US elections are over, but a long wait for WTO leadership race looms

Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi

After four exhausting and nail-biting days of vote counting, Americans on Saturday were finally able to celebrate as Joe Biden was declared winner of the United States presidential election. But for those hoping to see the end of another selection process - that of appointing the next leader of the World Trade Organization - they may have to wait much longer.

The organisation on Friday postponed a general council meeting that was scheduled to take place this morning “until further notice”, citing the pandemic and other “current events”, or in other words, the US elections.

At the meeting, member countries were due to continue talks, which had stalled after the Trump administration rejected the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general.

But with Biden declared winner, a change in administration could mark a pivotal moment for the organisation, not only in fixing the roadblock over its leadership but also in restarting dialogues over its paralysed appeals system and improving global trade relations.

Even so, this will not happen straight away. President Trump is still in office until inauguration day on 20 January, making any early resolution or quick fix unlikely.

For now, the organisation, which has been leaderless since August when Roberto Azevedo stepped down, is likely to remain so for a few more months, with the day-to-day running left in the hands of its four deputy director-generals.

A “game-changer” for international institutions. This is the term used by some Geneva officials to describe Biden’s victory and the prospect of international relations under a new US administration.  Biden has pledged to reverse Trump’s decision to abandon the World Health Organization and to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. On the trade front, senior advisors to the president-elect have signaled support for advancing WTO reform and on improving trans-Atlantic relations, including ending trade wars.

During an event in September hosted by the US chamber of Commerce, Tony Blinken, a foreign policy advisor for the Biden campaign said that reaffirming core alliances with democratic countries and repairing trade relations was a key international priority.

At the same time, he is not seen as likely to roll-back on Trump’s tariffs or make any new trade agreements soon - his top focus being to get America’s pandemic-stricken economy back on its feet by making major investments first at home.

Where this then places the appointment of new WTO director-general - and dealing with the current impasse - on the priority list is still unclear and far from being resolved as yet.

Waiting in the wings. For Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the recommended leader-in-waiting, uncertainty surrounding the next steps will further extend a months-long selection process.

The twice former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank development economist, who currently serves as chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, was selected as one of the two remaining candidates out of an original shortlist of eight, alongside South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee.

After a final round of consultations with all 164 member states, WTO’s “troika” selection committee led by Walker named Okonjo-Iweala as the preferred candidate to lead the organisation. She was seen as having the broadest base of support across all countries.

Despite this strong consensus, the US said it could not support Okonjo-Iweala, a dual American and Nigeria citizen. The Trump administration said it favoured Yoo instead. In a further unprecedented move, South Korea refused to withdraw its candidacy, as is custom when another candidate has been recommended.

With no meeting now scheduled until further notice, Walker said on Friday he would continue to undertake consultations with delegations. Okonjo-Iweala wrote on Twitter: “Every step is important. 'Look forward to further progress at the appropriate time.”