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The WTO Leadership Race

On May 14, 2020, then-director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Roberto Azevedo announced he would step down on September 1, 2020, one year before his term was set to expire. That announcement initiated a search for a replacement, which is expected to conclude in November of this year.

Azevedo’s resignation added yet another challenge for the WTO to overcome during a critical moment for both the organization and the global economy. Fresh leadership with a bold approach to WTO reform could inject much-needed life into the organization. However, selecting a new director-general is no easy feat.

As the leadership race enters its final lap, the CSIS Scholl Chair is tracking the latest developments and what a new director-general will mean for the WTO, international trade, and global economy.

The Position

The primary formal responsibility of the director-general (DG) is administrative: supervising the WTO Secretariat, which is tasked with providing independent support to WTO members. Despite the title and spot at the top of the organization chart, the DG does not dictate the WTO’s negotiating agenda and cannot force members to settle disputes or take certain trade actions—those decisions are left up to the members themselves. However, DGs assume behind the scenes and public-facing roles that do allow them to influence the WTO’s overall direction.

Behind the scenes, DGs have historically sought to forge consensus between members at critical moments in negotiations. Some DGs have been more active and some more passive in this regard. Some have put actual text on the table late in negotiations in a bid to broker a deal. Others saw themselves as more passive participants in the negotiating process, nudging members toward agreement instead of putting forward proposals of their own. Historically, DGs have sought out government and business leaders ahead of key deadlines to build pressure behind the scenes for a deal. DGs also wield influence by acting as the public face of the WTO (despite the organization being member driven) and can use speeches, interviews, and other public appearances to shape the WTO’s agenda.

The Process

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. 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 the various stages intact.

The first step is for governments to nominate candidates. Candidates cannot nominate themselves; only a government can submit a name. In this cycle, eight candidates were nominated before the July 8 deadline.

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 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.

This time around, both internal and external factors will shape the race. Internally, members must decide whether they want a DG who is more active or more passive, as explained above.  They will also need to decide if they want an “inside” candidate—one with long experience in the WTO—or an “outside” candidate—a person of stature who does not have extensive direct WTO experience. Both are represented among the candidates.

Externally, three factors may shape the race: geography, gender, and status. There is a growing sentiment that it is Africa’s turn to occupy the director-general position and that it is past time for a woman to occupy the office. The WTO has never been led by a woman and has never had a DG from Africa. Previous DGs mostly came from Europe, with one each from Brazil, New Zealand, and Thailand. Some countries also have the view that the DG should be a current or former minister of a government, as opposed to an ambassador, to be better able to speak directly to ministers and other senior officials. Again, there are current candidates in both these categories - VIEW FULL ARTICLE

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