NZ’s David Walker is in the thick of it (but not as a candidate) as the WTO selects a new director-general

A New Zealander is in the thick of the campaign to select a new director-general of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva – but not as a candidate.   NZ’s WTO ambassador, David Walker, chairs the general council, the WTO’s highest-level decision-making body in Geneva, which will select the candidate.

The present director-general, Brazilian diplomat Ricardo Azevedo, leaves the WTO on August 31, a year before his mandate was due to expire. He cites personal reasons for leaving but also said it would be good for the organisation to have a different leader to face “the new post-Covid realities.”

Timing is critical as many question the future of the WTO as an advocate for international trade.  The WTO has been scarred by the United States’ decision in December to block the appointment of two new members to the appellate body.

The move has meant that the WTO has not been able to rule on new trade disputes between member countries since then. US President Donald Trump says the WTO is “broken”, claiming countries like China (which inexplicably is treated as a “developing country”) have taken advantage of it.

So far eight candidates have emerged – two from Europe, two each from the Middle East; one each from South Korea and Mexico and two from Africa.

Africa has been campaigning heavily for its two candidates, both women.  They are Amina C. Mohamed, a former foreign affairs and international minister from Kenya, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has served two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister.

Mexico’s Jesus Seade Kuri, the country’s chief negotiator for the US, Mexico and Canada Trade Agreement, is regarded as having less of a chance given that Azevedo is from nearby Brazil.

Britain has nominated Liam Fox,a former secretary of state for international trade and still in Parliament as an MP.  Saudi Arabia has nominated Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, a minister advising the royal court on international and local economic strategic matters. Prior to becoming a minister, he worked in banking.

Moldova’s candidate is Tudor Ulianovschi, minister of foreign affairs in 2018 and 2019 and a diplomat for 15 years.

The Republic of Korea has nominated Yoo Myung-hee, Minister for trade. She was the first woman to hold the portfolio.

The race to the selection has seen the WTO’s largest members engaged in a series of tit-for-tat tariffs, which, on top of a widening distrust of multilateralism, has seen the world trade body damaged by US criticism.

Oddly enough, in the view of many in Geneva, David Walker would be the best candidate – but he is not in the running and the general view is that the post should go, in rotation, to a European.

Walker is highly regarded as one of that small group of NZ’s impressive trade negotiators, including Crawford Falconer now with the British Government.

Negotiations on a NZ-EU free trade agreement seem stalled with the EU unwilling to move quickly. In part this reflects internal preoccupations over Brexit — but also long-standing EU antipathy to NZ’s agricultural exports and the complexity of determining the split of NZ’s current arrangements between the “new” EU and an independent UK.


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