By Laurence Norman and Drew Hinshaw
The World Trade Organization is set to pick its first female
leader in coming days, offering a fresh start to a body weakened by
fights between the U.S. and China at a time of global economic
Consultations among the WTO's 164 members were due to end on
Tuesday on the choice between former Nigerian Finance Minister
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korean Trade Minister Yoo
In a selection process that isn't an outright election, the WTO
will say as soon as Wednesday which candidate has won broader
backing. That could allow the organization to formally pick its new
director-general ahead of Tuesday's U.S. presidential election,
which is likely to affect global trade tensions.
Competition for the job, which initially drew eight candidates,
began when Brazil's Roberto Azevedo announced in May he was
stepping down a year early, partly to allow for new leadership
ahead of important WTO meetings next year.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, who has built broad support in Africa, the
European Union and the Caribbean, would be the WTO's first African
leader. Despite holding U.S. citizenship, she hasn't received
backing from the Trump administration.
President Trump has repeatedly complained the WTO is unfair to
the U.S. and some U.S. lawmakers want to withdraw from the group.
Washington has blocked the appointment of judges to the WTO's top
court, called the Appellate Body, so that since December 2019, the
court has had too few judges to rule on big trade disputes.
Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, the winning WTO
candidate will face a tough job restoring comity.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has said little about the WTO
during his campaign, though he has touted the Obama
administration's record of winning cases against China at the body.
Mr. Biden has said one of his trade-policy priorities is working
with U.S. allies and taking a multilateral approach to confronting
China, which could mean a renewed focus on pressuring China via an
active U.S. role at the WTO.
Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state who is one of
Mr. Biden's top advisers, said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event
earlier this year that Mr. Biden believes the WTO needs extensive
reform but can be effective.
The two WTO candidates have said they can start to rebuild trust
among members to help put the global trading system back on track
after several years of tariff wars, growing trade restrictions and
arguments over what many Western countries see as unfair
competition from China's market-distorting state capitalism.
Trade experts caution that the director-general holds limited
power and WTO trade-rule decisions require unanimity.
Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former Australian negotiator at the WTO,
said multilateral discussions in the organization won't resolve
U.S.-China tensions at the heart of its problems.
"There's an argument that what's needed is to keep this
organization vaguely reputable, remotely functional and adequately
budgeted until the U.S., the EU and China can settle on a new
balance of power and an updated set of rules they see as useful to
keep the three of them mutually in check," Mr. Grozoubinski
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, 66 years old, previously a top World Bank
official, has pitched her managerial experience and work as board
chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization as ideal
preparation to steer the WTO's focus on the serious trade
challenges of a global health crisis.
Long a booster for Nigeria abroad, as finance minister in the
early 2000s she promoted the country to investors and offered
reassurance to foreign leaders wary of Nigeria's
corruption-troubled governing class. Visiting the White House, she
helped persuade a skeptical President George W. Bush to grant her
oil-rich country debt relief, by arguing that Nigeria's petroleum
revenue, when divided among its large population, amounted to only
$0.46 per person daily.
After a second stint as finance minister, she left office and
later became a board member at Twitter Inc.
In an interview Tuesday with The Wall Street Journal, she said
the WTO needs to look outside the narrow realm of trade and link
with other multilateral institutions to deliver on issues like
access to a Covid-19 vaccine that can help the global economy
Restoring the WTO's dispute-settlement system and cooling
U.S.-China trade tensions would also be priorities.
"I think we should look first at where do the U.S. and China in
fact agree and start building on that," she said.
Ms. Yoo, 53, a lifelong bureaucrat, brings over two decades of
trade experience rising through South Korea's government. In recent
years, that has included leading trade negotiations with the U.S.
and other top powers and handling a spat with Japan over its
decision last year to restrict industrial-material exports to South
Korea. She also served as a diplomat in Beijing for three
Like her Nigerian opponent, Ms. Yoo is known for breaking the
glass ceiling in a male-dominated political scene, becoming the
first woman in her post.
During her campaign for the WTO leadership, she has spoken about
what she's called the "existential crisis" the WTO is facing.
Without reform to the WTO, she told a group of reporters in August,
"global trade conditions are only going to become less open and
less prosperous after Covid-19."
Both candidates say the next WTO leader should be selected on
merit but it is high time a woman in the post. The International
Monetary Fund is currently a rare global institution run by a
"Scientists have studied this and nowhere does it say men have
been given that extra dollop of leadership," Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said
on Tuesday. "So it is exciting to see that finally we are catching
--Eun-Young Jeong and Josh Zumbrun contributed to this
Write to Laurence Norman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Drew
Hinshaw at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 27, 2020 14:38 ET (18:38 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.