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 November 13, 2020
The United States and members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are selecting new leadership for
the WTO Secretariat, following Director-General (DG) Roberto Azevêdo’s unexpected early resignation
in August 2020. Eight candidates were in the running, and on October 8, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee advanced as the top candidates with the “broadest and deepest support
from the membership,” apparently paving the way for the first woman to serve as WTO DG. After
intensive consultations, on October 28 the selection committee announced Okonjo-Iweala as the
candidate most likely to attract consensus, recommending her as the next DG—the process requires all
164 WTO members to aim to reach a decision by consensus on the appointment. The United States was
the only country that signaled it would not back Okonjo-Iweala and seeks to block consensus, in a major
setback for the selection process. The U.S. response was met with critical reception by observers, amid
concerns of prolonged gridlock over a decision.
WTO members were to make a final decision at a November 9 meeting, which was ultimately postponed.
Renewed restrictions on in-person meetings in Geneva due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
pandemic, as well as the uncertainty over the U.S. presidential election outcome, were key factors. A new
timeline has yet to be specified. Many expect the delay to allow for solidifying consensus among WTO
members, and clarifying the U.S. position under the next administration.
WTO members and observers view the outcome of the DG race and 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 have variously called for an “honest broker” and dealmaker, politician over technocrat, or a
“peacekeeper.” WTO leadership may be particularly critical at this juncture, given members’ divergent
views over needed reforms and new 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 pandemic. Meanwhile, a dispute settlement crisis continues and broader WTO reforms remain
under discussion, complicated by wide differences and growing trade disputes. In the near-term, WTO
members face challenges in responding to the global trade and economic slowdown and spread of trade
in response to COVID-19. In the words of the outgoing DG: “The challenges facing the work
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of this Organization will always be formidable — 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 is of interest to Congress. Some Members have expressed
support for ongoing WTO reform efforts (H.Res. 746) and advocated for an active U.S. leadership role
(S.Res. 651). In May, joint resolutions (S.J.Res. 71, H.J.Res. 89) were introduced proposing to withdraw
congressional approval of WTO agreements, but rule changes prevented votes from occurring,
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). A recent survey suggests management and political experience,
economics training, and WTO negotiating experience are preferred characteristics for the next DG.
DG candidates met with WTO members beginning mid-July to present views and answer questions,
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. In the (typically rare) absence of
consensus, procedures specify that as a last resort there can be recourse to voting procedures; however,
many observers view such a break with tradition as highly unlikely.
WTO DG appointments generally have alternated between developing and developed countries, and have
hailed from all regions except Africa, the Middle East and North America. No female has ever served as
DG, which became an elevated issue in the current race.
Table 1. WTO DG Candidates
Background and Key Positions
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; Chair
of 2015 WTO Ministerial Conference

Former Deputy Secretary-General United Nations
Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri
Saudi Arabia

Royal Court Adviser

Former Economy and Planning Minister

Former Banking Executive
Liam Fox
United Kingdom

Former Trade Secretary

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Background and Key Positions
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
Source: WTO, “Candidates for DG selection process 2020.”
Notes: * Recommended as next DG by selection committee.
What’s at Stake
DG 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 the
strategic direction for MC12. During Azevêdo’s tenure, WTO members advanced some important
achievements, like 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 final agreements
pending on longstanding priorities like fisheries subsidies, and ongoing plurilateral talks, including on e-
commerce. Many have also urged the WTO to tackle the trade policy challenges that emerged from
WTO members also confront reforming the WTO, a difficult process but highly consequential for the
institution’s continued relevance. U.S. priorities include 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 have increasingly resorted
to unilateral punitive trade actions (the subject of several WTO disputes), and, more broadly, protectionist
trade policies are rising, which undermine the spirit and letter of WTO rules. WTO dispute settlement,
generally considered a success of the system, is unable to function fully, amid sharp disagreements over
the Appellate Body’s (AB) role. New WTO leadership will face ushering the trading system through these
various challenges.
U.S. Perspectives
In June testimony to House Ways and Means, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Lighthizer called the
WTO “a mess,” an institution that has failed the United States and the global trading system. The Trump
Administration has widely documented its concerns in its trade policy agenda and AB critiques.
Regarding ideal qualities for a DG, Lighthizer has called for leadership that supports fundamental, across-
the-board reform and understands the nature of problems facing market economies in dealing with China
and current rules that fail to discipline large state-run economies. In an October 28 statement, the Office
of the USTR asserted its support for Korean Minister Yoo as the next DG, calling her “a bona fide trade
expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade
policy maker,” with “the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization.”

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Author Information

Cathleen D. Cimino-Isaacs

Analyst in International Trade and Finance

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