A former foreign minister and a veteran of the UN system, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed has practical knowledge of the beleaguered World Trade Organization and the political world in which it must operate. Having mastered the technical details of the WTO after chairing many of its top committees, Mohamed advocates a thorough-going reform of the organization.
The Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Roberto Azevêdo, announced on 14 May that he would step down a year earlier than planned.
Seven candidates are vying to become the next head of the beleaguered World Trade Organization — with two entering the race just before the close of nominations.
Howsoever, compared to the fireworks of the U.S. election, the contest to lead the World Trade Organization is a low-key affair.
There are no viral ads, big reveals, or blockbuster endorsements. Few outside top-level business and politics could name one, let alone all, of the front runners. Yet to overlook this election would be a mistake. Though the impulse toward multilateralism has waned in recent years, the need for it, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, is greater than ever. As the world looks to rebuild, the WTO can guide the global economy in a fairer, greener direction – but only if it has a credible reformer at its helm.
The need for reform could not be more urgent. Restoring the efficacy of the WTO means restoring its moral authority, and that means shaking things up. Too many benefits have been accrued by the winners of globalization and too many have lost out. Inequality has spiraled. As a result, the good name of international trade has been sullied.
On the left, it is blamed for the destruction of once-prosperous industrial communities. On the right, it is seen as standing in opposition to nationhood and patriotism.
Facing a world after COVID-19, the new director-general has an opportunity to reverse the world’s inward turn.
Having chaired the WTO’s 2015 ministerial conference in Nairobi where six “historic” decisions on agriculture were made, Amina Mohamed has seen first-hand how all members of the Geneva-based organization can work together to produce results.
The savvy negotiator is credited with helping to abolish export subsidies for agricultural exports, an agreement that the outgoing Director-General Robert Azevêdo named as the “most significant outcome on agriculture” in the WTO’s history.
The virus has exposed the dangers of connectedness without cooperation: We have been unable to stop a global crisis because we have been unable to rally a global response to it. This is true of the pandemic, of course. But it is true also of climate change, global inequality, and the destruction of the environment. By placing these problems at the heart of the WTO’s mission, the next Director-General can redefine the WTO as a force for good.
Such a progressive programme requires a Director-General with the gravitas to make their presence felt on the world stage. “Gravitas” may sound vague, but it is important: The WTO Director-General wields limited executive power, so their effectiveness derives largely from their status and influence. When they talk, the business world – and, crucially, China and the United States – must listen. Reforming zeal, unmatched by experience, will therefore be of little use.
Global leadership experience is particularly important given the daunting trade implications of COVID-19. Over $12 trillion in economic stimulus packages have distorted global markets to the detriment of poorer nations. Excessive risk-aversion – what economists call “precautions” – is increasing red tape and pushing up prices. Antagonism between nations continues to undermine the case for openness.
Most pressingly, the new Director-General will need to build a muscular strategy for coordinating the fair distribution of a vaccine. This means ensuring that there is no repeat of the “sicken-thy-neighbor” measures seen during the early months of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Vaccine nationalism”, though often described in humanitarian terms, is also an economic risk of the highest order. In an interdependent economy, no government can be sure of reversing its domestic economic fortunes if the pandemic continues to spread beyond its borders.
While the G20 has failed to forge a coordinated global response, hopes of avoiding a damaging escalation of vaccine-related trade barriers rest on the appointment of a Director-General with real political clout. And, ideally, a good understanding of pharmaceutical supply and distribution chains.
Without these, the WTO will struggle to rise to the challenge of this moment. In recent years, the organization has been hampered by squabbling and overcaution. To get a sense of its limitations, look no further than the process for choosing a Director-General: all 164 members must agree on a winner, a system that risks favoring less-radical candidates.
The new Director-General cannot afford to be inoffensive. Beyond the pandemic, the new head of the WTO will have a vital role to play in remodeling capitalism to meet the environmental and economic challenges of a world in crisis. This should begin with re-establishing the body as the central forum for global trade rule-making. While the WTO has made welcome progress in many important fields over the last few years, there is an urgent need to expand negotiations to cover a wide range of 21st-century trade frictions — including the connection between trade and the environment.
The WTO needs to change if it is to rediscover a renewed purpose in the post-COVID world.
In recent years, the principles on which it is founded have been shaken by a global turn inwards. Geopolitical shifts have undermined the case for internationalism, just as the need for it became urgent.
As the first woman to chair the WTO’s general council, Mohamed is also hoping to become the first African Director-General. In the era of ‘great power competition’, an African Director-General who sits between trade foes China and the US could be precisely what the organization needs.
The fact that African countries have created the largest multilateral trade area in the form of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) since the creation of the WTO in 1995 – while other blocs are showing signs of disintegration – is presented as evidence that the mantle for multilateralism may have passed to the continent.
The WTO’s next Director-General will take office in November this year.