The ongoing efforts by the United States to block the appointment of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has thrown up fresh dynamics, laying to bare the sort of implications that the outcome of the US 2020 presidential election could have on the race to fill the WTO headship position.
As Republican candidate, President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden are priming for a presidential election showdown on November 3, just days before the 164 members of the WTO meet on November 9, concerns are rife that the WTO DG race is already in the murky waters of the US politics this time.
The New Diplomat exclusively broke the news, Tuesday, when it revealed that Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigeria’s finance minister, had attracted more widespread support — from over 100 of the 164 members — to become the next director-general than her rival, South Korea’s Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee. The WTO’s spokesman, Keith Rockwell later confirmed that report Wednesday, following an official announcement to that effect.
But the Trump administration has refused to back her, a move which delays the decision on the process until after the US presidential election next week. It’s interesting to note that Okonjo-Iweala became a US citizen in 2019, but it remains to be seen whether that will make the Trump administration to reconsider its position.
According to WTO spokesman, Rockwell, while speaking with journalists Wednesday, the Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Dennis Shea informed the WTO that Washington won’t join a consensus to appoint Okonjo-Iweala because the U.S. supports her opponent, South Korea’s Myung-hee.
“One delegation could not support the candidacy of Dr. Nogzi and said they would continue (supporting) South Korean minister Yoo,” Rockwell said. “That delegation was Unites States of America.”
If Trump wins, there are indications that his administration will continue to call for reforms in WTO mechanisms as Trump has often frowned at the designation of China as a developing country by many global bodies including the WTO. Already, there are concerns on the ability of the trade body to resolve the impending trade disputes with Trump in the saddle. Also, there are anxieties that Trump may push US to exit the body if he fails to have his way on the pending trade issues. But trade experts argued the WTO needs the US to continue to be a member, making it a delicate situation for the incoming DG.
A Biden victory is likely to lead to the postponement of the WTO member’s meeting until after the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, diplomatic sources following up on the development said, noting that Biden may not pick holes in Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence.
Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iweala’s favoured multilateral approach to trade as against Myung-hee’s bilateral approach is something that President Trump has been critical about following the WTO’s handling of the trade dispute between the US and China in the past years.
The new director-general will take over at a time when the WTO’s capacity to promote rules-based trade has been undermined by geopolitical tensions, including China’s model of capitalism and Trump’s tough action against perceived ill-treatment of US companies.
The process requires all WTO members to reach a consensus, rather than involving a formal vote. A formal voting is expected to be a last resort in case there is a deadlock.
In recent days three leading WTO ambassadors nicknamed “the troika” have been holding private consultations among the Geneva-based organisation’s members to establish which of the two remaining candidates attracts the widest support.
WTO decisions are made by a consensus among its 164 members, which means a single country — this time the US and the world’s largest economy — can create a stalemate in an attempt to pressure other members.
However, the US position is at variance with that of the EU and China. Both heavyweights who have since backed Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala.
Amid uncertainty due to the US vetoing, the WTO members will meet on November 9 tentatively to seal Okonjo-Iweala, Myung-hee’s fate.