The World of International Organizations

U.S. rejection upsets WTO leadership race

The World Trade Organization's main entrance in Geneva (AN/John Heilprin)
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GENEVA — The United States upended the World Trade Organization’s selection of its next director-general on Wednesday as the sole nation to back South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee over Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office announced its support for Yoo, who serves as her nation’s trade minister. She is the first woman to hold that role and has a quarter-century of experience as a trade negotiator and policymaker.

“She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization,” the office said in a statement that also took aim at Yoo’s opponent. “The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”

Yoo, a former South Korean ambassador to WTO in Geneva, has strong connections to the United States. She has a bachelor’s degree in English literature, a law degree from Vanderbilt University and is qualified to practice law in New York.

Okonjo-Iweala may not have “hands-on experience” as a trade negotiator, but she also has strong U.S. connections — she obtained American citizenship last year. She is a Harvard and MIT-educated economist and international development expert who chairs Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and sits on Twitter’s board.

Despite her U.S. citizenship, Okonjo-Iweala appears to have the support of all of the 164-nation WTO members except for the United States.

She spent 25 years with the Washington-based World Bank, where she rose to the No. 2 position of managing director, and served two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister and one term as its foreign minister, the first woman to hold those posts.

‘Best poised’ for consensus

One of the two candidates will become the first woman to serve as WTO’s director-general. The position has been vacant since the end of August, when Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil stepped down due to a “personal decision” to leave the job a year earlier than planned.

Diplomats to the WTO usually select the global organization’s leader by consensus, which means that any one nation can obstruct the process. The U.S. position on Azevêdo’s successor could change if Republican President Donald Trump loses his re-election bid on November 3 to Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.

After several weeks of consultations, David Walker, chair of WTO’s highest decision-making body, the General Council, and two other WTO ambassadors in charge of the selection process concluded that Okonjo-Iweala was “the candidate best poised to attain consensus,” the WTO said in a statement, adding that the U.S. alone had “challenged” the WTO’s assessment of who should be the frontrunner in the race.

Walker, a career diplomat who is New Zealand’s ambassador to the WTO, disputed the U.S. assessment of Okonjo-Iweala.

“She clearly carried the largest support by members in the final round and she clearly enjoyed broad support from members from all levels of development and all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process,” he said.

As a result, said Walker, Okonjo-Iweala is the recommended candidate to the General Council for appointment as director-general until August 31, 2024. He called another meeting on the selection for November 9, six days after the U.S. election.

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