In Its Race For Director-General, Will The WTO Make History Or Her-Story?

By Leah Crag-Chaderton & Nicholas Lazarus

Just three weeks after Roberto Azevedo officially demitted office as Director-General (DG) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the selection process for his successor is well under way.  The list of those vying for the helm of the WTO got shorter on September 18th, when the General Council revealed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria), Yoo Myung-hee (Republic of Korea), Amina C Mohamed (Kenya), Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia) and Liam Fox (United Kingdom) as the final candidates for the coveted DG position. 

While these five remaining candidates are all exceptionally qualified professionally, this SRC Trading Thoughts will examine which of those qualifications might be best suited for the DG position. But first, the diversity of the individuals demands some attention. It is noteworthy that all three of the women who entered the race have progressed to the second round, and two of them hail from the African continent. This signals a bold move as the success of either one would mean the appointment of not only the first African DG, but also the first female. While female leadership and geographic representation are important, equally important is making the best choice for the job given the plethora of challenges that has plagued the WTO in recent times.  Director General Roberto Azevedo resigned one year early.  The WTO’s Appellate Body does not have enough members to hear appeals against decisions of panels that preside over disputes between member states because the United States is blocking the appointment of new members.  There is an ongoing trade war between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies.  This is all before factoring in the unparalleled economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Fox, a Brexit supporter and the first United Kingdom (UK) Secretary of State for International Trade promises reform if he is selected as DG. His contention that WTO disputes can be better resolved if dealt with first on a national level seems counterintuitive to the purpose of the WTO’s dispute mechanism. A seasoned conservative politician and former Minister under Prime Minister Theresa May, he has stated openly that, if selected as DG, half of his senior advisors will be women. His stance against Huawei’s participation in the UK’s 5G network and sanctimonious remarks on China’s handling of the initial outbreak of COVID-19 might make him an unpopular choice in Beijing. Given that the WTO has never had a female or African Director-General, and the current global movements for equity and economic justice, Fox may be too traditional a candidate to ultimately be selected.  Additionally, the situation requires innovative and bold leadership and perhaps a conservative may not be the right fit.

Although the two African women are attracting much attention, the 53-year old South Korean Myung-hee may be the one to watch in this race.  Presently serving as the country’s Minister of Trade, she brings a wealth of relevant experience to the table having worked in the field for over a quarter century.  But is trade knowledge all it takes to run the WTO? Myung-hee should certainly possess the diplomatic experience navigating the tensions between South Korea’s traditional American allies and the rising regional power of China. In addition, her work in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) makes her familiar with multilateral economic fora. While these are strengths in Myung-hee’s favour, South Korea has its own trade issues with neighbouring Japan, the world’s third largest economy, that may pose a threat to her emerging as the top pick.

Al-Tuwaijri’s background is much less typical for that of the Director General. He is by far the most unconventional, and unlikely candidate.   As a former Minister of Economy and Planning, he played a crucial role in the reform of the Kingdom’s economy, promoting trade with an emphasis on the private sector small to medium enterprises and utilizing international best practices to attain sustainable economic prosperity.   With his background in banking, he brings financial management and planning skills which given the WTO’s reduced budget, could be just what is needed at the reins.  In an interview in August 2020 with Chatham House, he described the ideal DG candidate as a hybrid candidate possessing trade experience (understanding the WTO) but also having political experience. He also emphasized the need for accountability in the DG position and claims that he can bring this, along with consistency of delivery to the post. Ironically, he lacks the very trade experience that he deems essential.

Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibri is a lawyer, diplomat, and politician. With this trifecta of qualifications, it is no surprise that she is favoured to go through as one of the final two candidates once the second round of the selection process concludes in early October 2020.  A lady of many firsts, particularly in the WTO context (first African to chair a trade negotiation round of the WTO and female chair of the governing General Council of the WTO), becoming the first female and first African DG of the WTO seems like a natural progression for the Kenyan contender. In an article in The African Report, Ambassador Mohammed has expressed concern for the credibility of the WTO, stating that reform is a necessity.  She will be hoping to avoid a repeat of her unsuccessful bid for African Union Commission Chair in 2017, a campaign that hinged on Africa’s ability to unify behind a single candidate. With two African candidates left, the continent’s vote will be split unless they can arrive at a consensus candidate.  If that does not happen, she will need to attract the votes of the other African countries. Will her negotiation skills honed during her years as a career diplomat and attorney be sufficient for her to sit in the DG chair?  

If the DG selection was based on the social media attention and people’s choice, then Dr Okonjo-Iweala would be the clear winner. While lacking the trade-specific experience of Ambassador Mohammed, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala certainly has both the international profile and broader governmental and development experience. Her recognition on multiple occasions by Fortune, Forbes, and Times in their respective top lists for the world’s most powerful and influential, are compelling indicators of her popularity.  Notwithstanding she is one of the older candidates at 66 years old, with over 3 decades of financial expertise and economic development under her belt her broader experience can work in her favour. Like Ambassador Mohammed, she has also had been unsuccessful in her bids for high ranking jobs such as World Bank President in 2012.  That said her nomination for the DG post and her advancement to the second round are indicative of the support this Sub-Saharan candidate has garnered.

President of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Dr Rohinton Medhora’s observation in The Diplomat that leadership of the WTO is rotated by region as compared to the Bretton Wood institutions which usually are European or US-led is quite astute.  In the same article, while acknowledging that the DG candidates’ qualifications are important, he claims that ‘what really matters is whether they have the backings of their own governments and the right large constituencies’. Considering the historic potential of this DG selection, coupled with their experience and qualifications, it would come as no shock if either Ambassador Mohammed or Dr Okonjo-Iweala progressed to the final round, but it is unlikely that both will. If Medhora’s analysis proves right then ultimately this race will come down to, in his succinct expression, the ‘power play’ The triumphant candidate between the two must secure the backing of the US Government along with regional support from the African nations.  

If the WTO members are serious about resuscitating multilateralism and reclaiming the former relevance of the WTO, they will appreciate that it cannot be business as usual. The WTO needs to enter a new age and one of the three pioneer female candidates should take it there.  The future of the WTO is female!

Leah Crag-Chaderton is a practicing attorney based in St. Kitts-Nevis.  Nicholas Lazarus is an International Relations graduate from Grenada with an employment history in Microfinance and Public Sector Consulting.  Both authors are currently enrolled as post-graduate students in the Masters in International Trade Policy program at the Shridath Ramphal Centre of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados.