The road appears cleared for Ngozi Okojo-Iweala to become the next Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the withdrawal of South Korean Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee’s bid, Friday. If finally confirmed, she would be the first woman and first African to head the WTO in its 26-year history.
Widely accepted, Okojo-Iweala who served twice as the finance minister in Nigeria and is a former Managing Director of the World Bank – had moved a step closer to clinching the job after securing the firm support of a key group of WTO ambassadors. But she had a major obstacle: the “America first” agenda of Donald Trump, the former President of the US.
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the US changed the fortunes of Okonjo-Iweala. Biden never hid his commitment to return America to multilateralism.
In his first major foreign policy speech during a visit to the Department of State, Biden declared that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy.”
Though Biden is yet to make a firm pronouncement on the matter, his policy direction appears in favour of Okojo-Iweala who Trump’s government failed to approve after a WTO nominations committee recommended the group’s 164 members endorsement of her in October 2020.
The “America first” agenda of former President Donald Trump, soured relations with multilateral agencies and even former allies. Trump opposed Okonjo-Iweala as a candidate for the post. Though WTO decisions are made on the basis of a consensus of its members, the opposition was not enough to halt the selection process; however, it complicated the decision-making process.
Trump was critical of how the WTO handled global trade negotiations. His administration preferred South Korea’s trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, who it believed could reform the body. Washington insisted it would continue to back Yoo.
In a statement last October, the Office of the US Trade Representative, which advised Trump on trade policy, said the organisation “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field”.
Yoo had “distinguished herself” as a trade expert and “has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organisation”, the statement said.
Since he assumed office on January 20. Biden began reversing most of Trump’s policies. On Thursday, he unequivocally restated America’s resolve under his leadership to pursue alliances which have been its greatest asset, but “have atrophied over the past few years of abuse.”
“We’ve also re-engaged with the World Health Organisation. That way, we can build better global preparedness to counter COVID-19, as well as detect and prevent future pandemics, because there will be more,” Biden stated as he gave his first major foreign policy speech during a visit to the Department of State.
That speech at the State Department not only resonated, but gave quite a deal of comfort to many global observers who have anxiously waited for America’s position around the WTO and who leads that revered institution going forward.
Just a day after Biden’s major foreign policy speech, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee who only had endorsement of her country and the US announced that she was withdrawing from the race. Her withdrawal leaves Okonjo-Iweala, as the only remaining candidate for the job and setting up a key decision by WTO members to approve her appointment.
Yoo said her decision, reached after “close consultation” with the U.S. and other major nations, took various issues into account including the need to revitalize the multilateral organization, according to a statement from Korea’s trade ministry on Friday.
“There was no consensus,” Yoo was reported to have said, adding “So we needed enough time for in-depth consultations with important members, including the U.S.”
The withdrawal comes after dozens of former U.S. government officials urged President Biden to endorse Okonjo-Iweala, who is also an American.
Many believe that Yoo’s discontinuation could help the deadlocked race to lead the Geneva-based WTO at a moment when the organization is struggling to surmount a series of crises that have diminished its role in the international trading system.
Okonjo-Iweala, 66 served as Nigeria’s first female finance and foreign minister and has a 25-year career behind her as a development economist at the World Bank where she left as the Managing Director, Operations.
A former chair of the GAVI vaccine alliance, she also serves on Twitter’s board of directors, and functions as a special envoy for the African Union and World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 fight.
Since last September, when the organisation’s former Director-General Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year before his term was set to expire, the Geneva-based body has had no leader, but overseen by four unelected deputy directors general.
The appointment of a new WTO director-general will help the organisation confront an array of internal crises that have nearly halted its work, particularly grappling with stalled trade talks and tensions between the U.S .and China.
Okonjo-Iweala restates that she is equal to the task and that her broad experience in championing reform makes her the right person to reposition the WTO.
“I am a reform candidate and I think the WTO needs the reform credentials and skills now,” she said earlier.
She equally commits acting as a sounding board to try to find common ground among the trade body’s disparate membership.
“I want to bring a fresh pair of eyes and ears to the WTO,” she wrote in her verified twitter handle, @NOIweala.