Remember the World Trade Organization? While the organization dominated discussions around globalization in the 1990s, culminating in large-scale protests and violent riots against its Seattle meeting in 1999, it has faded into the background since the launch of the "Doha round" of trade negotiations in 2001, which have largely stagnated.
But the organization is still very powerful. Few international organizations can match its ability to quash laws passed by member states. For example, when the Bush administration imposed tariffs on most imported steel in 2002, the WTO ruled that the measures violated international trade law and that the E.U. and Japan had the right to retaliate with their own tariffs. The E.U. prepared tariffs specially assigned to hurt industries in U.S. swing states (e.g., by placing tariffs on imports of Florida citrus). The United States backed down and withdrew the tariffs. It's quite unusual for multilateral institutions to have the ability to veto domestic policy like that.
Now the WTO faces a transition period, as Pascal Lamy, the French politician who has led the organization for the past eight years, is departing at the end of August. Past leaders of the WTO and of its predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), have been a pretty monochromatic bunch, with all but one of their directors-general coming from Europe or New Zealand. No women have ever led the organization, either. But both of those patterns could change depending on who the WTO's General Council selects to succeed Lamy.
Nine candidates have been nominated by host countries. The Center for Global Development's Kimberly Ann Elliott has a helpful explainer of where the process goes from here. First, members of the General Council — which consists of all member countries, represented either in-person in Geneva by permanent representatives to the WTO or remotely by central governments — will each submit their four favorite candidates (in no particular order) to the chairs of the General Council (currently Shahid Bashir of Pakistan), the Dispute Settlement Body (currently Jonathan Fried of Canada) and the Trade Policy Review Body (currently Joakim Reiter of Sweden), the latter of which are important subsidiary committees of the WTO.
That process lasts from Wednesday through next Tuesday, at which point the four candidates with the least support will be asked to withdraw. Second, the process is repeated, but with members stating only two preferred candidates each. The three candidates garnering the least support will then withdraw, leaving two finalists. A final vote will then take place, with the winner becoming director-general. As Elliott notes, the WTO likes to operate on consensus, so a really hard-fought battle at the end is unlikely.
So who do the members have to choose from? Here are the nine candidates, as well as the features that might endear WTO members to them, as well as features that might push them away. I also threw in their average odds (correcting for overround) on Ladbrokes and Paddy Power, two betting sites from Britain and Ireland, respectively, that offer betting on the WTO race. Take these with a grain of salt (they didn't have Lamy as the favorite last time around), but they're a good estimate of the conventional wisdom.
Name: Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen
Experience: Ghanian ambassador to the United States (2001-2003); minister for Trade, Industry's and President's Special Initiatives (2003-2007).
Odds: 21.35 percent
Pros: Kyerematen is supported by the African Union as well as the government of South Africa, both of which solidify his standing as one of the leading developing world candidates. He has experience with trade issues dating back to his time in Ghana's cabinet, and his time in Washington should provide useful experience for dealing with American and other Western representatives in Geneva.
He also has significant experience in the development community, having headed up a project for the U.N. Development Programme in the past and currently serving as head of the African Trade Policy Centre of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, in which capacity he's working on an Africa-wide free trade pact. Before entering public service, Kyerematen served as a business executive, including for a subsidiary of British-Dutch multinational Unilever.
Cons: Kyerematen has plenty of experience with U.N. development agencies, but comparatively little with the WTO or other Bretton Woods institutions. That could hurt his odds.
Most interesting position: From his candidate statement: "We are not tied forever to One Big Round or always to 'hard law' solutions. The WTO should be able to advance on agreements in individual areas as we did fifteen years ago in financial services and basic telecoms." This suggests Kyerematen is interested in making deals outside the Doha process, or at least in not letting the stagnation of that process prevent the WTO from making any new deals whatsoever.
More information: Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development interviews Kyerematen.
Name: Anabel González
Country: Costa Rica
Experience: Minister of Foreign Trade (2010 - present); director, WTO agriculture division (2006-2009); chief negotiator of Central America-U.S.-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA (2002-2004); assorted other roles at domestic and international organizations focusing on trade (1989-2002, 2004-2006, 2009-2010).
