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What do you need to know: What comes next in the WTO director-general race

Dmitry Grozoubinksi on what comes next in the nomination process for the World Trade Organization’s top job. We are now off to the races, but the finishing line is still far away…

Nominations are now closed for the post of World Trade Organization director-general, a position becoming vacant in August, a year earlier than planned, due to the resignation of the incumbent, Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo.

Eight candidates have been put forward by their countries to succeed Mr Azevêdo, but to be successful a single candidate will have to achieve consensus support from the entirety of the WTO’s membership. The coming months should prove interesting.

You’re busy, what do you need to know?

Who is running?

The eight candidates for director-general are:

Liam Fox United Kingdom
Abdul-Hamid Mamdouh Egypt
Mohammad Maziad Al-Tawaijri Saudi Arabia
Amina Mohamed Kenya
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Nigeria
Jesús Seade Kuri Mexico
Tudor Ulianovschi Moldova
Myung-hee Yoo Republic of Korea

It is a very strong field, which presents members with a variety of options. There are multiple former ministers, some very old WTO hands, and fantastic regional representation.

For whatever it’s worth, the betting website Ladbrokes currently gives Ambassador Amina Mohamed of Kenya and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria the most favorable odds.  The punters are currently more skeptical about the chances of Britain’s Liam Fox and Moldova’s Tudor Ulianovschi.

What happens next?

According to WTO procedure, agreed in more innocent times, the election of a new director-general is supposed to be a six month process divided into three parts:

1 – A month for WTO Members to nominate candidates – this concluded on 8 July;

2 – Three months for the candidates to present themselves to Members and make their case – until early November;

3 – Two months for WTO members to deliberate and arrive at a consensus nominee – theoretically January but the WTO has a college slacker’s record on deadlines.

The next step for the candidates will be a special three-day meeting of the General Council on 15- 17 July. Each candidate will be provided 15 minutes to make their pitch, and then the floor will open to members who can ask the candidates questions to evaluate their suitability.

Thereafter the candidates and their nominating countries will spend subsequent months engaged in an outreach and diplomacy campaign to build support for their candidacy.

Who manages this process?

In accordance with WTO rules, the process for selecting a director-general is managed by the chair of the General Council, assisted by the chairs of the Dispute Settlement Body and the Trade Policy Review Body. In this case, this means David Walker, New Zealand’s Ambassador to the WTO, assisted by the Ambassadors of Iceland and Honduras.

It will be their role to shepherd the process, potentially calling additional meetings and providing extra opportunities for candidates to make their case to the whole membership.

Traditionally, the chair of the General Council has also had a shepherding and temperature-taking function. They keep tabs on who is and is not attracting support and gently encourage candidates no one seems to like to withdraw their candidacy.

This winnowing process is designed to eventually provide the membership with a single candidate, or a choice between a more manageable number than the initial field.

Six months seems like a long time, can David Walker rush things along?

It is complicated.

Given the dire need for a director-general and the looming vacancy in the role, some in the WTO have made hopeful noises about an expedited process, potentially even one that yields a replacement for DG Azevêdo in time for his departure.

David Walker does not have the authority to simply impose a faster schedule, but WTO members could theoretically agree to one.

The timetable for the director-general selection is set out in a decision of the General Council, not a formal treaty. That means the General Council could simply pass another decision, overriding the first and expediting the process.

The problem is that such a decision would have to be made by consensus, with even a single member’s objection sufficient to block. This brings us to the star-spangled elephant in the room.

What is the United States going to do?

The United States has thus far kept its cards close to its chest on the director-general nomination. But the message coming out of Washington seems to reflect a complete lack of urgency.

Every candidate announcement or even rumour has been greeted in trade circles by frenzied speculation about whether this candidate might be the one to attract US support. The theories have grown somewhat tenuous, including cordial interactions with USTR Lighthizer from 30 years ago being spun into unbreakable blood bonds sure to secure US support.

So far however, the US has avoided expressing a preference for any candidate and has not embraced calls for an expedited process. There seems every likelihood that the US will simply avoid a firm commitment in any direction until after the upcoming presidential election in November.

Should Donald  Trump secure re-election, the director-general nomination process will become, alongside the WTO budget, Appellate Body and a range of other issues, a potential hostage and rallying point in the US’ campaign of dissatisfaction with the WTO.

If Joe Biden wins, the US may want to signal re-engagement with the world of polite international society by backing a consensus candidate they find palatable. However, this is unlikely to be top of the Biden administration’s priority list and at any rate would have to wait until he’s inaugurated in early February.

So yes, we are now off to the races, but the finishing line is still far away, and the US may well blow it up.

Interesting times.

In his exclusive Borderlex blog series, ExplainTrade founder Dmitry Grozoubinski (@DmitryOpines) takes a relentlessly pragmatic look at the World Trade Organization with one question in mind: “You’re busy, what do you need to know?”

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