In a clear departure from the position of his predecessor in office, the United State’s Joe Biden presidency has given its formal backing to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the World Trade Organization, removing the final obstacle to her bid to be the first woman and the first African to run the Geneva-based trade body.
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy,” the office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement Friday.
“She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”
The USTR added it “looks forward to working with a new WTO director-general to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO.”
The Biden administration’s decision to support Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign will be viewed in Geneva as a welcome shift in U.S. support for the multilateral trading system following four years of salvos against an organization that former President Donald Trump previously called the worst trade deal the U.S. ever signed.
The appointment of a new WTO chief will help the beleaguered organization to confront an array of internal crises and begin deliberating a more structured conversation of how to make 25-year-old WTO fit to govern the 21st century trading system.
The organization has been without a leader since September, when Roberto Azevedo vacated the position a year before his term was set to expire. Since then, the WTO has been overseen by four unelected deputy directors-general.
The WTO’s leadership-selection process reached an impasse last year when the Trump administration vetoed Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy and said it preferred her opponent, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.
That opposition was enough to halt the selection process because WTO decisions are made on the basis of a consensus of its 164 members. Yoo ended her campaign on Friday following consultations with the Biden administration.
With the U.S. now joining a consensus, WTO general council Chairman David Walker is expected to soon announce a meeting in Geneva, where the organization’s members will formally approve Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment to a four-year term as director-general.
Okonjo-Iweala previously served as Nigeria’s finance minister and has experience working at international governance bodies as a former managing director of the World Bank.
She is currently a chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization — a position which will provide her with a unique perspective on how global trade can help facilitate the roll-out of vaccines and other critical tools needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 66-year-old Nigerian economist, who is also a U.S. citizen, has pledged to take a more active role as director-general and to act as a sounding board to try to find common ground among the trade body’s disparate membership.
Though the power of the WTO leader is limited by the directives of its members, the director-general can convene meetings, and offer suggestions and strategies for addressing conflicts in the global trading system.