Odds: 19.98 percent
Pros: González has extensive experience in international trade matters, including experience running a division of the WTO, which sets her apart from the rest of the candidates. She also is a trained trade lawyer, which could come in handy.
Cons: While Latin America has never had a WTO director-general before, Costa Rica is a particularly developed country for the region, and especially compared to countries like Ghana and Indonesia which have also offered candidates. That could blunt whatever appeal comes from González's region of origin.
Most interesting position: "The fact that each WTO Member is, on average, party to 13 PTAs reflects Members' willingness to integrate with the aim of promoting trade and investment and to explore all useful means to do so. The downside, of course, lies in the dangers posed by the discrimination that is inherent in these agreements and in their potential to exclude others." Here, González is suggesting that regional trade agreements, like NAFTA, must not be used as an excuse to discriminate against countries not party to the deal.
More information: Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development interviews González.
Name: Tim Groser
Country: New Zealand
Experience: Minister of Trade, minister of Climate Change Issues (2008—present); ambassador to the WTO (2002-2005); assorted civil service roles in trade policy (1973-1999).
Odds: 19.25 percent
Pros: Groser has actually been a member representative at the WTO. Given that basically every candidate statement pays lip service to the idea that the WTO is a member-driven group, that ought to count for something. He also has substantial expertise in East Asian economic issues, which might endear him to voters.
Cons: Groser is basically the only rich country nominee this time around (unless you count South Korea as a rich country), and New Zealand has, improbably, already had a WTO director-general to its name. Getting another might be a bit much for developing economies to swallow.
Most interesting position: "This institution should be the absolute centre of trade policy thinking – the 'go-to' place for young and ambitious trade policy thinkers coming up through their systems. Twenty-five years ago we were in that space. We are not there today." Children, Groser appears to be arguing, are our future.
Name: Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo
Experience: Permanent representative of Brazil to the WTO and other International Economic Organisations in Geneva (2008-present); vice-minister for Economic and Technological Affairs (2006-2008); various diplomatic/economic policy postings (1984-2006).
Odds: 10.64 percent
Pros: Azevêdo has plenty of experience representing Brazil before the WTO, both in his current capacity and during stints working on international trade from Brasilia. He represents a large middle-income economy in a region traditionally lacking representation in the WTO, and which has the largest economy of any of the nominating countries.
Cons: Azevêdo represents the government of Dilma Rousseff, who is a generally left of center leader who is more skeptical than usual of globalization. She has recently slapped tariffs on everything from steel to milk, for instance. While Azevêdo is a civil servant, any association of his with Rousseff or her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva might hurt his chances.
Most interesting position: "In fact, I am proud to say that my candidacy was not born in my head. It was not born in Brasilia either. It was born right here in Geneva, when other negotiators felt that I could help this organisation as director general and insisted that I accept the challenge. I was honoured by this encouragement that actually came from all sides of the negotiating table. All this weighed heavily on the decision in Brasilia to launch my candidacy." This isn't really a position, but it does suggest that Azevêdo wishes to be seen as a candidate from within the WTO rather than a partisan of his home country.
More information: Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development interviews Azevêdo.
Name: Mari Elka Pangestu
Experience: Minister of Trade (2004-2011); minister of Tourism and Creative Economy (2011-present).
Odds: 8.78 percent
Pros: Pangestu is a trained economist, having earned her PhD at the University of California-Davis, and spent many years as a fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a lecturer at the University of Indonesia- Jakarta, focusing on trade issues. She probably has the most extensive academic knowledge of trade of any candidate for the position. She also represents the largest country, population-wise, which might count for something.
Cons: Pangestu is perhaps the most eager of the candidates for a multilateral deal on agriculture, which would tackle rich country agricultural subsidies. That could turn off some Western governments.
Most interesting position: "As The Economist article from a few weeks ago indicated, only economists really still believe in trade. In other words we have to continue to do a better job in explaining and getting outcomes that actually can be felt in our countries – whether its growth, creation of jobs and reduction in poverty." Pangestu is suggesting here that a major role for the WTO should be promoting the reputation of liberalized trade among the public, a PR mission that the WTO has sometimes fallen down on.
