The behind-the-scenes campaign in Davos: Who will run the World Trade Organization?

How do you land a job when most every nation in the world has a vote? Talk. A lot.

And what better place to do it than the annual global gabfest sponsored by the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland?

The Wonkblog team is not in Davos, but these people are.

The Wonkblog team is not in Davos, but these people are.

Longtime Indonesian trade and now economy minister Mari Pangestu is one of the nine people who want to become the next director general of the World Trade Organization, and her week in the Alps will not leave much time for skiing despite the fine conditions (sunny on Thursday, temperatures right at freezing, light wind and a minimum 60 centimeter base).

“I am meeting as many people as possible – government ministers, thought makers, economists, Joe Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs – just to exchange views. How do we really achieve our vision?” said Pangestu in a telephone interview. She said her week at Davos would include face-to-face sessions with cabinet ministers from 15 nations to try to build her case. She'll be lobbying in the United States and China as well.

At least three of the other candidates for the job are in Davos, and next week all nine are slated to gather a couple of 100 miles up the road at WTO headquarters in Geneva for formal interviews with the delegates from the 157 nations that belong to the trade body.

The dilemma they will all face: How to stand out in a crowd when everybody believes in roughly the same thing, i.e. freer trade? The Doha round of world trade talks stalled for a reason, and Pangestu said no one is kidding themselves that it will be easy to convince, for example, developed nations to give up on some of their agriculture subsidy policies, or convince a nation like China that it should no longer expect all the protections of a developing nation.

“I don’t underestimate the difficulties of finding common ground,” she said. “If it was easy we would have completed negotiations long ago. It is such a more complex world.”

In the meantime, she said more targeted efforts – to try to ensure goods moving around the world as part of multinational supply chains aren’t held up or taxed too heavily as they pass through different countries – should be a focus of the organization.

The problem is that all the candidates are likely to say pretty much the same thing. This is trade after all, not a debate over gun control in the United States.

Regional politics may play a role. The nine candidates are largely from developing countries and none are from Europe or the United States: This is a contest among Asia, Africa and Latin America. Major nations have remained mum on their choice so far, though Indian industry minister Anand Sharma said in Davos this week that his nation wants a WTO head from a developing country that will focus on the “development dimension” of the organization’s work.

That probably means someone willing to lean a bit harder on Europe and the United States than on the Indias and Brazils of the world.

Politics, diplomacy, regional friendships (or not), “at the end of the day there will be all these considerations,” Pangestu said, along with – perhaps most importantly – an evaluation of who can best manage the complexities of an institution where national interests inevitably clash.

“You have to have competence, leadership and management,” she said. “If I was not running, those are the goals.”

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