By Olu Fasan
AS I write, Americans are electing their next president. The outcome may determine whether Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becomes the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, WTO, and thus the first African and first woman to run the world body.
President Donald Trump’s re-election would make Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment impossible, given that the US has already rejected her choice by the WTO’s selection committee. But the election of Joe Biden, a multilateralist, may help her clinch the job. Yet, it may be a long process!
I saw this coming. In August, I wrote that while Okonjo-Iweala’s intimidating CV and global profile could win her the race, high politics and strategic power-game could scupper it.
In theory, each of the WTO’s 164 members has a veto, but, in practice, only the economic superpowers can effectively exercise it. Also, in theory, the WTO could elect its DG by a formal vote, but, by convention, it doesn’t. All the six past DGs were selected by consensus.
In 1999, the WTO could not choose between Dr Mike Moore of New Zealand and Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand. Instead of voting to decide the winner, it took the unprecedented decision to split the term of office between the two, with Dr Moore doing a term of three years, from 1999 to 2002, while Dr Supachai also did a term of three years, from 2002 to 2005!
But the WTO regarded term-sharing as a precedent that shouldn’t be repeated. So, it introduced a process of successive rounds of consultations to identify the candidate best placed to attract a consensus.
That process was used in the selection of the next DG. The WTO set up three rounds of consultations, led by the troika of the most senior chairs of WTO committees. The troika held private one-on-one meetings with each WTO member, simply asking: “Who are your preferences?”
After the first and second rounds, the original eight candidates were reduced to two, namely: Nigeria’s Dr Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Ms Yoo Myung-hee. On October 28, the chair of the troika, David Walker of New Zealand, announced that, after due consultations,Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was “the candidate best poised to attain consensus and become the 7th Director-General.”
But there can’t be a consensus without American support. And any illusion of a consensus was shattered when the US said it could not endorse Dr Okonjo-Iweala. Rather, it said Ms Yoo, a “bona fide trade expert”, was the best person for the job, arguing that the WTO should be “led by someone with real, hands on experience in the field.”
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The issue of Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s lack of trade expertise came up throughout the selection process, but no one doubted that she would make it to the final round. The only speculation was about who would be the second candidate in the final round.
Surely, if that second final-round candidate were Dr Amina Mohamed of Kenya, a trade expert and WTO aficionado, the possibility of veto-wielding would have reduced. The US would probably still have vetoed Okonjo-Iweala’s selection, but it would have supported Dr Mohamed because of her trade experience and the strong ties between the US and Kenya.
But by pitting a Nigerian against a South Korean in the final round, WTO members increased the possibility of veto-wielding. This is because Japan and China would never have supported a South Korean due to regional tensions, and the US would never have supported a Nigerian against a South Korean, given its strong strategic alliance with South Korea!
Truth is, having powerful allies is an asset in international relations. But Nigeria has absolutely no influence with the US. As Professor George Obiozor, a former Nigerian ambassador to the US, said: “Nigeria-US relationships have not passed that psychological boundary in international diplomacy which transforms cautious acquittance into confident friendship.”
But Nigeria has no confident friendship with any superpower. The support that Dr Okonjo-Iweala received from China and Japan was because both countries could not support a South Korean candidate. Surely, one would have expected China and Japan to support the candidate of another Asian country. But due to tensions with South Korea, they could not, and Okonjo-Iweala benefitted from the intra-Asia conflicts.
The EU really wanted to support an African and a woman, but also a globalist and multilateralist. No one fitted the bill more than Dr Okonjo-Iweala. A former managing director of the World Bank and a global superstar, with powerful friends in Europe and endorsements from multilateralist former prime ministers of the UK, New Zealand and Australia, Dr Okonjo-Iweala was certain to be the EU’s choice.
But what made Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy attractive to the EU were exactly what made it unattractive to the US under Trump. President Trump recently said: “I am standing up to global special interests.” He was certainly unimpressed by Okonjo-Iweala’s global profile and network of high-profile globalists and multilateralists, both in the US and globally.
Yet, the US’s rejection of Okonjo-Iweala’s selection as the WTO’s next DG is strange given that she is also an American citizen – she obtained US citizenship last year. Why would America act against the interests of its own citizen?
Well,for President Trump, it’s not about citizenship, but what you stand for. Trump would dismiss Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s affiliations in the US – Harvard, IMT, World Bank, Twitter etc – as liberal elites and globalist institutions. Okonjo-Iweala and Trump are simply not on the same wavelength!
So, what next? Well, formal voting is exceptional, and that won’t happen. The troika will submit Okonjo-Iweala’s selection to the General Council for formal approval on November 9. But if President Trump is re-elected, that, too,won’t happen. However, if Biden wins, the WTO may delay the selection process until he is sworn in. Even so, there may still be months and months of bargaining. Either way, her fate hangs on who’s the next US president!
Yet, justice demands that Dr Okonjo-Iweala gets the job. I wish her well!