WTO nominee Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala vows to bridge divide between US and China on trade

Linda J. Dodson

The leading candidate to become the next boss of the World Trade Organisation has claimed she is the best placed contender to bridge the bitter trade divide between the US and China.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s official nominee to replace Roberto Azevedo as director-general, said she had a track record of dealing with both Beijing and Washington as Nigeria’s longest serving finance minister and as managing director of the World Bank. 

“I’ve been able to work with senior Chinese counterparts and senior American counterparts,” she says. “That’s what gives me the advantage: to be able to work with both sides and listen to them carefully.”

She is pitted against Hamid Mamdouh, the Egyptian candidate, who claims he has the technical expertise – as a former WTO official – to reform the paralysed institution. However, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said: “The issues aren’t just technical. If they were, they would have been solved long ago. The WTO needs strong political skills at the moment.”

If appointed, she would be the first African and first female director-general. “A woman brings attributes that could help in the difficult situation we are in,” she said. “We are unique people who are very persuasive, we have strong listening and negotiating skills.”

Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister, became the fifth candidate to officially join the race this week, alongside the former Modovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi and Jesus Seade, the Mexican economist, diplomat and former senior WTO official.

Interview

In the World Trade Organisation’s 25-year history there may never be a tougher time to be its boss.

The supreme court of trade – its appellate body – has been paralysed since December, leaving the rules-based international system under threat and trade itself choked by trade wars and a pandemic.

But the former Nigerian finance minister who was second-in-command at the World Bank claims she has both the political clout and trade expertise to restore the ailing institution’s credibility and bring its superpowers to the negotiating table – never mind that she’d be its first African and first female boss if she replaces Roberto Azevedo in September.

“It’s the turn of someone who is qualified and who merits it,” she says. “If on top of that, the person is an African and a woman, why not? 

“A woman brings attributes that could help in the difficult situation we are in. We are unique people who are very persuasive, we have strong listening and negotiating skills. These are things a lot of women have – I’m not saying men don’t have them – but my training and experience have heightened these qualities.”

Having previously negotiated with both Beijing and Washington, her pitch is that she has a track record of being able to “work with both sides and listen to them carefully” – but says it wouldn’t be up to her to resolve their trade war.

“I see the job of the next director-general as restoring the WTO, breaking out of the challenges it faces and restoring it to serve the multilateral trading system that the world needs. China and the US are members so I’ll be looking to see how I can serve their interests so that the system can be stronger. But my desire is to be there for all members.”

Her official competitors so far – nominations close on July 8 – include the Egyptian Hamid Mamdouh, a former WTO director of trade in services and investment; Jesús Seade, the Mexican economist, diplomat and former senior WTO official; Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister; and the former Modovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi. 

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