Race to WTO leadership is down to the final two candidates

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) – World Trade Organisation members selected two final candidates – Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee – to advance to the final round in the race to lead the Geneva-based trade body, according to people familiar with the matter.

By advancing two women to the final round of the selection process, the WTO will likely have the first female director-general in its 25-year history.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala served two stints as Nigeria’s finance minister and one term as foreign affairs minister.

She has experience working at international governance bodies as a former managing director of the World Bank and as a chairman at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.

Ms Yoo is South Korea’s Trade Minister. During her 25-year career in government, she has helped expand her country’s trade network through bilateral accords with China, the UK and the US.

WTO General Council Chairman David Walker plans to formally announce the results to the institution’s delegates on Thursday morning in Geneva.

“They’re both very well qualified, it’s going to be a fight,” said Mr William Reinsch, a trade official in the Clinton administration and senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

The top challenge will be “restoring the organisation to full strength and viability, and restoring its reputation. “You need members to have confidence that the WTO is capable of solving problems. I think right now that confidence is eroded.”

Ms Yoo told Bloomberg TV last month that she wanted the WTO to offer a meaningful platform for the US and China to discuss their trade disputes.

She vowed to play the role of mediator if chosen to lead the organisation and to work as a force for multilateralism.

She said having a woman at the helm of the WTO would better foster an “inclusive, diverse, and resilient work place culture”.

The UK’s Liam Fox, Kenya’s Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibril and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri didn’t secure enough support in the second round of consultations, according to people familiar with the matter.

The third and final phase of the consultation process will begin later this month and run until Nov 6, after which the WTO will endeavour to name a consensus winner of the race.

Clouding the outlook for the selection process is the US presidential election on Nov 3.

The WTO makes decisions on a consensus basis, and a lack of American support for any of the finalists could mean delays in picking the new director-general.

“I don’t see how you could conclude that either candidate would be unacceptable, from a US point of view,” Mr Reinsch said, citing standards mentioned by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

“Lighthizer was asked for criteria for the selection and I think he mentioned three: committed to reform, no whiff of anti-Americanism, and taking on countries that flout the rules. I think they certainly meet his criteria.”

If WTO members are unable to select a leader by consensus, a vote requiring a qualified majority could be held as a last resort, which would be an unprecedented development for the organisation.

The campaign to lead the WTO during the most turbulent period of its 25-year existence is playing out against the backdrop of the pandemic, a worldwide recession, the US-China battle for trade supremacy and the American election.

President Donald Trump has blasted the WTO as the worst trade deal in US history and pledges to overhaul it to better suit the country’s interests.

The vacancy for the top WTO job arose when Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo decided to step down at the end of August, a year before his term was due to end.

WTO members view the race as an opportunity to reshape the organisation, whose mission of economic integration is under threat from protectionist policies around the globe.

Without reform, it risks being sidelined during the biggest economic crisis in a century.

“South Korea rose from a poor country to a developed one through trade and exports, and as such, I think a Korean being WTO leader would give hope to other developing nations,” said Mr Bark Tae-ho, a former South Korean trade minister, who also sought WTO leadership in 2013.

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