Understanding the WTO Director-General Selection Process

The current World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general (DG), Roberto Azevedo of Brazil, was chosen by consensus to serve a four-year term in 2013 and was then renewed for a second four-year term in 2017. However, last May he announced he would leave his position one year early, on September 1, 2020. That announcement initiated a search for a replacement, which is expected to conclude in November of this year.

Q1: What is the process for selecting a new director-general?

A1: The WTO operates on the basis of consensus. While votes are theoretically possible, there has never been one on a matter of importance. As a result, there is not an election per se, but a process for arriving at a consensus behind a single candidate. Because of a lengthy impasse some 20 years ago between two candidates, the WTO members subsequently agreed on a set of procedures for producing consensus to prevent that from happening again.

Normally, the process begins approximately nine months before the end of a DG’s term, but this time Azevedo’s early departure has necessitated shortening the timeline while keeping intact the various stages.

The first step is for governments to nominate candidates. Candidates cannot nominate themselves; only a government can submit a name. In this cycle, that process lasted for one month and closed on July 8. Eight candidates were nominated (see below for more details).

The second step is the campaign. Candidates meet WTO ambassadors in Geneva and visit capitals to make their case. Covid-19 has made this step more difficult, but the WTO arranged a week-long “beauty contest” in Geneva in July where each candidate had an opportunity to present his or her views to the ambassadors, respond to questions, and meet with them privately. Some, if not all, have also found ways to visit with senior trade officials in member governments. There have also been public and private events with stakeholders and other members of the public.

The third step is a winnowing process. The chairs of the three major WTO committees—the General Council (GC), the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), and the Trade Policy Review Body (TPRB), known informally as the Troika—conduct private meetings with each WTO member’s ambassador to find out their country’s preference for DG. This time that process is led by the GC chair, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand. The other Troika members are DSB chair Ambassador Decio Castillo of Honduras and TPRB chair Ambassador Harald Aspelund of Iceland.

This process is lengthy and cumbersome. There are 164 WTO members, and each will have a private meeting with the Troika, known as “confessionals.” In these meetings the ambassadors are asked who their government favors for DG, and they are expected to put forward several names, not just one. From these meetings, the Troika will conclude which five of the eight candidates have the best chance of obtaining consensus. Those names will be announced, and the three who do not make the cut are expected to withdraw. Then the same process will be repeated, again with all WTO members. Once completed, the Troika will announce which two of the remaining five are most likely to achieve consensus, again with the three not chosen expected to withdraw. Finally, the process will be repeated a third time, after which the Troika will announce the name of the single individual they believe most likely to achieve consensus.

After that, the membership will meet to (hopefully) formally ratify the consensus. If the Troika members have done their job well, no one will object, and there will be a new DG. Over these three winnowing stages, the Troika will conduct nearly 500 private interviews. There is no set deadline for this process, but most people expect it to conclude in November.

The candidates

Jesús Seade Kuri, Mexico


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria


Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, Egypt


Tudor Ulianovschi, Moldova


Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea


Amina C. Mohamed, Kenya


Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, Saudi Arabia


Liam Fox, United Kingdom

Photo credit: World Trade Organization.

Q2: Who really makes the decision about who a government supports, and how does the public know?

A2: Most of the selection process takes place between Troika members and WTO members’ ambassadors, but it is not always clear where a government’s decision is actually made. Some governments, particularly those not deeply involved in WTO activities or with little at stake, defer to their ambassadors on the assumption they are closest to the situation and would have the best view of what is in their government’s interest. Other countries, including the larger economies that are active in the WTO but also have other, broader geopolitical interests, are more involved at senior levels in the government back home.

In both cases, however, transparency is not the norm, and most countries remain silent about their preferences, aside from those who have nominated someone, and occasionally their neighbors. Large countries, including the United States, rarely reveal their views, largely because publicly supporting a candidate is more likely to encourage opposition than enhance support.

Q3: What happens if consensus cannot be achieved?

A3: The procedures described were put in place to ensure consensus, and so far they have worked. The one time there was an impasse was before these procedures had been developed. In that case, the deadlock was broken with an agreement that the term would be extended to six years instead of four and that each of the two contenders would serve three years.

The current procedures also contemplate a gap between the departure of one DG and the arrival of a new one. In this scenario, one of the four deputy directors-general will be selected to act as an interim DG. This will certainly happen in 2020, as DG Azevedo is leaving September 1. WTO members have discussed naming an interim DG but thus far have been unable to agree on who should get the job. This is not a good sign, and it has led to some speculation that if the members cannot agree on a temporary placeholder, they will have even more difficulty agreeing on a new permanent DG.

The deputy directors-general

Yonov Frederick, Nigeria


Alan Wolff, United States


Karl Brauner, Germany


Yi Xiaozhun, China



Photo credit: World Trade Organization.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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