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10 July 2020

Why has the United Kingdom nominated Liam Fox for a job he’s never going to get?

The real prize may be the friends he makes along the way. 

By Stephen Bush

The most interesting thing about the UK putting forward Liam Fox for director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is that the British government has made a nomination at all.

The post’s holder will be decided by all 164 member states reaching consensus. Candidates have until 7 September to campaign and lobby members, who will then decide via consultations on a consensus choice – which isn’t to say that the eventual nominee won’t provoke bitterness among some WTO members.

One of the defining rows of this appointment is whose “turn” it is to fill the post. On the one hand, that the departing WTO chief Roberto Azevêdo was from Brazil means that Africa, North America and the Middle East are the only regions yet to hold the position, leading some to argue that it is Africa’s turn.

Others have argued that because the post tends to alternate between a candidate from a developed economy and one from a developing economy, it is the rich world’s turn.

Three of the eight candidates are from Africa, but crucially there is no “African choice”: the African Union has not reached a consensus on which candidate to support, which means that a candidate from elsewhere, perhaps South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, who would be the first woman to hold the role, might win. (Two of the African candiates are also women: Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign minister, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister and the current head of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.) 

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The other backdrop is the rising tensions between China, the United States and the European Union. It’s hard to become the WTO chief if you aren’t the choice of your regional hegemon, but it’s also hard if your regional hegemon is particularly unpopular. Those facts are one reason several European diplomats gave for the absence of any candidate from inside the European Union. (The UK and Moldova both have nominated candidates – neither is considered a serious prospect.) The EU is likely to back an African candidate.

[see also: The EU, India and Russia do not want to pick sides in a US-China contest, but they may have to]

There has been a lot of commentary about the EU not wanting to support a Brexiteer. But a bigger concern is that a British candidate would mean the EU forgoing its “turn”, both as a developed economy and as a representative of the European region, meaning it could be decades before anyone from an EU member state gets the role. As far as some European diplomats are concerned, the United Kingdom could have nominated Nick Clegg – don’t forget that the former deputy prime minister is an old European hand, and his brand of liberalism is still electorally and politically potent in the corridors of European power – after a Brexit negotiation full of sweetness and light, and the EU still wouldn’t have foregone the European developed economy slot to a country that wasn’t a member state.

That reality, coupled with the fact the United Kingdom is not in Africa or the Middle East, and that its candidate is not a woman and has limited experience of conducting global trade deals, means that Liam Fox’s chances are slim. Throw in the fact the United Kingdom’s recent change of approach to China means that a British nomination will face resistance from China and its allies, and you can rule him out from the off.

[see also: End of the Golden Decade: how the Conservatives are turning against China]

Seen one way, the United Kingdom’s decision to put a candidate forward sums up the problem with this government’s post-Brexit policy. Rhetorical nods to the joy of being a mobile medium-sized economy that is next to, but not in, its nearby hegemon are never met by serious or meaningful attempts to either reckon with the trade-offs that this involves or to seize the available benefits. It’s one thing – in my view, a good thing – to revisit UK policy towards China in light of the treatment of the Uighur minority and Hong Kong’s security law. It’s quite another to do so while not recognising that it has wider implications for your future trade and economic policy options.

[see also: The world has changed greatly since 2016. The vision of Global Britain needs to change with it]

But that analysis rests on the idea that the British government’s aim is to actually carry off the prize. There is an upside to nominating a candidate even if they aren’t going to win, namely the personal connections and impression it can make along the way. So there are benefits to nominating someone, provided that the Conservative government continues to trust and work with the failed candidate. And that’s the thing to watch with the government’s nomination of Fox: not what happens in the months before his application fails, but what value it tries to get out of it afterwards.

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