Biden Administration Backs Nigerian Candidate to Lead WTO

February 5, 2021 Updated: February 7, 2021

WASHINGTON—The Biden administration said that it would support the candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, to lead the World Trade Organization, ending a months-long standoff at the organization.

The Feb. 5 announcement came after South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee withdrew her candidacy, clearing the way for Okonjo-Iweala to be director-general of the Geneva-based body.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General of the WTO,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) said in a statement.

The global trade watchdog has been without a director-general since Roberto Azevedo of Brazil quit the job in August last year.

Okonjo-Iweala was the consensus choice by the member states, although the Trump administration refused to back her due to her lack of trade experience.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Jan. 19, then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer warned it would be “a mistake” to appoint Okonjo-Iweala to lead the organization.

“We need a person who actually knows trade, not somebody from the World Bank who does development,” Lighthizer said.

Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian finance minister, according to the USTR.

“We need a trade person with real trade experience,” Lighthizer said. “And there are very few areas where you would say, ‘Here’s an organization in very bad shape, let’s get someone who knows nothing about its core mission.’”

The Trump administration had supported Yoo’s candidacy, calling her a “bona fide trade expert.”

“In order to promote the functions of WTO and in consideration of various factors, I have decided to withdraw my candidacy,” Yoo said in a statement on Feb. 5.

Yoo, after receiving the backing of the Trump administration, had refused to withdraw from the race despite mounting diplomatic pressure to bow out.

“It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of WTO Director General—the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution,” the USTR’s statement said.

“The United States stands ready to engage in the next phase of the WTO process for reaching a consensus decision on the WTO Director-General. The Biden Administration looks forward to working with a new WTO Director-General to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO.”

In a recent interview with The Epoch Times, Clete Willems, former deputy director of the National Economic Council under the Trump administration, said that the Biden administration wants to revive the embattled global trade watchdog.

By allowing the new director-general to be selected as a first step, Biden will “signal a high-level shift in policy and a recommitment to the system,” he said.

“I think on the [WTO’s] Appellate Body front, they’re not going to simply rollback Trump administration’s position. The concerns about the appellate body are bipartisan, they’re long-standing,” he added.

The WTO’s downward spiral started long before Trump’s presidency, as Washington accused the organization of overstepping its mandate in dispute settlement and creating unjustified rules.

Under the Obama administration, Washington started to block the selection of judges to the appellate body, WTO’s seven-member independent court. Since 2016, the United States blocked all new appointments to the court, crippling the WTO’s ability to rule on trade disputes.

Washinton has also repeatedly expressed discontent about the trade body’s inability to address China’s unfair trade practices. According to the latest report (pdf) from the USTR, China’s record in complying with WTO rules remains poor.

According to the report, the United States has brought about two dozen cases against Beijing at the WTO to dispute its wide range of policies including massive subsidies, significant market access barriers, and inadequate intellectual property rights enforcement.

Biden has promised to take a more multilateral approach in dealing with trade issues; it’s unclear how his administration will resolve the deep-seated problems with respect to the WTO.

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