COVID-19’s potential to wreck long-term damage on global commerce means the World Trade Organisation (WTO) faces a crucial period under a new director-general, who may end up hailing from Africa for the very first time.
The WTO endured a tough few years before the coronavirus pandemic. After India and China were the main protectionist forces over the last decade, Trump’s administration has taken over the role as the bull in the china shop. Now, the Geneva-based body is looking for a new boss.
The UK government rounded out the list of eight runners and riders last week, nominating former cabinet minister Liam Fox. He will vie to replace outgoing Director-General Roberto Azevedo, who is due to stand down at the end of August.
That Boris Johnson’s government would field a candidate came as little surprise.
Having formally left the European Union in January, the UK has made the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan the priority countries for its post-Brexit trade deals, alongside a new arrangement with the EU. It has also vowed to carve out a leading role for itself at the WTO.
Fox’s successor, Liz Truss, said that the top job should go to “a champion of free and fair trade, an advocate of multilateralism and someone who can get things done”.
However, few believe that Fox, a Brexiteer but who was sacked as International Trade minister by Boris Johnson last July, has much chance of securing the job.
“Fox’s nomination is a bit of a joke,” said Vince Cable, trade minister in David Cameron’s government, in a webinar hosted by the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation on Friday (10 July).
“I find it impossible to see how the EU would support that nomination,” Cable added. Indeed, there are suggestions that Fox was only nominated as a token gesture and that Johnson’s government has no plans to spend any political capital lobbying for him.
“The UK has a muddled approach on free trade. Advocating free trade. Going through the motions of supporting multilateralism but focusing all its energy is going into bilateral negotiations which run against the multilateral system,” added Cable.
There are no candidates from an EU country, although current Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan gave serious consideration to throwing his hat into the ring before formally pledging his commitment to his current job at the end of June.
A WTO first?
Insiders believe that European countries will rally behind one of the two hotly-tipped African contenders – Kenya’s former Trade Minister Amina Mohamed and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former managing director of the World Bank and chair of the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Both Mohamed and Okonjo-Iweala are Geneva-insiders, respected as solid technocrats rather than big name politicians, and either would become the WTO’s first female director-general.
Cable said that the WTO needs “a Pascal Lamy figure” to reinvigorate itself.
The WTO has not had a boss from Africa either and, with the long-anticipated African Continent Free Trade Area to become operational in January 2021, the timing could scarcely be better.
However, there are concerns that the continent’s leaders have not rallied behind a single candidate, with Egypt’s Hamid Madouh also throwing his hat into the ring.
The other candidates are Mexico’s Jesús Seade Kuri, Moldova’s Tudor Ulianovschi, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad al Tuwaijri.
“I’m a little bit worried that Africa has put three candidates forward. There is a bit of a risk that they might split the vote and let a candidate come through the middle,” said trade policy adviser, Stuart Harbinson.
The contest comes at a crucial time for the WTO, amid a slump in global trade in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Geneva-based body, established in 1995, provides a forum for its 164 members to administer a system of rules governing global trade.
But after the collapse of attempts to reinvigorate the Doha round, the body has seen one of its main functions, arbitrating trade disputes, hobbled by a dispute with the United States. The Trump’s administration has blocked the appointment of new judges, accusing the WTO of having treated the US unfairly.
“Amina Mohamed is associated with recent successes at the WTO, chairing a 2015 round that was a fair success. She is well known and well liked. There is a reason that she’s the current favourite,” said David Tinline, a former senior adviser to Roberto Azevedo.
Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign may not be helped by its association with the US political strategy and consulting company, Mercury Public Affairs, a Washington DC lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump administration.
Mercury’s work with the pro-Russian government of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, jailed after being convicted in the wake of Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections, has prompted tough questions.
Its chequered client list also includes the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya, as well as the GNA’s backers in the Libyan civil war, Turkey and Qatar.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]