Selecting a New WTO Director-General: Implications for the Global Trading System


Selecting a New WTO Director-General:
Implications for the Global Trading System

Updated February 18, 2021
The United States and members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have selected new leadership for
the WTO Secretariat, following Director-General (DG) Roberto Azevêdo’s unexpected early resignation
in August 2020. On February 15, 2021, WTO members agreed by consensus on the appointment of
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a historic decision as the first woman and first African DG.
The appointment comes after prolonged delay, due to the Trump Administration’s opposition. In October
2020, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee advanced as the top of eight candidates,
with the broadest support from the membership. After intensive consultations, the selection committee
announced Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to attract the required consensus of all 164 WTO
members, recommending her as the next DG. The United States was the only country that refused to back
Okonjo-Iweala, who holds dual U.S. citizenship. The Trump Administration response was met with
critical reception by numerous observers, amid concerns of gridlock over a decision. In February 2021,
Yoo withdrew her candidacy, and the new Biden Administration announced its support for Okonjo-
Iweala, unlocking the process for an expeditious appointment.
WTO members and observers view fresh leadership as important to inject new momentum into the
institution, amid efforts to salvage its relevance and chart a path forward. In the race, analysts variously
called for an “honest broker” and dealmaker, politician over technocrat, or a “peacekeeper.” As former
finance minister of Nigeria and managing director of the World Bank, many observers see Okonjo-Iweala
as well qualified and poised to navigate the challenges behind the work of the WTO Secretariat. WTO
leadership may be particularly critical at this juncture, given members’ divergent views over needed
reforms and rules, a nonfunctioning dispute settlement system, and a recent spike in unilateral trade
actions, which threaten the organization’s legitimacy.
The WTO and global trading system face significant challenges. The WTO’s credibility hinges on the
conclusion of outstanding negotiations, set back by the postponement of the 2020 Ministerial Conference,
due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Meanwhile, a dispute settlement crisis
continues and broader WTO reforms remain under discussion, complicated by wide differences among
members. In the near-term, WTO members face challenges in responding to the global trade and
economic slowdown
and spread of trade restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the words
of the outgoing DG: “The challenges facing the work of this Organization will always be formidable —
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commensurate with its relevance and role as an anchor of predictability and certainty in a fast-changing
global economy.”
Debate over the WTO’s future direction has been of interest to Congress. Some Members have expressed
support for ongoing WTO reform efforts (H.Res. 746, 116th Congress) and advocated for active U.S.
leadership (S.Res. 651, 116th Congress).
The Role and Selection of the DG
Since the WTO is member-driven, the Secretariat headed by the DG has no decisionmaking powers. Its
primary role is to provide technical and professional support to members on WTO activities and
negotiations, monitor and analyze global trade developments, and organize ministerial conferences.
Notwithstanding the lack of formal power, the DG is an advocate for the trading system and often wields
“soft power,
” relying on diplomatic and political heft in helping members build consensus or break
stalemates—an increasingly difficult task. Some argue that the Secretariat should be granted more
authority to table proposals and advance new rules.
The WTO General Council (GC), comprised of members, adopted the current DG selection procedures in
2002. The DG typically serves a four-year term, with possible reappointment. DG qualifications broadly
include “extensive experience in international relations, encompassing economic, trade and/or political
experience; a firm commitment to the work and objectives of the WTO; proven leadership and managerial
ability; and demonstrated communication skills.” The original eight candidates in 2020 demonstrated a
breadth of experience (Table 1).
DG candidates met with WTO members starting July 2020 to present views, which was followed by
several rounds of internal consultations among members. A selection committee leads this process,
headed by the GC Chair. After the committee recommends the candidate with the majority of members’
support, the final decision lies with the members.
Table 1. WTO DG Candidates
Advanced to final round
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Former Finance Minister

Former Managing Director World Bank
Yoo Myung-hee
South Korea

Trade Minister
Eliminated in second round

Amina C. Mohamed

Secretary for Sports, Culture and Heritage

Former Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister

Former Deputy Secretary-General UN
Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri
Saudi Arabia

Royal Court Adviser

Former Economy and Planning Minister

Former Banking Executive
Liam Fox
United Kingdom

Former Trade Secretary
Eliminated in first round
Jesús Seade Kuri

Foreign Affairs Under Secretary for North

Former Deputy DG of the WTO

Former Deputy DG of the GATT
Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh

Senior Counsel, King & Spalding LLP

Former WTO official
Tudor Ulianovschi

Former Foreign Minister

Former Ambassador to WTO

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Source: WTO.
What’s at Stake
Azevêdo was motivated to resign early to prevent the DG selection from coinciding with the rescheduled
12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) in 2021, potentially diverting political attention from achieving
critical outcomes. Such timing would also allow the incoming DG to better shape MC12’s strategic
direction. During Azevêdo’s tenure, WTO members advanced some important achievements, such as the
Trade Facilitation Agreement, but made little progress on resolving major issues leftover from the Doha
agenda and advancing new priorities. MC12 stakes are high, with agreements pending on longstanding
priorities like fisheries subsidies, and ongoing plurilateral talks, including on e-commerce. Members have
also urged the WTO to tackle serious trade policy challenges heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
WTO members also confront reforming the WTO, a difficult process but highly consequential for the
institution’s continued relevance. U.S. priorities have included reform of the treatment of developing
country status, notification and transparency requirements, and disciplines on nonmarket economies.
Meanwhile, trade disputes have accelerated between the United States and China, countries increasingly
have resorted to unilateral punitive trade actions (the subject of several pending WTO disputes), and,
more broadly, protectionist trade policies are rising, which undermine the spirit and letter of WTO rules.
WTO dispute settlement (DS), generally considered a success of the system, is unable to function fully,
amid sharp disagreements over the Appellate Body’s (AB) role.
New leadership faces ushering the trading system through these various challenges. Okonjo-Iweala has
emphasized an ambitious vision, but to restore its credibility, foremost the WTO must deliver early
success and results. She pledged initial priorities of assisting in controlling the pandemic; laying the
groundwork for MC12 success; and advancing DS reform.
U.S. Perspectives
The Trump Administration characterized the WTO as an institution that has failed the United States and
the global trading system, documenting its concerns in its trade policy agenda and AB critiques. In
reversing the U.S. DG stance, the Biden Administration praised Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership and
experience, stating it looks forward to working with the new DG “to find paths forward to achieve
necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO.” The U.S. delegation emphasized U.S. hopes
that the institution “lives up to its full potential as a body that promotes equitable economic growth
through trade,” and that the United States can be counted on as a “constructive partner.”

Author Information

Cathleen D. Cimino-Isaacs

Analyst in International Trade and Finance


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