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WTO Job: Can Okonjo-Iweala trump the US obstacle?

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 15, 2020 Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala looks on, in Geneva, following her hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states’ representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General. – Key WTO ambassadors tapped Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on October 26, 2020 as the best pick to lead the organisation, but she was opposed by Washington, who said it supported South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee instead. The so-called troika of ambassadors heading the World Trade Organization’s three main branches determined after four months of consultations with member states that Okonjo-Iweala was the most likely to obtain the consensus needed to take the top job, paving the way for her to become the first woman and the first African at its helm. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Like a flicker in the middle of the night, the overwhelming recommendations of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), was an event many looked forward to celebrating. Last Wednesday, distraught Nigerians, indeed, rolled out drums to celebrate her victory after she clinched endorsements from 63 per cent members of the organisation to beat her South Korean rival, Yoo Myung-hee.

Sadly, the celebration turned out premature. The loud cheer ebbed out on account of an equally-overwhelming opposition from the White House.

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International negotiation is power-based. And like other components of international politics, it is extremely nebulous and complex. Influence and interest count ahead of other considerations and sentiments – a reason Okonjo-Iweala’s American citizenship seems immaterial, as she fights hard to cross the ultimate roadblock mounted by President Donald Trump and his team to eventually defeat the South Korean opponent.

The United States-South Korean tie is that of a father-son relationship. If Seoul’s recent search for economic autonomy, which many thought could cause a major strain, has changed anything, it is a signal to the US to look for fresh opportunities to renew its fatherly love for the Asian country.

The relationship is as old as South Korea itself, as Washington was actively involved in the Korean War and funded the establishment of the new state in 1948. Seoul has depended on the US’ military, political, and economic support to build the viable modern nation it is today.

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Notwithstanding the power diffusion of recent years, South Korea has remained a reliable strategic ally of the US. The recent trade tension and the increasingly stronger alliance between China and North Korea have further strengthened the Washington-Seoul bond.

Though a mercurial Trump has randomly taken a battle to Seoul, the squabbles are not enough to taint or diminish the relationship between the two countries remarkably. So, when Okonjo-Iweala and Myung-hee were left out of the eight original contestants to fight for the WTO DG position, it was clear that the Nigerian-American had a tough challenge in her hands.

Apart from Washington’s long-standing relationship with Myung-hee’s home country, the onus is on Okonjo-Iweala to prove to America and others, who cherish her integrity that she is an African with a difference, as the typecasting is much. Sadly, her own integrity has been battered by media reports, especially on account of the many alleged corruption practices under her watch as Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy during the ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.

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While no allegations may have been pinned on her person, some reports by foreign media suggest that her actions or inaction to curb the pillage of public resources, especially the $2 billion arms deal (Dasukigate) for which many ex-public officials have been prosecuted, failed a simple integrity test.

The two-time finance minister was accused of collusion by some members of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration and leaders of the ruling party. There were also allegations that she transferred or authorized the transfers of some of the money alleged to have been diverted, though some leaked memos were reported to have vindicated her. There are still discarded grumblings among Buhari’s cabinet members about her handling of Nigeria’s finances and the resultant economic strangulation passed on to the current administration.

When President Buhari and his cabinet members mounted an international podium to seek support for the same person they accused of poor stewardship without clearing the air on the earlier accusations, their actions simply flew in the face of integrity and sincerity. This could have also jolted the reasoning of the US, who has always sought an opportunity to knock off Africans, especially Nigerians.

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If Okonjo-Iweala loses this opportunity, it is going to be entirely a new plot. About three years ago, a former Minister of State for Health, Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate, was close to being appointed the Executive Director of the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria until Trump came into the picture. But for Akinwumi Adesina’s untainted records at the African Development Bank (AfDB), he was also close to losing his re-election bid to the US’ desperation to replace him.

Interestingly, the WTO job final decision comes on the heels of the US presidential election. There is the likelihood that Trump could consider it an irritation that could slip through the cracks amidst the ongoing political groundwork in the US. Unfortunately, the extremely busy Trump administration still took note of the rare opening and quickly got an extension of the decision date when it mattered. That was the first win in its effort to veto Okonjo-Iweala’s victory.

