The World Trade Organization (WTO) is expected to confirm the choice of its new director general on Monday. Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will not only be the first woman, but also the first person from the African continent to lead the institution. It will find an organization which, once triumphant, is today weighed down by the lack of consensus, the rise of nationalism and the Trump years, and which cannot do better, for the moment, than to move forward in dispersed order.
They were first eight candidates, then five, then only two in the race launched in May by the surprise announcement of the Director General of the WTO, the Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo, of his departure a year before the scheduled end. of his second four-year term. Having to be the result of a unanimous decision of its 164 member countries, “the choice of a new director general is a very opaque process”, notes Geneviève Dufour, professor of international economic law at the University of Sherbrooke.
While all voices seemed to line up behind the candidate from Nigeria, Donald Trump played there, in November, one last time the preventers of dancing in circles by supporting the other candidate, a former Minister of Commerce of South Korea, until his Democratic successor rallied to the others, there is ten days, and South Korean Yoo Myung-hee withdraws her candidacy. So there is no longer any suspense on what should emerge from the extraordinary meeting of the WTO General Council convened Monday in Geneva to appoint its new head.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has an impressive track record. A graduate of Harvard University and MIT, the economist has twice served as his country’s finance minister, rose to number 2 in the World Bank and currently chairs an organization promoting access to immunization in Africa. “She quickly emerged as the most competent candidate. It was about time we had a woman and someone from Africa in this post, ”says Geneviève Dufour, the WTO having largely reflected the interests of developed countries over the years and ignored the obstacles encountered by the female half. of humanity.
The task of the future CEO, however, promises to be titanic. She arrives after Donald Trump’s United States has declared trade war on almost everyone, especially China, and have completely blocked for a year the WTO appeals tribunal by preventing the appointment of judges. But the problems run deeper.
The WTO has been unable for 20 years to find a consensus that would allow it to keep its promise made in Doha to better take into account the issues specific to developing countries. This impasse condemns its members to apply a code of conduct widely established at the time when it was still called the GATT (for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in English) and where the main trade issues were not regulatory cooperation, electronic commerce, foreign investment, and even less the fight against climate change or the respect of minimum labor standards.
“The WTO is indeed a somewhat failing organization,” summarizes Krzysztof Pelc, professor and expert in international trade at McGill University. “It is an institution designed for the trade in steel and bananas rather than for the exchange of information services and digital technologies. “
Its rules also date back to before China became the economic giant we know and others are wondering whether it should not have imposed, when it joined the WTO in 2001, more severe conditions. in particular in matters of State enterprises, access to its market and the protection of intellectual property. It was also before the United States understood with horror that the armed wing of the institution, its dispute settlement mechanism, was not content to play mere arbitrators, but was in the process of establishing itself as a real tribunal. international with a power of interpretation and its jurisprudence.
“All these problems at the WTO stem from deep differences and a lack of willingness to compromise,” says Richard Ouellet, professor of international economic law at Laval University. But in the immediate future, the greatest peril that will face Mme Okonjo-Iweala is that the United States or China never tire of all this and slam the door ”.
In the meantime, member countries have chosen to circumvent the difficulties posed by the unanimity rule by forming sub-groups around common priorities. Relatively small and extremely dependent on international trade and the rule of law, Canada is one of the champions of this not “multilateral” approach, but at the very least “plurilateral which has already been used successfully in the past” , explains Krzysztof Pelc.
Being at the origin of the Ottawa Group, Canada has notably agreed with a dozen other countries, in addition to the European Union, to respect certain standards in terms of free trade in medical supplies and food products during the COVID-19 pandemic and e-commerce. He is also one of the instigators of a sort of parallel court of appeal to the WTO until the conflict with the United States is settled..
“This plurilateral approach can be a good strategy, as long as it is not an end in itself. The final objective must be to arrive, in the long term, with the same rules for everyone, ”says Geneviève Dufour.
Another solution put forward by Canada and other countries has been to increase regional agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe. But again, this solution has limits, warns Richard Ouellet.
Most of the major “commercial, economic, health, migration or environmental issues will not be resolved at the regional level,” he emphasizes. “Mme Okonjo-Iweala will have the difficult task of reminding WTO member countries of these truths while leaving them enough flexibility to avoid rupture. “