The World Trade Organization’s effort to select a leader and chart a new course for the global trading system hit a roadblock Wednesday after the Trump administration vetoed a bid by front-runner Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is a U.S. citizen, to be the WTO’s next director-general.
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Dennis Shea said Washington won’t join a consensus to appoint Okonjo-Iweala because the U.S. supports her opponent, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, according to WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has pushed for Yoo even though Okonjo-Iweala gained American citizenship in 2019. Sources close to him say he views Okonjo-Iweala, a longtime top official at the World Bank, as being too close to pro-trade internationalists like Robert Zoellick, a former USTR from the Bush administration who worked with her when he was president of the Washington-based bank.
“Minister Yoo is a bona-fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade-policy maker,” the USTR’s office said in a statement. “This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute-settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”
The U.S.’s lone resistance to the majority-backed Okonjo-Iweala opens the possibility of months of gridlock over the selection process and more diplomatic friction with trading partners like the European Union.
“I’m surprised and disappointed in the U.S. reaction,” said William Reinsch, a trade official in the Clinton administration and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I had hoped Lighthizer would have more respect for the institution than that.”
WTO decisions are made by a consensus of its 164 members, which means a single country — especially the world’s largest economy — can create a stalemate to pressure others. The Geneva-based institution will keep working to reach a consensus ahead of meeting of the General Council tentatively set for Nov. 9.
The setback in the leadership race came after Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister, received a key endorsement earlier Wednesday from the WTO selection committee despite the U.S.’s expressions of support for Yoo. The EU, Japan, and much of Africa and Latin America are pushing for Okonjo-Iweala.
China said it supported the outcome of the WTO process, Rockwell told reporters following Wednesday’s meeting.
The EU reiterated its commitment to remain engaged.