Stakes high as Yoo Myung-hee, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tussle for WTO chief

26Oct 2020
The Guardian
Stakes high as Yoo Myung-hee, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tussle for WTO chief

WITH the World Trade Organisation (WTO) poised to elect a new director general and become another UN agency currently headed by a woman, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee is seen a clear frontrunner over former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Who is actually the frontrunner depends on whom one is talking to, with clear differences emerging on the basis of trading and foreign policy blocks, as the South Korean trade minister is favored by the United States, and the Nigerian former minister is the clear preference of the European Union. Who emerges the winner will depend on this link.

Bloomberg television channel, the most notable global business 24 hour channel, mentioned this tussle in the background on Wednesday, and on Thursday the UK weekly The Economist put its authority to say Okonjo-Iweala was the frontrunner., a position echoed by various leading national newspapers and agencies, despite that some of the prediction is starting to be outdated. Still it is apparent that there has been far less media hype over the candidacy of the South Korean minister compared to her Nigerian rival for the post, were on balance Dr Okonjo-Iweala may succeed to canvas more support from member states.

While at the technical level Yoo Myung-hee has an impeccable record as a trade negotiator first and diplomat second, Okonjo-Iweala is more exposed organizationally and would suit the ‘multilteralists’ over ‘trade purists’ in the search for a consensus on the next WTO chief. While the European Union as a bloc was pivotal in retaining the two as frontrunners for election to the post, there appears to be more contention at the diplomatic level about the South Korean minister than there is for the Nigerian aspirant. On the basis of the global media image of the two candidates, Okonjo-Iweala is close to a household name and Yoo Myung-hee a sort of newcomer to the global diplomatic stage, but a seasoned trade expert.

The more difficult part of the South Korean minister to obtain consensus at WTO ministerial conference level is that she will find it difficult to unite the Asian bloc around her candidacy, a key reason being the trade spat between Japan and South Korea in the past year, which boiled over into open hostility. At the same time, ties between South Korea and the United States are fairly intense, in which context countries allied to China in its monumental trade contention with the world’s biggest economy will not spend much time to figure out which candidate they want. The European Union also has trade tiffs with the US of late.

Africa, and much of South America or South Asia for that matter, have a tendency to resist clear cut open markets philosophy, despite that WTO hasn’t been markedly acute in that direction. But still in 2002 it delivered a ruling in favour of the United States against the European Union, invalidating the Africa-EU trading relations as bilateral preferential basis due to pre-existing trade ties built during the colonial period. The WTO granted five years for the Yaounde and then Cotonou arrangement to be wound up.

While Yoo Myung-hee is dependable as a trade negotiator, Okonjo-Iweala has a broad consensus with her proximity to Bretton Woods institutions, and expected psychological distance from the United States. The former WTO director general Roberto Azevedo wasn’t a trade specialist per se but worked on trade dispute settlement at the Brazilian foreign ministry before being appointed to its Geneva mission. As Okonjo-Iweala features on the board of the global vaccine alliance, to facilitate universal Covid-19 vaccine access for developing countries, she has a greater chance. Many countries are likely to wish that this matter is taken up in a proactive manner by the world trade body, and even if she would make no decisions in that regard, just being a good ambassador for this special cause may easily pay dividends