Alan Wm. Wolff

Selecting an acting Director-General for the World Trade Organization — the road forward

At tomorrow’s informal meeting of the Heads of Delegation in Geneva, the hoped for agenda would include both finalizing the process for phase three of selecting a new Director-General and, if progress were made in consultations with Members, reviewing selection of an acting Director-General to serve after current Director-General Roberto Azevedo steps down on August 31 until a new Director-General is in place (likely November 7 or later). If the issue of the acting Director-General is resolved at the informal Heads of Delegation meeting, then a General Council meeting would be called, presumably tomorrow afternoon, to formally select the acting Director-General by consensus.

News articles indicate that the consultation process appears at an impasse with the United States wanting Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff to serve as the acting Director-General but facing opposition from both the EU and China. Mr. Wolff is from the United States. Apparently the other Deputy Director-General being actively considered is Karl Brauner who is from Germany. See, e.g., Reuters, July 29, 2020, Exclusive: WTO unlikely to get interim leader as U.S. insists on its candidate, causes impasse, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-wto-usa-exclusive/exclusive-wto-unlikely-to-get-interim-leader-as-us-insists-on-its-candidate-causes-impasse-idUSKCN24U2P2. The article suggests that Members may be considering simply leaving the WTO organization without a Director-General until the selection process is completed. But the end game won’t be known until the meeting tomorrow morning.

Efforts by WTO Members to avoid blockage of selection process

The WTO Members agreed to a process for selecting a new Director-General at the end of 2002 to try to avoid the deep divisions and chaos that had characterized the 1999 selection process where there was a deadlock over two candidates, a delay in picking a Director-General and ultimately a decision to give the position of Director-General to each of the two candidates but at reduced time periods of three years each. In 1998-1999 there were no agreed-to procedures for either the selection of the next Director-General or for choosing an acting Director-General.

The 2002 procedures adopted by the General Council were intended to address both issues, although the vast majority of the procedures pertain to the selection of the Director-General while only one sentence of one paragraph addresses the selection of an acting Director-General. See Procedures for the Selection of Directors-General, adopted by the General Council on 10 December 2002, WT/L/509 (20 January 2003), para. 23 (“In the event of a vacancy in the post of Director-General, the General Council shall designate one of the existing Deputy Directors-General to serve as Acting Director-General until the appointment of a new Director-General.”). The 2002 procedures are embedded below.

WTL509

The lack of leadership by the U.S., EU and China

If the news articles are correct that the impasse flows from the views of the United States, the EU and China, then one can only shake one’s head in disappointment at each of the three for lack of leadership. In a prior post, I reviewed that the selection of an acting Director-General should be an easy job for the WTO membership. Each of the four Deputy Directors-General are well known to the Members and each is obviously qualified. The job of acting is temporary and has been described as administrative in nature. See July 24, 2020, WTO Director-General’s farewell address to the General Council while Members can’t agree on an acting Director-General, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/07/24/wto-director-generals-farewell-address-to-the-general-council-while-members-cant-agree-on-an-acting-director-general/.

Alan Wm. Wolff is an exceptionally talented individual who has probably had the largest public presence of any Deputy Director-General in the history of the WTO. His speeches which are available from the WTO news archives should be collected and released as a book by the Secretariat. They reflect Mr. Wolff’s deep commitment to the multilateral trading system, his deep knowledge of history and cover a broad array of topics. For example, he speaks eloquently on the role of the World Trade Organization in maintaining peace and stability, the history of the WTO, the values undergirding the organization, the hope that the WTO provides to countries seeking accession and the work ahead to keep the organization serving its core purposes. He would be a very interesting candidate for Director-General if the United States had put him forward. He certainly would be a competent acting Director-General.

But the same can be said for each of the other Deputy Directors-General. Each will be able to handle the interim task of being the acting Director-General pending the selection of a new Director-General.

So it is obviously disappointing to see the impasse which reflects poorly on each of the major players involved.

A possible solution

While the WTO Members can obviously ignore the procedures they adopted in 2002 for selecting an acting Director-General and proceed without a Director-General, there are different paths to a possible solution that could be taken.

Obviously, Members could opt to overcome the impasse and get behind one of the four Deputy Directors-General. That is the best possible outcome.

Absent the Members fulfilling their role and finding consensus, the Deputy Directors-General who are under active consideration could withdraw their names from consideration by indicating that they would not serve if selected. While WTO Members may be unable to look out for the best interest of the organization, there is little doubt that each of the Deputy Directors-General has the best interests of the WTO at heart.

While the impasse could be solved by just Alan Wolff withdrawing, it would be a stronger message if both Messrs. Wolff and Brauner withdrew. There would still be two individuals to choose from. And a needless problem for the organization would be solved by the Secretariat leadership despite the narrow thinking of some of its Members.

The above suggestion is just a thought for the good of the WTO and its Members.