More information: Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development interviews Pangestu.
Name: Herminio Blanco
Experience: Minister for trade and industry (1994-2000); chief negotiator, NAFTA (1990-93); vice minister for trade (1993-94, 1988-90); member, Council of Economic Advisers to the president of Mexico (1985-1988).
Odds: 6.65 percent
Pros: Blanco comes from a developing nation and brings extensive trade negotiation experience, not least his time spent negotiating and implementing NAFTA. He also has a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago and spent five years as a professor at Rice, strengthening his academic and technical bona fides.
Cons: Blanco served for the PRI government in Mexico during a period when it was basically a dictatorship. Mexico also is more of a middle-income country than a developing one, which might blunt whatever appeal his background brings with it.
Most interesting position: "The unavoidable responsibility of Members [is] to ensure the full and prompt implementation of all multilateral measures that have been agreed upon to help economic development, in particular those benefiting the neediest among Members. It is about effectively implementing special and differential treatment; solving the problem of commodities hard-hit by subsidies provided by developed countries; granting effective market access to products and services coming from developing countries, specially Duty-free-quota-free treatment to the least-developing-countries, as well as giving substance to the services waiver." Blanco places more emphasis on preferential trade deal for poor countries than other candidates.
Name: Amina C. Mohamed
Experience: United Nations assistant secretary general and deputy executive director, UN Environmental Programme (2011-present); Kenyan ambassador to UN and WTO in Geneva (2000-2006).
Odds: 5.5 percent
Pros: Mohamed represents one of the more important sub-Saharan African nations, an attractive quality at an institution looking to include more developing world representation. She also, like Groser, represented her nation at the WTO in the past, though she combined that service with other ambassadorial work. She, like many on this list, is a trained trade lawyer.
Cons: Given how much of Africa has fallen in line behind Kyerematen, it's doubtful that Mohamed, an African candidate lacking the backing of South Africa or the African Union, will get much traction.
Most interesting position: "The primary responsibility lies with national governments to create the right policy environment for improved investments in agriculture for greater productivity." This is a more timid statement on the role of the WTO in making agricultural policy than those put forward by most of the other candidates.
Name: Taeho Bark
Country: South Korea
Experience: Minister for Trade (2011-present); chairman, Korea Trade Commission (2007-2010); member, KTC (1999-2004); economics professor, Georgetown (1983-87) and Seoul National University (1997-present).
Odds: 4.26 percent
Pros: Bark has extensive trade experience as well as experience as an academic economist, having earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. His most recent experience as trade minister has given him exposure to the WTO process. He also represents a growing East Asian economy, which gives him a region-based appeal.
Cons: Bark has relatively little experience, compared to other candidates, with international trade negotiations and the WTO, having only just ascended to his current post in 2011. That said, he did work on WTO/GATT issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a government adviser.
Most interesting position: "Importantly, the WTO has been effective in keeping protectionism in check and containing trade disputes within the system. The consensus method, despite its shortcomings, is still the most rational, open-minded way to reach a decision and should not be easily forsaken." Other candidates have expressed an openness to institutional reforms to the WTO. Bark appears to oppose major changes there.
More information: Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development interviews Bark.
Name: Ahmad Thougan Hindawi
Experience: Minister of Industry and Trade (2004-2005); various positions, Ministry of Industry and Trade (1997-2004).
Odds: 3.6 percent
Pros: Hindawi is the only Arab candidate and given that region's relative neglect in global trade discussions, combined with its recent turmoil, that could spark some interest among voters. Hindawi also currently leads a private consultancy, making him the only candidate to currently be in the private sector, for whatever that's worth.
Cons: Jordan is the only country here that is unquestionably a dictatorship (Mexico and Kenya are graded "partly free" by Freedom House, while the rest are all functioning democracies). Service to an authoritarian regime isn't generally a quality one looks for in international organization leaders.
Most interesting position: "It is of profound importance to have one rule to govern the accession process. Having more than one standard will have a detrimental impact on the credibility of the system." The WTO accession process involves a long series of detailed negotiations. Hindawi wants to streamline that, though for what reason is left unclear.