The World Trade Organization said Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee advanced to the final round in the race to be its director-general, setting the stage for the first woman to lead the 25-year-old organization.
“Our aim continues to be to encourage and facilitate the building of consensus among members, and to assist in moving from this final slate of two candidates to a decision on appointment,” WTO General Council Chairman David Walker said during a meeting Thursday in Geneva.
Walker said the last phase of the selection process will begin on Oct. 19 and run until Oct. 27, after which the WTO will seek to name a consensus winner.
The campaign to lead the WTO during the most turbulent period of its existence is playing out against the backdrop of the pandemic, a worldwide recession, the U.S.-China battle for trade supremacy and the American election. President Donald Trump has blasted the organization as the worst trade deal in U.S. history and pledged to overhaul it to better suit the country’s interests.
Okonjo-Iweala, 66, served two stints as Nigeria’s finance minister and one term as foreign affairs minister. She has experience working at international governance bodies as a former managing director of the World Bank and as a chairman at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.
Yoo, 53, is South Korea’s trade minister. During her 25-year career in government, she has helped expand her country’s trade network through bilateral accords with China, the European Union, the U.K. and the U.S.
EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the two are “very strong and very experienced” in a Bloomberg Television interview on Thursday in Brussels. EU member states, which unanimously backed both candidates in the previous two rounds, will now hold internal consultations to determine their ultimate preference.
“They’re both very well qualified -- it’s going to be a fight,” said William Reinsch, a trade official in the Clinton administration and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The top challenge will be “restoring the organization to full strength and viability, and restoring its reputation. “You need members to have confidence that the WTO is capable of solving problems. I think right now that confidence is eroded.”
Ahead of the formal decision, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke with Yoo by phone and congratulated her for making it to the final round. Moon told Yoo that she “fought well under difficult circumstances,” presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok told reporters in Seoul on Thursday.
Yoo told Bloomberg TV last month that she wanted the WTO to offer a meaningful platform for the U.S. and China to discuss their trade disputes. She vowed to play the role of mediator, if chosen to lead the organization and to work as a force for multilateralism.
She said having a woman at the helm of the WTO would better foster an “inclusive, diverse, and resilient work place culture.”
Okonjo-Iweala is running as reformer and an outsider, arguing that she can bring a ”clear set of eyes” to a dysfunctional organization.
Okonjo-Iweala previously told Bloomberg TV there are a few priorities for the WTO’s next director-general: reform its dispute settlement system and update the organization’s rulebook to address the economic and technological developments of the 21st century.
“A third one is to make sure at the next ministerial, which is supposed to happen next year, that there are some good outcomes to some of the multilateral negotiations that are ongoing -- in fisheries, for example,” Okonjo-Iweala said.
The U.K.’s Liam Fox, Kenya’s Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibril and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri didn’t secure enough support in the second round of consultations.
Clouding the outlook for the selection process is the U.S. presidential election Nov. 3. The WTO makes decisions on a consensus basis, and a lack of American support for any of the finalists could mean delays in picking the new director-general.
“I don’t see how you could conclude that either candidate would be unacceptable, from a U.S. point of view,” Reinsch said, citing standards mentioned by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “Lighthizer was asked for criteria for the selection and I think he mentioned three: committed to reform, no whiff of anti-Americanism, and taking on countries that flout the rules. I think they certainly meet his criteria.”
If WTO members are unable to select a leader by consensus, a vote requiring a qualified majority could be held as a last resort, which would be an unprecedented development for the organization.
The vacancy for the top WTO job arose when Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo decided to step down at the end of August, a year before his term was due to end.
WTO members view the race as an opportunity to reshape the organization, whose mission of economic integration is under threat from protectionist policies around the globe. Without reform, it risks being sidelined during the biggest economic crisis in a century.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.