The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has explained why the Trump administration is opposed to the selection of former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The United States said it supported instead Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. She is “a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker, ” the US statement read. Although the U.S. did not mention Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, it said “The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”
The U.S. position was seen Wednesday night as another blow at the WTO by the Trump administration. U.S. President Donald Trump, who faced a re-election battle on 3 November, had described the WTO as “horrible” and biased towards China. The Trump administration has already paralysed the WTO’s role as global arbiter on trade by blocking appointments to its appeals panel. Now it is threatening to render it leaderless for weeks or months to come. The WTO itself has called a meeting for Nov. 9, less than a week after the U.S. election, by which time it hopes to have secured full backing for Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
The decision needs to be approved by consensus, however, meaning any of the 164 WTO members could block her appointment. After weeks of consultations, three WTO ambassadors, the “troika” charged with finding a successor to Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, announced at a meeting in Geneva on Wednesday that the former Nigerian finance minister should be the next chief as she had secured cross-regional backing. “All of the delegations that expressed their views today expressed very strong support for the process, for the troika and for the outcome. Except for one,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters after the closed-door meeting, specifying that the one was the United States.
William Reinsch, a former senior Commerce Department official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the U.S. move was likely to worsen trade tensions already running high within the WTO. “It’s very Trumpian. They’re basically saying ‘We want to get our way and we’re willing to throw sand in the gears if we don’t get it’,” he said, adding that it was possibly a bid to gain concessions in other disputes. A spokeswoman for Okonjo-Iweala said she was “immensely humbled” by the backing of the WTO’s selection committee and hoped for a swift conclusion to the process. Next steps are uncertain but WTO’s Rockwell said there was likely to be “frenzied activity” before the Nov. 9 meeting to secure the required consensus.
It was not immediately clear if the outcome of the U.S. vote would affect the U.S. position on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment. By then, Trump may be heading a lame-duck administration. Many members, including China and the United States, had declined to name their preference publicly before Wednesday although some African, Caribbean and other states had voiced support for Okonjo-Iweala during the four-month selection process. The European Union endorsed her on Oct. 26. The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Azevedo stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.
Okonjo-Iweala, a 66-year-old former finance minister and World Bank managing director, would face considerable challenges with rival economies bickering amid rising tensions and protectionism during a coronavirus-induced trade plunge.
Okonjo-Iweala, a development expert, has branded herself a “do-er”, saying she has the political clout to command influence in capitals.
Currently chair of the of GAVI vaccine alliance board, she has also said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.