WTO: The Leadership Race Is On
May 26, 2020
Last week’s column concluded by saying the Scholl Chair would be watching the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) director-general leadership contest closely and would be commenting as the various candidates emerge. Consistent with that, we posted our first piece—a critical questions one—on the contest. It lays out why Director-General Azevêdo is leaving early, how the replacement process will work, and who the early candidates are.
Since candidates must be nominated by their governments—you can’t just toss your own hat into the ring—it will be a while before the field becomes clear. WTO members may submit nominations between June 8 and July 8. Following that, there is an extensive consultation process led by the ambassadors that chair three key WTO committees that leads to what might be politely termed a winnowing process. The ambassadors indicate, based on their consultations, which of the candidates are likely to achieve consensus, effectively throwing the others over the side. The last time this process was used, in 2013 (Azevêdo had no opposition for a second term in 2017), there were winnowing cycles where the candidates were reduced first from nine to five and then ultimately to two. Obviously, the complexity of the process will depend on how many candidates there are. At this early point, there appear to be five, either announced or mentioned, but that will almost certainly grow. The fact that it is a thankless job does not mean that nobody wants it.
There are two general areas where the discussion will focus—who is actually the best candidate, which is also a discussion about the state of the organization and what it needs to move forward, and “political” factors like candidate gender, geography, and status. Naturally, the media will pay more attention to the latter than the former because it is easier to discuss.
Taking the latter first, two contradictory positions have emerged already. African nations argue it is “their turn” because there has never been a director-general from that continent. There has also never been one from North America, the Middle East, or Australia, but they are not making as much noise. Conversely, developed countries argue it is their turn because the organization has a history of alternating leaders from developed and developing economies. (Azevêdo, from Brazil, was preceded by Pascal Lamy from France.) There are also people who argue it is time for a woman to lead the organization—all previous leaders have been men—and that it should be a person of some stature. In 2013, one of the criticisms of Azevêdo was that he was an ambassador but had never been a minister in his government, like several of the candidates.
Clearly, there is no candidate who meets all these criteria unless you can find a former female minister from a developed African country. Amina Mohamed from Kenya probably comes the closest, but she was a candidate in 2013 and did not survive the winnowing process. In political terms, it may well come down to unity. If the Africans can unite behind a single candidate (right now there are three, if you count Egypt), they will have an advantage. Similarly, if developed countries, including the United States and the EU members, can unite behind someone, they will have an advantage. The current state of U.S.-EU relations suggests that may be unlikely.
The more important question that governments should focus on is who the best person for the job is regardless of the above “external” criteria. That, however, leads to a debate over what the WTO is for and how it should be run. Some countries view it primarily as a negotiating forum; others see it as not only a rule-maker but also a rule-enforcer and adjudicator. The U.S. position is closer to the first, and the EU position is closer to the second. Both, and most other countries, would agree the WTO is not doing very well at either mission and needs reforms. But even there, countries part company. Some will want an aggressive leader who will actively push members to consensus; others believe the organization should remain fundamentally member-driven and that the director general’s job is to perceive consensus rather than to create it.
Of course, any smart candidate will not line up on one side of those divides but will equivocate. The winnowing process is supposed to get beyond the candidates’ bromides and help the members understand what they are really thinking and what kind of leader they will be. In doing that, I hope they will look for a transformational leader who can galvanize the members into agreeing to the serious reforms that are needed. That will require someone with stature and a degree of charisma who knows how to bring people together. It will also require a willingness on the part of the members to be led. An organization with too many chefs in the kitchen does not accomplish much. On the other hand, too often leaders have followed the advice of the old general who said, “I must run to get ahead of my troops so I can lead them to where they are going.” Better to find someone with a destination in mind and the skills to get countries there.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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