M.EMBERS OF THE World Trade Organization (WTO) are not known for collaboration. When they began electing a new general manager in June, many feared a standstill. But now that the process is ending, officials are hopeful. Two candidates are still in the running: Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the chairwoman of GAVI, a vaccine funding agency and a former World Bank official and finance minister; and Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s Minister of Commerce. A winner will be announced between October 28th and November 7th, and support appears to be gathering around Ms. Okonjo-Iweala. However, competition says more about discord in the trading system than about harmony.
The candidates themselves have highlighted various areas well during the selection process (dutifully noting that only members have authority to solve them). Between them they identified a long list of problems: uptight negotiations that have left them WTORule book out of date; a broken dispute resolution system; insufficient commitment of members to transparency; and a trade war between America and China.
Disagreements among members also explain the rather limited ambitions of the candidates. A bold agenda could include a major agricultural deal that cuts tariffs in poor countries and limits subsidies in rich countries. Ms. Myung-hee is an experienced negotiator and not one who shies away from tricky discussions. Even so, she now expects to restore that instead of shooting for a big cause WTOThe credibility of a negotiating forum means only agreeing on something. She would give priority to ongoing talks in order to curb members’ fisheries subsidies. (Even this closer deal will be a stretch as the negotiators have yet to agree on what counts as fish.)
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has highlighted her experience in the fight against Covid-19 as her strength. As the head of GAVI She knows the importance of open trade so that vital goods get where they are needed. But that is also a sensitive issue. The rich countries are more interested in lowering the tariffs of others than restricting their own right to use export controls. They also hate a recent proposal by India and South Africa to suspend intellectual property protection for products that could prevent, contain or treat the disease. Instead, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has only vaguely spoken of investigating new trade rules and intellectual property and licensing rights for drug manufacturing.
If she wins, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has also promised to strengthen them WTOOffice. This could be controversial – some members will oppose what they see as a threat to their negotiating power. But it could also help poorer countries, some of which are unable to come up with proposals themselves, making it difficult to participate in talks. Your political influence will also be useful. If the problems of the global trading system were purely technical, “they would have been solved long ago,” she told members in July.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s success would also say something about the geopolitics of trade. China could refuse Ms. Myung-hee if that allows him to keep his position as deputy general manager. (In the past, jobs were split between regions.) Due to Japan’s nasty trade dispute with South Korea, Ms. Myung-hee is unlikely to be supported. Brazil, a large exporter of agricultural products, could be put off by South Korea’s membership in the EU G10 Group of countries that vigorously defends agricultural subsidies. The agreement on the next director general could emerge from a number of disagreements. ■
This article appeared in the Finance & Economics section of the print edition under the heading “The Home Straight”.