The US has backed Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director General of the World Trade Organization, removing one final hurdle to her appointment and ending months of uncertainty over the body’s leadership.
Earlier on Friday, South Korean Commerce Minister Yoo Myung-hee, who, despite weaker support than her rival last year, had not left the race, said the future of the WTO had become “uncertain” due to the protracted leadership struggle. .
She added that she had made her decision in “close consultation” with the US. “South Korea will actively contribute to building consensus for the next WTO chief and work with and participate in the WTO reform process,” said Yoo.
With US backing, Okonjo-Iweala, a former Treasury Secretary who fought corruption in her country, becomes Africa’s first WTO leader.
In its first public statement under the Biden administration, the US Trade Representative’s Office said the US was “pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next WTO Director General. “.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years at the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister, USTR said in a statement. “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience leading a large international organization with a diverse membership base.”
The WTO is now expected to continue formalizing its nomination, the timing of which was not yet clear.
The statement contrasts with the Trump administration, which had defied other member states by backing Yoo over Okonjo-Iweala, whose credentials they had questioned. It also gave European diplomats hope that a new era of involvement with the US had begun.
Sabine Weyand, the European Commission’s Director-General for Trade, hailed the announcement as “excellent news”.
Okonjo-Iweala said on Twitter that she was “grateful” for the US support. Earlier on Friday, an Okonjo-Iweala spokesperson said she “congratulates Yoo Myung-hee on her long campaign and welcomes South Korea’s commitment to rebuilding and strengthening multilateralism. There is an important work that we are doing together. must do “.
Okonjo-Iweala “is looking forward to the conclusion of the director-general selection process,” said the spokesman. “The WTO must turn its attention to the Covid-19 pandemic and the global economic recovery.”
The Geneva-based body charged with preserving free and non-discriminatory trade has been without director-general for months after Brazil’s Roberto Azevêdo early departure last year.
The leadership battle was complicated when the US refused to accept Okonjo-Iweala, saying it would only support Yoo. The selection of a new leader requires all WTO members to agree. This baffled European diplomats who have desperately tried to restore the struggling organization.
The decision responds to many countries’ hopes that the Biden administration will deliver on its election promise to restore Washington’s support for multilateral institutions.
Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative under former President Donald Trump and a longtime WTO critic, said last month that Okonjo-Iweala had “no trading experience at all.”
Okonjo-Iweala is a former World Bank director and chairman of the board of Gavi, the UN-backed vaccine alliance that now plays a central role in the worldwide distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
She would be the first woman to lead the organization made up of representatives from 164 different jurisdictions.
The South Korean candidate’s failure to resign earlier has been criticized by other member states, who feared further damage to the organization. Several diplomats have told the The Washington City Times that the credibility of Asia’s fourth largest economy has also been questioned because of the process.
In a statement, USTR congratulated Yoo on her “ strong campaign ” and named her a “ pioneer ” as Korea’s first female trade minister and first candidate to advance to the final two of the Director General’s selection process.