United States opposes choice to lead World Trade Organization and Riling member countries

The United States has opposed the selection of former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new head of the World Trade Organization, officials said on Wednesday, the Trump administration’s latest challenge to the instance.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala was on the verge of becoming the first woman leader of the WTO after gaining the support of most of the WTO member states. But as his nomination progressed in a meeting on Wednesday, the United States became the only country left to voice opposition to his nomination. Dozens of governments were quick to speak out against the United States, saying Washington was trying to obstruct and weaken the global trade regulator, several people present or briefed on the exchange said.

A senior US official said the US opposed Ms Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy because she had no business experience, had spent most of her career at the bank. global, and because the WTO should not have gone ahead with its candidacy when there was no consensus in support.

A spokeswoman for Ms Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria’s dual finance minister had extensive experience in trade issues during her 25 years at the World Bank, where she became chief executive.

“Needless to say, WTO members would not have chosen a DG that lacks skills or qualifications,” the spokesperson said.

Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, who is also an American citizen, is said to be the first woman and African leader of the WTO. She was running against South Korea’s first female trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, whom Washington backs.

The senior US official said Ms Yoo had extensive trade experience which made her better suited to the WTO’s management role in a time of turmoil. The United States is not trying to weaken the WTO, the official said. The official added that Ms. Yoo’s background would make her a stronger leader for the body, rather than a weaker one.

“Twenty-seven delegations took the floor,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said. “One delegation was unable to support Dr Ngozi’s candidacy and said it would continue to support South Korean Minister Yoo. That delegation was the United States.

The race for jobs was sparked when Brazilian Roberto Azevedo said in May he was stepping down a year earlier, in part to allow for new leadership ahead of important WTO meetings next year. Eight candidates initially applied for the post.

President Trump has repeatedly complained that the WTO is unfair to the United States, and some Republican lawmakers seek to remove the United States from the organization. Washington has blocked the appointment of judges to the highest tribunal in the WTO, called the Appellate Body, so that as of December 2019, the tribunal has too few judges to rule on major trade disputes between countries.

On Wednesday evening, the US Trade Representative’s office reiterated its support for Ms. Yoo and said: “The WTO is in dire need of major reform. It must be led by a person with real practical experience in the field.

U.S. officials have said the WTO needs a major overhaul to challenge what Western countries see as unfair competition from China’s market-distorting state capitalism system. Washington has long opposed what it sees as judicial activism on the part of the Appellate Body, and the Trump administration has criticized the body for ruling that some U.S. tariffs on China are illegal.

Mr. Rockwell said the WTO would hold a meeting on November 9 to choose a new leader. If necessary, as a last resort, a vote could be organized to choose a leader although this would break the precedent of the selection of the WTO leader by consensus.

He said consultations with the United States and other members would continue. South Korea refused to withdraw Ms. Yoo’s candidacy.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala won by a wide margin, Mr Rockwell said. It has already obtained the support of the European Union and many African and Caribbean countries.

But at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, the United States was the first country to connect, via a video conference line, saying Ms. Okonjo-Iweala did not have the experience to do the job, according to an ambassador. Westerner who was present. The United States complained that WTO electoral rules were flawed because they did not allow governments to express a negative opinion on a particular candidate, the ambassador and another person briefed on the exchange said. .

During a press conference in Davos, President Trump said he was seeking “dramatic” reform at the World Trade Organization. Regarding trade negotiations with the EU, he said it is “more difficult to do business with Europe than with China”. (Originally posted 2/22/2020) Photo: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

The US objection sparked an uproar among delegates from more than two dozen governments and international organizations seated in the room, with European allies China, Canada, Latin American and African states se rallying against the United States.

An EU official complained that if the US had issues with the process, it could and should have raised them much sooner, the people said. The senior US official said the US concern about the process arose when the WTO proposed a candidate who did not gain consensus support, and the WTO selection committee was well on the way. current of American objections.

Other countries with delegates in the hemicycle raised flags, including some who supported Ms Yoo, to join the EU in its objections to the US objection. Delegates accused the United States of trying to intimidate them and said if the United States did not overrule its objections, it would force a vote next month on Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.

“Since it will come down to one vote, the probability that Nigeria will win is 99%,” the ambassador said.

In recent years, the United States has attacked a host of multilateral institutions. The Trump administration withdrew from the WHO earlier this year and imposed sanctions on officials of the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Ms. Okonjo-Iweala presented herself as a champion of developing countries. She touted her managerial experience and her work as a former senior official of the World Bank and chair of the board of directors of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization as an ideal preparation to focus the attention of the world. WTO on the serious trade challenges of a global health crisis.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, she said the WTO needs to partner with other multilateral institutions to address issues such as public health that can help developing countries benefit from global trade.

In a statement after the meeting, Ms Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign sounded a victory note, saying she was “immensely touched to receive the support of the WTO selection committee today”.

“A swift conclusion of the process will allow members to resume working together on pressing challenges and priorities,” said a spokesperson.

Kelly Ann Shaw, former senior director of international trade at the White House under Mr. Trump, said the lack of consensus “foreshadows the challenges ahead” for the next chief executive.

“The WTO is in total crisis and it should be clear to all WTO members that the status quo of doing nothing is unsustainable – the multilateral trading system is on the verge of collapse,” said Ms Shaw. , who was also a USTR official. in Geneva at the WTO under the Obama administration.

Corrections and amplifications
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign sounded a victory note after the meeting. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala sounded a victory note. Separately, a spokeswoman for Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria’s dual finance minister had extensive experience in trade issues, most notably during her 25 years at the World Bank, where she became chief executive. “It goes without saying [World Trade Organization] members would not have selected a [director-general] who lack skills or qualifications, ”said the spokesperson. An earlier version of this article omitted this response to Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s American criticism. (Corrected October 29)

Write to Laurence Norman at [email protected] and Drew Hinshaw at [email protected]

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