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 crisis.

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 Myung-hee.

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 said.

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 recover.

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 years.

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 woman.

"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 up."

--Eun-Young Jeong and Josh Zumbrun contributed to this article.

Write to Laurence Norman at and Drew Hinshaw at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 27, 2020 14:38 ET (18:38 GMT)

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