The World Trade Organisation’s effort to select a leader and chart a new course for the global trading system is facing strong setback after the Trump administration opposed front-runner Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s bid 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.
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.