The World Trade Organization, the U.N. body serving as the forum for ensuring that world trade moves fairly and smoothly, has begun its process to find a new director-general (DG), following the announcement by current Director-General Roberto Azevêdo that he will step down at the end of August. For WTO, having been hit with criticism from many countries, selecting the right person to be the face of the organization going forward is critical.
In his farewell speech to the general counsel on July 23, Azevêdo said, “We’ve achieved a lot, but much remains to be done.” Azevêdo, who took the position seven years ago, said then WTO was at a crossroads, and now, “It’s still at a crossroads – and will continue to be for some time yet.”
The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), now planned for June 2021, will be a key marker for charting WTO’s new path, as it now has no dispute settlement board. “In light of the COVID-19 crisis, MC12 has become even more important; it will be a key decision point for you to shape the direction of the post-COVID global economy,” Azevêdo said to members.
Eight candidates have been nominated by their home nations of Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, Moldova, South Korea, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the U.K. Mid-July marked the beginning of Phase II of the appointment process, a two-month-long opportunity for candidates to campaign for the job. The candidates will begin the election process with a "speed dating" exercise with WTO members during a three-day session in which they present their vision for the future of WTO. If the process goes as planned, a new director-general is expected to be elected in November.
Upon taking office, the new director-general will face major challenges to restore the stability and legitimacy of WTO, including re-establishing the Dispute Settlement Body and appeals systems. While the director-general does not hold any formal power and cannot vote or force governments to take a particular action, they wield a great deal of soft power to facilitate plurilateral negotiations and establish the trust required to successfully move the organization forward. Experts suggest that the new leader will need to have both technical knowledge and sound political judgment as well as the drive and flexibility to address the problems facing WTO -- such as U.S.-China trade tensions, rising trade barriers and the breakdown of the Appellate Body -- that have all been amplified due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
WTO remains a valuable tool for the U.S. since its inception in 1995, despite occasional friction regarding process and administration over the years. With an ever-more-connected global trading system, major growth in economic powers such as China and India and several trade agreements either currently under negotiation or on deck, the U.S. will likely need an overarching body to help ensure that nations adhere to national and international regulations.
"The U.S. rice industry saw two important wins against China last year that help to justify our messaging and calls for a level global playing field," USA Rice vice president of international trade policy Peter Bachmann said. "The precedent those cases set may prove even more useful in future cases that ensure the world's rice exporters are playing by the rules and better ensure the U.S. rice industry is operating on equal footing with our competitors."
Bachmann added, "The U.S. government has not yet announced support for any specific candidate, but we know that individual will have to be someone who is looking to modernize and reform the WTO while maintaining its basic mission. We are optimistic a new [director-general] will help bring stability and leadership to the organization in the face of unprecedented global challenges."
WTO is expected to soon settle on an interim chief, who will be selected from among the four existing deputy director generals hailing from China, Germany, Nigeria and the U.S.