What the WTO leadership race reveals about the body's shaky outlook

The US deciding to quit the World Trade Organisation is far from a remote possibility.

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When the new director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) moves into their office, by around November, they will inherit a tough job. The world’s multilateral trading system is under assault, shaken by Donald Trump’s isolationist policies and the coronavirus pandemic. Internally, the body’s traditional consensual decision-making – in which over 160 governments get together and hash out their differences on global commerce – is increasingly attacked for being ineffective and unsuited to the modern world.

But even before the new director-general begins work, the choice that has been made will itself send a message about the organisation’s direction.

The eight-strong shortlist to replace the outgoing director-general, the Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, includes some weighty CVs from as far afield as Moldova and Saudi Arabia. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s pick, is a Harvard-educated economist who served twice as finance minister of her country, though she has little first-hand experience of the WTO. Kenya’s nominee, Amina Mohamed, studied at the universities of Kyiv and Oxford before becoming the first woman chair of the WTO’s General Council, its highest decision-making body, and then her country’s foreign minister. If either were selected, they would be both the WTO's first African and first female leader.

Britain’s nomination, former cabinet minister Liam Fox, is not widely perceived to be a credible candidate. “I don’t consider Fox very seriously,” Vasuki Shastry, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said. “It was surprising for the UK government to nominate someone whose last job was essentially to dismantle a trading arrangement with the UK’s largest trading partner.”

[see also: Why has the United Kingdom nominated Liam Fox for a job he’s never going to get?]

Manfred Elsig, director of research of the World Trade Institute at the University of Bern, speculates that Britain may have been encouraged by the US to put forward a nomination. “Fox lacks enough support required to win the race, but his candidacy could lead to a stalemate in the process and provide the US with another excuse to criticise the WTO and threaten a possible withdrawal.”

Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the WTO and the US deciding to quit the organisation, as it did earlier this year with the World Health Organisation, is far from a remote possibility. Yet according to Shastry, if America were to leave the WTO, further abandoning its commitment to the rules-based international order which it has championed since the end of the Second World War, it is likely that other countries will seek to work with the new director-general to contain the damage. “If the US continues to behave like a recalcitrant nation, it is still possible that countries like Canada, the EU and parts of Asia will come together and try to uphold an important part of the global trading system,” he said.

[see also: The new wobbly world order]

Nominations closed this month and will be followed by informal talks between candidates and world governments, which is an opportunity for contenders to put forward their vision for the WTO and the future of global trade.

The selection from the final eight will be whittled down in a series of rounds intended to build consensus for the eventual victor, who will be in post before the end of the year. In the event that the 164 members cannot agree on a single candidate, they could be called upon to vote, though this mechanism of last resort has never been used since the WTO’s creation. The director-general has little executive power but serves as an important mediator between governments and trading blocs who are increasingly at loggerheads about under which rules trade should operate.

The WTO has always operated on the basis of consensual decision-making. Yet that model appears increasingly unsuited to a world where consensus on global trade is hard to come by. A petulant US withdrawal, as appears distinctly possible, would be a further blow to an already embattled organisation.

[see also: The global race for a coronavirus vaccine exposes a new reality: this is now a G-Minus Two world]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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