The U.S. opposed the selection of former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the World Trade Organization’s new leader, officials said Wednesday, the latest Trump administration challenge to the body.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala was poised to become the WTO’s first female leader after gaining the support of most WTO member states. But as her nomination moved forward at a meeting on Wednesday, the U.S. became the sole remaining country to voice opposition to her appointment. Dozens of governments swiftly spoke out against the U.S., saying Washington was trying to obstruct and weaken the global-trade regulator, said several people present or briefed on the exchange.
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. had opposed Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy because she had no background in trade, having spent most of her career at the World Bank, and because the WTO shouldn’t have moved forward with her candidacy when there was not a consensus in support.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said that the two-time Nigerian finance minister had extensive experience on trade issues during her 25 years at the World Bank, where she rose to become a managing director.
“Needless to say WTO members wouldn’t have selected a DG who is missing any skills or qualifications,” the spokeswoman said.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a U.S. citizen, would be the first female and African leader of the WTO. She was running against South Korea’s first female trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, who Washington is backing.
The senior U.S. official said that Ms. Yoo had an extensive background in trade that made her better suited for the role of managing the WTO in a period of turmoil. The U.S. is not trying to weaken the WTO, the official said. The official added that Ms. Yoo’s background would make her a stronger leader for the body, rather than a weaker one.
“Twenty seven delegations took the floor,” said WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell. “One delegation could not support the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi and said they would continue to support South Korean Minister Yoo. That delegation was the United States.” President Trump has repeatedly complained the WTO is unfair to the U.S. and some Republican lawmakers are seeking to pull the U.S. out of the organization. Washington has blocked the appointment of judges to the WTO’s top court, called the Appellate Body, so that since December 2019 the court has too few judges to rule on big trade disputes between countries.
On Wednesday evening, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative reiterated its support for Ms. Yoo and said “The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”
U.S. officials have said the WTO needs a major overhaul to challenge what Western countries say is unfair competition from China’s market-distorting state capitalism system. Washington has long opposed what it sees as judicial activism from the Appellate Body and the Trump administration has slammed the body for ruling that some U.S. tariffs on China are illegal.
Mr. Rockwell said the WTO would go ahead with a meeting Nov. 9 to pick a new leader. If necessary, as a last resort, a vote could be held to pick a leader although that would break the precedent of selecting the WTO chief by consensus.
He said consultations with the U.S. and other members would continue. South Korea declined to withdraw Ms. Yoo’s candidacy.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala won by a wide margin, Mr. Rockwell said. She has already locked in support from the European Union and many African and Caribbean countries.
But as Wednesday’s meeting began, the U.S. was the first country to dial in, over a videoconference line, saying that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala lacked the experience to do the job, according to a Western ambassador who was present. The U.S complained that the WTO’s election rules were flawed because they didn’t allow governments to register a negative view of a particular candidate, the ambassador and another person briefed on the exchange said.
￼In apress conference in Davos, President Trump said that he is seeking “dramatic” reform at the World Trade Organization. On trade negotiations with the EU, he stated that Europe is “more difficult to do business with than China.” (Originally published 1/22/2020) Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
The American objection prompted an uproar from the delegates of more than two dozen governments and international organizations seated in the room, with European allies, China, Canada, Latin American and African states all rallying against the U.S.
An EU representative complained that if the U.S. had issues with the process, it could and should have raised them far earlier, these people said. The senior U.S. official said that the U.S. concern with the process emerged when the WTO advanced a candidate who hadn’t won consensus support, and that the WTO selection committee was well aware of U.S. objections.
Other countries with delegates in the chamber raised flags, including some that backed Ms. Yoo, to join the EU in its objections to the American objection. Delegates accused the U.S. of trying to bully them and said that if the U.S. didn’t rescind its objections they would force a vote next month on Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.
“Given that it will come down to a vote, the likelihood of Nigeria winning is 99 percent,” the ambassador said.
In recent years, the U.S. has taken aim at a range of multilateral institutions. The Trump administration withdrew from the WHO earlier this year and has targeted officials at The Hague-based International Criminal Court with sanctions.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala had pitched herself as a champion of developing countries. She touted her managerial experience and work as a former senior World Bank official and board chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation as ideal preparation to steer the WTO’s focus on the serious trade challenges of a global health crisis.
In an interview Tuesday with The Wall Street Journal, she said the WTO needed to link up with other multilateral institutions to deliver on issues like public health that can help developing countries garner the benefits of global commerce.
In a statement after the meeting, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign sounded a note of victory, saying she was “immensely humbled to receive the backing of the WTO’s selection committee today.”
“A swift conclusion to the process will allow members to begin again to work, together, on the urgent challenges and priorities,” a spokeswoman said.
Kelly Ann Shaw, a former senior director for international trade in the White House under Mr. Trump and a former USTR official in Geneva at the WTO during the Obama administration said the lack of consensus on the new director general “foreshadows the challenges ahead for whomever gets the job,”
“The WTO is in utter crisis and it should be clear to all WTO members that the do-nothing status quo is unsustainable—the multilateral trading system is on the verge of collapse.”
The race for the job, in which eight candidates initially competed, was triggered when Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo said in May that he was stepping down a year early, partly to allow for new leadership ahead of important WTO meetings next year.
—Josh Zumbrun in Washington contributed to this article. Corrections & Amplifications
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign sounded a note of victory after the meeting. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Ms. Okonjo-Iweala sounded a note of victory. Also, a spokeswoman for Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said that the two-time Nigerian finance minister had extensive experience on trade issues, including during her 25 years at the World Bank. An earlier version of this article omitted this response to U.S. criticism of Ms. Okonjo-Iweala. (Corrected on Oct. 29, 2020)