Friday, June 2, 2023

Outgoing US trade chief says top WTO candidate lacks experience

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Donald Trump’s outgoing trade chief has warned that it would be “a mistake” to appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as head of the World Trade Organization, as he doubled down on his opposition to the consensual choice of 160 other members of the ‘instance.

Robert Lighthizer, the current U.S. trade representative, a longtime WTO critic, who has been without a director general since the unexpected early departure in August of Roberto Azevêdo, a Brazilian who had held the post since 2013.

In October, the United States refused to return Former Nigerian finance minister Ms Okonjo-Iweala for the top post, leaving him without firm leadership amid a pandemic.

Speaking to the FT, Mr Lighthizer said Ms Okonjo-Iweala had “no trade experience”.

“We need someone who really knows about trade, not someone from the World Bank who deals with development,” Lighthizer said, referring to Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s credentials.

“We need a professional with real business experience,” he added. “And there are very few areas where you would say, ‘Here’s an organization in terrible shape, let’s look for someone who doesn’t know anything about their main mission.’

The United States has previously said in statements only that it supports South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, the other remaining candidate for the post, calling her a “bona fide trade expert.”

Mr Lighthizer’s comments represent the most detailed explanation of the Trump administration’s opposition to that of Ms Okonjo-Iweala application. It comes amid fears among Mr. Trump’s trade advisers that the United States could drop its opposition after Joe Biden took office on Wednesday.

Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, who holds U.S. and Nigerian citizenship, highlighted her experience as managing director of the World Bank and her role as chair of the board of directors of Gavi, a public-private alliance to develop vaccines for low income countries.

A spokesperson for Ms Okonjo-Iweala said: “After a rigorous three-round selection process that began with a pool of eight highly qualified candidates, Ms Okonjo-Iweala is eager to engage with the Biden administration and hopes that the final consensus will be reached soon.

“The WTO urgently needs to get to work in this time of global crisis.”

The delay in appointing a Director General has left the WTO without permanent leadership at a time when its ability to promote rules-based trade has been undermined by geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, and the Global economic growth has been destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic and Republican administrations have been unhappy with the WTO’s appeals body – the influential influence group that adjudicates disputes between its members – viewing its decisions not only as an attack on sovereignty, but also as an inability to deal with China’s business practices.

At the end of 2019, the United States paralyzed the WTO’s appeals body by blocking the appointment of new judges.

Earlier in his career as an attorney for the US steel industry, Mr. Lighthizer frequently clashed with the WTO and has long argued that the appellate body is overstepping its mandate and making the law rather than interpreting the laws. commercial agreements.

Mr Lighthizer, who has often called the WTO a “failing organization”, said that while he did not want to indulge in “pessimism”, the prospects for successful reform of the body were “not good” .

“It’s a bleak outlook, and it’s because there are so many people in the organization, and they block and they are blocked,” he says.

But while the United States’ refusal to support Ms Okonjo-Iweala and appoint new appellate judges has dismayed European diplomats, Mr Lighthizer insisted that the dysfunction of the WTO did not had “no particular effect on trade”.

“I don’t think the fact that we haven’t had an appeal body for over a year has had a negative effect on trade,” Lighthizer said. “I think that kind of, you know, people who are professional bureaucrats go in there and put all this big emphasis on the bureaucratic work that they do, and the reality is that it doesn’t really matter. effect. Maybe a little bit in some areas around the bangs.

He added that in his view, many WTO members “see it primarily as a means of increasing development, rather than increasing trade.”

While diplomats in Brussels and Geneva hope the Biden administration will keep its election promise to increase Washington’s support for multilateral institutions such as the WTO, the Biden team has so far not said whether it planned to support Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy for WTO leadership. , which would allow the body to proceed with the appointment of a new CEO.

In Washington, Mr. Lighthizer is widely credited with changing the way the US political establishment views international trade, shifting politics away from focusing on business-driven deals in favor of corporate-centric protectionism. workers who sought to boost domestic employment and bring back supply chains that moved abroad.

He said he expected the Biden administration to do the same. “The president-elect did not come forward against our trade policy,” Lighthizer said. “He tried to put his own spin on it and talk about a different version of America First, and that’s what he ran on. He didn’t criticize what we did.


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