Choosing a new director general is hard
Even in easier times, the members of the WTO have found it difficult to coalesce around a candidate. In the 1990s, a stalemate between two candidates, New Zealand’s Mike Moore and Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi ended in a compromise that awarded each a three-year term. To prevent future stalemates, the General Council adopted new procedures in 2003. As well as creating a fixed nomination period, the rules authorized a committee of three to shepherd the nominees through the selection process.
This committee is composed of General Council Chair David Walker from New Zealand, the incoming Dispute Settlement Body Chair Dacio Castillo, who is from Honduras, and Trade Policy Review Body Chair Harald Aspelund from Iceland. They are tasked with vetting the nominees with the membership so as to winnow the field and, hopefully, find a consensus candidate to bring to the General Council. If everything goes smoothly, a new leader would be installed by Sept. 1; if not, an acting director general would be appointed.
Being director general is even harder
So who would want a job that Stuart Harbinson of the European Centre for International Political Economy calls a “poisoned chalice?” The WTO faces massive problems. The crises that the new director general will face already included a barely functioning dispute settlement system, ongoing trade disputes between the United States and China, the failure to finish the Doha Round of multilateral negotiations on new rules for trade. Now, covid-19 has exposed signs of weakness in the international supply chain system, and in the trading system itself. Many countries paid little attention to multilateral rules when they were fighting to get medical supplies from elsewhere, or to keep what they already had from being exported. The willingness of nations to use export controls to protect their domestic markets is reminiscent of the period of inter war nationalism, and a bad sign for future cooperation. There is no question that markets are in a period of instability. The new director general will probably see her or his role as stabilizing market politics and enhancing the legitimacy of international economic cooperation.
That takes a particular skill set
In previous moments of change in the WTO (and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, or GATT), visionaries have moved the organization forward. Ireland’s Peter Sutherland closed the Uruguay Round of negotiations through a unique combination of charm and wiliness. However, today there are no obvious grand bargains to be struck. The organization’s members may prefer a different type of leader, more technocrat than ideologue; someone who can stay away from politics and look to smooth, rather than deepen, trading relationships.
No single candidate can yet garner a majority. In 2013, there was a pool of nine candidates. Some hoped Azevêdo’s resignation would lead to a smaller field, but that probably will not be the case. In the past, there has been an informal norm that the director general’s position will rotate between the global south and the global north. This would suggest that since Azevêdo is from Brazil, it is the turn of a candidate from a rich industrial country. However, the African delegation to the WTO has already contested the norm of rotation, arguing that since there has never been an African director general, it is Africa’s turn. To bolster that position, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has put forth Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank executive, instead of WTO Deputy Director Yonov Frederick Agah, who was expected to be Nigeria’s candidate.
Mexico also named a candidate last week, its North American secretary, Jesús Seade. They probably hope the United States would back their choice since there has never been a director general from North America. Insiders, however, suggest the United States is looking elsewhere, and most probably will align itself with Australia. A number of Europeans have signaled interest. The European Union’s trade commissioner, Ireland’s Phil Hogan wants the job as does Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González-Laya. However, the dismal state of U.S.-E.U. trade relations means the chances of a European making the final cut is small. The European Union wants to maintain the WTO’s multilateral role, but the Trump administration has lost confidence in the WTO’s current approach. Hence, it would make little sense for the United States to name a European.
While the U.S. has often chafed against WTO decisions, and perceived anti-U.S. bias in WTO judgments, it has always supported the WTO and trade multilateralism in the past. This has changed under the Trump administration. For the first time, the WTO’s most powerful member disagrees with the nature and purpose of the organization itself. It will be extraordinarily hard to reach a consensus on a new director general when there isn’t any underlying consensus among members on what the WTO is supposed to do.
Judith Goldstein is Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University