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WTO leadership race seen as hostage to US election

US President Donald Trump speaks at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. Looking on is World Trade Organisation director-general Roberto Azevedo.
US President Donald Trump speaks at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. Looking on is World Trade Organisation director-general Roberto Azevedo.
Image: JONATHAN ERNST

The World Trade Organisation’s effort to select a leader entered a new stage this week as ambassadors from 164 member countries met senior officials for private “confessionals” to say whom they support.

But the politicking in Geneva, the first in a three-stage elimination process, could be a wasted effort, according to six former WTO officials and trade experts.

They say the decisive developments that will shape the future of the embattled global organisation are unfolding thousands of miles away in Washington.

The US presidential election on November 3 is overshadowing the WTO’s efforts to fill the gap left by Roberto Azevedo since he stepped down as director-general on August 31 and it could end up thwarting the WTO’s aim of filling the vacant top spot within the prescribed two months.

The US’s support for a particular candidate is critical but four trade experts including former WTO employees believe the administration of US President Donald Trump is unlikely to throw a lifeline to a multilateral body the president has threatened to leave, particularly during an election campaign in which trade is a hot-button issue.

Trump has launched a trade war with China, imposed tariffs on US allies and crushed the WTO’s ability to intervene in disputes — a key part of its raison d’être — by blocking the appointment of members to its appellate body.

“I find it hard to imagine that the Trump administration would shift tack and do something very positive for the system,” David Tinline, a former adviser to Azevedo, said.

The White House referred questions to the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) office.

The USTR declined to comment, and referred to remarks made by US trade representative Robert Lighthizer to US legislators in June, in which he said the WTO needed a reform-driven leader and he would veto any candidate who showed “any whiff of anti-Americanism”.

The US-China economic conflict is a further complicating factor. Any candidate backed by the US could be automatically rejected by Beijing and vice versa, former WTO officials and trade experts say.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs said it would participate constructively in the selection process.

Azevedo’s departure has left a void at the WTO amid worsening US-China relations and the coronavirus crisis.

There are eight candidates in contention.

The winner is due to be confirmed by a November 7 deadline.

The final decision is designed to be taken by consensus.

The alternative, a vote, has never occurred and is described under WTO rules as a last resort.

So it is possible but unlikely it would anoint a new director-general without a nod from its largest paymaster, America.

If a favourite candidate does not emerge, some WTO members might prefer to wait until after the US election in case Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, wins. — Reuters



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