GENEVA — The final phase in a high-stakes race for World Trade Organization director-general began on Monday with delegates from 164 nations weighing two highly qualified candidates from Nigeria and South Korea for the top post.
One will become the first woman to lead WTO. Both have a history of shattering glass ceilings.
A selection committee said the global body for trade rules among nations will have until October 27 to conduct its “third phase of consultations” before finally deciding between Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea.
They are vying to succeed the previous WTO director-general, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil, who announced in May that due a “personal decision” he would leave the job a year earlier than planned. He left at the end of August, before a successor was named and after contending with a U.S.-China trade war, growing trade tensions and protectionism championed by U.S. President Donald Trump that undercut WTO’s authority.
Azevêdo’s seven-year tenure also was overshadowed by global economic turmoil from the coronavirus pandemic. And last December, the work of WTO’s appellate body was halted by the Trump administration’s opposition to replacing judges. The United States’ ability to block the naming of two new judges paralyzed WTO’s ability to resolve disputes among nations, arguably its most important function.
Reduced to just one member, the appellate body — which usually has seven members and needs three to hear an appeal — can no longer settle cases. WTO has another dispute settlement body, but it is now easily stalled. Trump also threatened to pull the U.S. out of WTO, claiming it meddles in American sovereignty.
The two women, whose credentials deeply impressed delegates from WTO member nations, qualified for the final round among a pool of five candidates. The race narrowed last month after kicking off in July with eight contenders from Britain, Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
“It was clear that members consider them individuals of outstanding qualifications,” David Walker, chair of WTO’s highest decision-making body, the General Council, said of the two finalists in a statement on how the next director-general will be chosen.
The council already eliminated three other candidates. One was Britain’s Liam Fox, a parliamentarian who was secretary of state for international trade and repaid misused government money in a 2009 scandal.
Another was Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, a lawyer and sports minister who served as trade and foreign minister and chaired WTO’s ministerial conference and General Council. The third was Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, a minister who advises the royal court and formerly worked in banking.
We are in the third phase of the process to select the next WTO Director-General. The three rounds of consultations of WTO members' preferences is designed to select the candidate most likely to attract consensus. #WTODG
Here's how the process works: pic.twitter.com/v0W1Tco5xF
— WTO (@wto) October 8, 2020
— WTO (@wto) October 8, 2020
U.S.-educated cabinet ministers
Walker, a career diplomat who is New Zealand’s ambassador to WTO, noted the final step in the selection process creates a historic precedent because it assures the seventh director-general will be the first woman to lead the global organization after a 25-year history. He has overseen a series of special council meetings for candidates to present views and take questions. Diplomats usually select their top pick by consensus.
“Our aim continues to be to encourage and facilitate the building of consensus among members, and to assist in moving from this final slate of two candidates to a decision on appointment,” he said. “As was the case for the first round, the entire membership remained fully engaged in and committed to this process.”
The race pits Africa versus Asia for leadership of a prominent but beleaguered international organization.
Both of the women in the final running know their way around Geneva, where WTO — which is not part of the United Nations system — is based, close to the U.N.’s European headquarters. Each also has served in numerous high-profile positions and earned advanced educational degrees in the United States.
Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala is a Harvard and MIT-educated economist and international development expert who chairs Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and sits on Twitter’s board. She spent 25 years with the 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 positions.
“Happy to be in the final round of the @WTO DG campaign. Thanks, WTO members for your continued support of my candidacy,” Okonjo-Iweala tweeted. “I could not have made it without the prayers and support of all Nigerians and friends around the world.”
She also tweeted that “WTO reform will be tough — but I’ve delivered hard reform before, including reform of countries’ trade regimes. In addition to this, I’m the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health.”
South Korea’s Yoo serves as her nation’s trade minister, and is the first woman to have held that post. She is a veteran of 25 years in Korean trade agencies and policies, and in her nation’s foreign ministry. She has a bachelor’s degree in English literature, a law degree from Vanderbilt University and is qualified to practice law in New York. She formerly was an ambassador to WTO in Geneva.
“Deeply grateful and honored to be selected for the final round in the selection process of the next @WTO Director General!” Yoo tweeted. “We need a capable & experienced new leader who can rebuild trust and restore relevance of the @WTO. I look forward to your continued support! Thank you!!!”
She later tweeted that she had “a great lunch” with WTO ambassadors, where she noted they all shared a belief that there is a “strong need for WTO reform.”
WTO, under mounting pressure from the Trump administration to justify its global rules and even its own existence, has been taking a pragmatic and welcoming approach to calls for significant changes in how it operates from among the world’s 20 largest economies.
In September 2018, the Group of 20’s leaders— including those from Brazil, China, the European Union, Germany, India, Russia and the United States — said at a meeting in Argentina that it had “stepped up our dialogue on current international trade developments, recognizing the urgent need to discuss current events in international trade and ways to improve the WTO to face current and future challenges.”
Azevêdo had said he welcomed their efforts to improve the world trade body’s functions and relevance. WTO was established at the start of 1995 to serve as a crucial part of the U.S.-led international order, by operating a system of trade rules and providing a place for governments to try to sort out their trade issues.
But independent experts have cautioned that WTO must revitalize itself as a forum for trade cooperation and conflict resolution to prevent “further erosion of the WTO’s credibility” in the face of the United States and other nations bypassing the organization by unilaterally declaring tariffs and retaliatory measures.