Now, the US has all the time it needs to lobby other members, especially Europe (its key ally) to increase the chances of its choice. It may work through the initial crack in the European Union (EU) endorsement. A few countries had a cold attitude towards the Okonjo-Iweala option but reluctantly embraced the decision of the majority.

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Will that initial crack widens now that the US has shown more-than-a-passive interest and frowned at Nigerian (or its) candidate? Perhaps, the outcome of the US election is important to Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to retain the EU support base. A victory for Trump could alter it remarkably.

Trump, whose administration has trashed the rules-based multilateralism WTO stands to pursue contradictory outcomes-based bilateral deals, had described the WTO as “horrible” and biased towards China. He had also sought to block appointments to key roles in the past.

In a statement, the US Office of the US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, said the WTO needs reform and that it has to be led by “someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.” It added that Myung-hee has “distinguished herself” and that she has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organisation.

“This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfil basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform,” the statement noted.

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Lighthizer has pushed for the South Korean candidate, notwithstanding Okonjo-Iweala’s US citizenship. And here it is: her dual citizenship may have also raised some concerns about her ambition. The Nigerian government has, as usual, thrown its weight behind her without, in the least, articulating its interest. There has been no real engagement with other interested parties beyond the media campaign, which does not count in the final decision.

In a veiled reference to this, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Prof, Kingsley Moghalu, said: “The problem Nigeria has in advancing its interests in the world today is that we have the smartest citizens, but many of those who call the shots politically lack similar capacity. This creates gaps and dislocations that limit our ability to project our interest on the world stage.”

Okonjo-Iweala may have also seen herself as an American candidate. While nothing may be wrong with that, her campaign theme is obviously at variance with Trump’s trade practices and philosophy. She wears the garb of a rules-based multilateralist, which is expected of an individual vying for a top position in WTO. Both her association and campaign pledge confirm her unwavering commitment to the tenets of a rules-based world order.

For instance, she worked with Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank President and US Deputy Secretary of State, as a top executive of the Bretton Woods institution. The two are said to be very close. And Zoellick, a famous pro-trade internationalist, has become an ‘irritant’ in the view of the Trump administration. On several occasions, he openly criticised Trump’s anti-trade policies and actions.

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During the US-China tension, for instance, Zoellick warned Trump that a world that drifted from globalisation would fall short of the accelerated growth expected to boost prosperity and reduce global poverty. On trade-related issues, Zoellick, who also served as chief executive of Goldman Sachs, is a staunch advocate of rules-based multilateralism.

Zoellick also led the call on President Trump to find an amicable way of working with China, to contain the spread of coronavirus when he (Trump) described the outbreak as “Kung flu”. It is thus easy for a stereotypical Trump to brand all Zoellick’s associates (including Okonjo-Iweala, who sits in on Twitter board with Zoellick) his enemies and view the WTO aspiration from that lens.

If the trade philosophy of Okonjo-Iweala’s circle alienates Trump, her campaign promises did nothing to assuage the suspicion. She has expressed her commitment to promote and sustain the tenets of multilateralism if she emerges the WTO DG. Her position on the thorny trade dialectic, expectedly, has endeared her to Europe and China, who have always craved unrestrained access to the global market.

Needless to say that Trump has not openly backed down on the principles of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which has been inherited and strengthened by WTO. But its bilateral trade deals since he assumed office mock the tenets of WTO. The US-China deal, the US Mexico Canada (USMCA) Trade Agreement and the US-Japan Trade Agreement are a few examples of such deals.

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The marketplace of global ideas is not binary. Could Okonjo-Iweala have championed a hybrid of bilateralism and multilateralism to bond with both audacious China and suspicious Trump’s US? Perhaps, he could have gained or lost all.

Now she has China, which matters a great deal in the new world politicking. But as one cannot have his cake and eat, so also she cannot have China and not lose the support of the US. Both candidates have ‘divided’ the world awaiting a consensus decision.

Good for Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria, her country of birth has pledged to stay with her till the final pronouncement is made. Sadly too, Nigeria may not have the influence the global politics requires to negotiate its interest.

Should consensus fail and the process staggers into voting, her success may be at the mercy of the US’ carrot-and-stick politicking. By then, the initial endorsements may have been trashed by undeclared negotiations and compromises or other exigencies.

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