The race to World Trade Organization (WTO)’s director has come to an end after South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee stepped down, and the United States finally endorsed Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, clearing the way for her in the much contested job.
It is one of the first multilateral actions taken by the new US president Joe Biden’s administration.
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy,” the office of the US Trade Representative said in a statement on Friday. “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”
The statement from the USTR added that it “looks forward to working with a new WTO director-general to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO.”
With the US joining the consensus, the WTO general council is expected to announce a meeting in Geneva soon, where the organization’s members will formally approve Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment to a four-year term as director-general.
“Grateful for the expression of support from the US today for DG @WTO,” Okonjo-Iweala tweeted in appreciation. “Congratulations to Madam Yoo of Rep. Korea for a hard fought campaign. Thank you President Buhari and all Nigerians for your unflinching support. Thank you friends. Love to my family. Glory to God.”
Before now, the US was the only country standing in the way of Okonjo-Iweala, as other members of WTO had unanimously endorsed her. The US had vetoed her appointment on the ground that she lacks expertise in trade, preferring South Korea’s Yoo.
Former president Trump had been critical of the organization, accusing it of bias toward China and cheating on the United States in many of its policies. Trump claimed he’s supporting Yoo to protect US trade interests.
Thus, the US’ decision to veto the consensus created a standoff between her and the 164 members of the organization who voted for Okonjo-Iweala.
Although Trump’s administration was not ready to back down, WTO general council chairman David Walker took a bold step to affirm the decision of the organization. On October 28, he told the organization members at a Heads-of-Delegation meeting that based on their consultations with all delegations, the candidate best poised to attain consensus and become the new Director-General was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria.
But in view of the US’ objection, the organization had scheduled a Nov. 9 meeting to set matters right in accordance with its constitution which requires that its 164 members appoint a Director-General by reaching a consensus. But on a second thought, the council called off the meeting.
The US presidential election was billed for Nov. 3, and there was high anti-Trump emotionalism suggesting that Biden may win. The strategy was to wait for a new administration that would likely take the path of other WTO members.
Biden had promised to take the US back to its multilateral leadership position, trumping Trump’s “America first” mantra.
The strategic wait paid off. After Biden’s win, the US’ approach to multilateralism started to retrace its steps to the forefront. Yoo saw the handwriting on the wall, the only reason she was staying in the race was Trump. So she stepped down.
In a televised briefing on Friday, Yoo said that she made her decision after consultation with the United States, adding that the WTO had been without a leader for too long.
Against US opposition, Okonjo-Iweala has maintained that she is qualified to head the WTO, citing her credentials working with multi-nationals and in government.
“Those who say I don’t have trade, they are mistaken. I think the qualities I have are even better, because I combine development economics with trade knowledge, along with finance, and you need those combination of skills to lead the WTO. I think I have the skills that are needed. I am a trade person,” she said last year.
The US approval will thus make her the first African and the first woman to head the world trade organization, a development that has received global applause.