Selecting the new WTO DG: Trade powers influencing the choice

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By Elizabeth Morgan

The candidates for the post of Director General (DG) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are now well into the campaign phase, making themselves known to the Members. This two-month phase will end on September 7. The next phase will commence when the Chair of the General Council, supported by other Chairs as stipulated, will commence consultations to reduce the list of eight candidates. This phase is expected to continue into November when the new WTO DG should be identified. For the background, I refer you to my previous articles published on May 27 and July 15.

The campaign started with the candidates each making their presentation at a meeting of the General Council, July 15-17. Reports indicate that the candidates emerging as front-runners from this initial encounter with the Members and the media were Kenya (Amina Mohamed), Nigeria ( Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala ) and United Kingdom (Liam Fox).

Following this meeting, the candidates have been reaching out to individual WTO Members and groups. With COVID-19, much of the campaigning has been virtual and by correspondence. The candidate from Mexico, Jesús Seade, has had articles published in Caribbean newspapers, including both newspapers in Jamaica. Other candidates, it seems, have been making overtures to Members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

I took note of the Gleaner’s editorial of July 31 enquiring who Jamaica would be backing for the post of WTO DG. It is customary for Member States and the relevant CARICOM Councils to consider candidatures and decide on which candidate to support. In 2013, the selection of the WTO DG was a more normal process and the Gleaner’s question was one to pose then. Yes, Jamaica and other CARICOM WTO Members will have to be prepared in September to indicate to the General Council Chair and his team the candidate or candidates they favour, and I hope they will make an independent decision naming a candidate who they believe will serve the interest of multilateral trade and the Caribbean region.

This year’s candidature, however, comes at an extraordinary time and is one like no other. As it is said, the WTO is, indeed, at a crossroads, and, truly, these are desperate and perilous times for the Organization which call for a credible and effective leader, who can secure the support of most of the 164 Members. But, given the position of the USA under President Donald Trump, isolationism, anti-multilateralism, and the very strained relationship between the two major trading powers, the USA and China, selecting the new WTO DG will be a highly charged political process.

Deadlock on appointing an Acting DG

The current DG, Roberto Azevêdo, will demit office in a few days to enter the private sector. Clearly, the selection process for his replacement is incomplete. The procedures require the appointment of an acting DG from the four existing Deputy DGs (DDGs) from Nigeria, USA, Germany and China. Well, believe it or not, this was a resounding failure, as there was no agreement on which DDG should be appointed. The USA and China both wanted their DDG appointed, and, in the end, there would be no acting appointment.

This deadlock in appointing an acting DG, in my view, is a signal of things to come in the appointment of the new DG.

Influencing the Choice

This appointment will be a political battle among the most powerful trading nations. Key players in this choice will be the USA and China as well as the European Union, Japan, possibly Canada and the alliances they can form. November 3, the US Presidential election, is a critical date. If Donald Trump is elected to another four year term, I fear, that like the selection of the acting DG, the selection of the DG will be deadlocked. President Trump will want to appoint the candidate of his choice and I doubt that will be a candidate from Africa. Trump will want a DG who will march to his drum beat. So the battle lines will be drawn. Recall that President Trump has threatened to withdraw the USA from the WTO. The future of the Organization will definitely be on the line at a time, as it is said, when it is most needed.

So, as the selection consultations commence in September, all eyes will definitely be looking toward November 3.

Submitted by Elizabeth Morgan, Specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics

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