When powerful countries are deadlocked over who will run an international organization, one solution is to let the competing candidates serve partial terms, one after the other -- and that, messy an outcome as it may be, is where the World Trade Organization appears to be headed.
After months of wrangling over who will succeed Italian Renato Ruggiero as director general of the WTO, the 134-nation trade body is scheduled to meet today in Geneva to discuss a proposal that would split the job between Mike Moore, a former prime minister of New Zealand, and Supachai Panitchpakdi, the deputy prime minister of Thailand.
The two men have been locked in a bitter and seemingly intractable battle for the post, but both have indicated a willingness to compromise by serving three years each and relinquishing office after that -- though the deal may fall apart over which one goes first.
The idea's appeal is that it would end a struggle that is threatening to leave the WTO rudderless just as the organization is preparing to launch a new round of negotiations to lower global trade barriers at a conference of trade ministers in Seattle this November.
The impasse developed after Ruggiero's term expired in April, with nearly equal numbers of nations backing Moore and Supachai when they emerged as the leading candidates. The United States, France, Germany and much of Latin America support Moore, who is viewed as more sympathetic to the idea of bringing the issue of labor standards into trade negotiations. But Japan and nearly all of the other Asian countries back Supachai, whose candidacy has become a rallying cry for developing countries seeking a greater voice in world economic affairs.
Although Moore has since edged ahead in straw ballots of WTO member nations, few trade diplomats relish letting a vote decide the matter at the consensus-oriented WTO.
Supachai was quoted in Bangkok yesterday as saying that he would be amenable to the term-sharing proposal provided each man would get three years in office. The director general's term is supposed to last four years, and Supachai said the deal would only work if he could serve longer than half of that.
"If the term lasts only two years, it is almost impossible to accomplish anything," he said.
A senior U.S. official said "it's too early to tell" whether the WTO will go for the compromise, "but there is serious consideration of it. The normal term is four years, so this would be just one year short of that. What's most important is that there would be a resolution soon."
But Jeffrey Schott, a specialist in the WTO at the Institute for International Economics, said it would be "a terrible idea."
"Both these guys will be starting out with their hands tied behind their backs," Schott said. "Unlike, say, the head of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, the director general of the WTO doesn't have money to give member countries to convince them to cooperate with the institution's objectives. The DG [director general] has to rely on a combination of political skills and moral suasion; to be effective, he or she has to have a strong political commitment of the membership."
Supporters of the compromise counter that a deal was brokered in Ruggiero's case, too. Following a long fight, he won the job only after pledging to serve a single four-year term -- and now that he's gone, his erstwhile foes miss his leadership.