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WTO could be in a leaderless limbo until Biden’s inauguration

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

The Geneva Observer - with Jamil Chade

November 17, 2020



This article was first published as part of our newsletter briefing sent out on Tuesday November 17, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content the moment it's published, straight in your inbox.


It looks like the future direction of the WTO will be decided after Joe Biden takes office in January 2021.

After a summer long Director-General selection process, diplomats in Geneva had hoped they had come to an agreement at the beginning of November. After whittling down the list of nominees to two, the leaders of the selection process proposed Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the position. They all agreed that the support for her was far deeper than for the runner-up, South Korean nominee, Yoo Myung-hee. Indeed, the Europeans all supported Okonjo-Iweala.

However, an impasse emerged: Donald Trump’s government announced it would not accept Okonjo-Iweala, supporting instead Myung-hee. A meeting scheduled to take place on November 9 to hammer out the decision was postponed indefinitely.

President Trump has blocked the appointment of Nigerian nominee Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala © WTO

Two of the main ambassadors at the body told The G|O that the most realistic scenario today is that the choice of the new WTO Director-General will be postponed until the new US administration takes office. The hope is that, with Biden in power, the US’ block will be removed, and the consensus around the Nigerian will be universal.

At the age of 66, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was once on the board of the World Bank and was part of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. In her home country, she was finance minister and became known for convincing George W. Bush to forgive a billion-dollar debt. Most recently, she served on the board of Twitter Inc. and is a special envoy for the Covax facility. But her internationalist vision was thought to go against the thinking of the current White House. In addition, Washington said it did not agree with the way the process was conducted.

In practice, however, this means the WTO will have been in a leaderless limbo between September 2020 and February 2021, after the Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo surprised the international community and chose to quit the organization. The former ambassador is now vice-president of PepsiCo, his stated intention to depart early in order to help the WTO ensure a smoother transition has not come to pass.

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