period runs through July 8 under a timetable announced last month by David Walker, chair of the General Council, WTO’s highest decision-making body.

Among the expected heavyweight contenders for the job are Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Harvard and MIT-educated development economist and former World Bank managing director who now chairs the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and sits on Twitter’s board.

As the board chair of Gavi, a public–private global health partnership, Okonjo-Iweala already has experience overseeing a Geneva-based international organization. And having been the No. 2 official at the Washington-based World Bank, she is well-positioned to serve as a potential key conduit for easing U.S.-China trade tensions.

Another likely candidate is Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, an ex-WTO official and former Egyptian trade negotiator who now works as a lawyer in the Geneva office of King & Spalding, an American international corporate law firm.

He directed WTO’s trade in services and investment division from 2001 to 2017. And as a dual Egyptian-Swiss national with ties to a U.S. law firm, he also has the diplomatic credentials to serve as a moderating link between Washington and Beijing.

Once the nominations close, Walker, a career diplomat who is New Zealand’s ambassador to the WTO, will invite the candidates to attend a special General Council meeting to present their views and take questions from WTO’s membership. The top pick is usually selected by consensus.

‘New post-COVID realities’

Azevêdo, a veteran Brazilian diplomat, has shown his “leadership, relentless efforts and unwavering commitment” since taking over WTO in 2013, Walker said at a virtual meeting of all WTO members last month.

“Even in these most difficult times,” he told Azevêdo, “you have always demonstrated great commitment and confidence, and this deserves our full admiration.”

In December, WTO’s appellate body was brought to a halt by the Trump administration’s opposition to replacing judges on its bench. The United States’ ability to block the naming of two new judges to four-year terms effectively paralyzed WTO’s ability to resolve disputes among nations, arguably its most important function.

With just one remaining member, the appellate body — which is supposed to have seven members, but needs three to hear an appeal —can no longer settle cases. WTO, which is not part of the United Nations system, also has a dispute settlement body that hears cases. But those can now be easily stalled once appealed. Trump also threatened to pull the United States out of WTO, claiming it meddles in U.S. sovereignty.

The U.S. has been a WTO member since the world body’s founding at the start of 1995. It was created out of the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement, which transformed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, that was in effect since 1948, into WTO.

Azevêdo, who is departing a year earlier than planned, has contended with a U.S.-China trade war and other trade tensions, including the rise of protectionism championed by Trump, that have undercut the WTO’s authority.

More recently he grappled with the global economic turmoil from the lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. WTO figures in March showed global services trade growth was slowing at the end of 2019 and into 2020, as countries began taking steps to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

He said he did not arrive easily at his decision to leave the post. But after going through the lockdown and knee surgery, he said, it became clear to him that stepping down from the job would benefit both his family and the WTO.

“As members start to shape the WTO’s agenda for the new post-COVID realities, they should do so with a new director-general,” Azevêdo told WTO members.

“I urge you not to treat the process of selecting the next DG as business as usual,” he said. “This organization must start 2021 with a focus on the real challenges: ensuring that the multilateral trading system responds to new economic realities, above all the post-COVID recovery.”

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