The WTO and the Future of Multilateralism

The new head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has gotten off to a promising start. In her initial public declarations, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African to lead the WTO, has said that the organization must “deal with people in their everyday lives.” For an organization that has been mired in a deadlock over members of the appellate body and who, after 14 years of negotiation, was unable to finish the Doha Development Round to facilitate global trade in 2015, her election and comments were a breath of fresh air.

The official multilateral system is stagnant. If it hopes to remain relevant, it needs such blunt talk, a complete new mindset and a renewed pushed for transparency and accountability

Admittedly, China’s rise, Russia nihilistic posture and the U.S’s loss of moral standing have brought a new level of complexity and uncertainty to the geopolitical landscape. Yet the fact remains that the UN has done little to ensure peace and security in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, and was on the sidelines in stopping a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Kharabak.

The UN has been unable to be the leading voice in the distribution of vaccines, cannot deal with a military coup d’etat in Myanmar, and appears as a band-aid institution when faced with global poverty and inequality. While the UN may still be relevant on technical issues, it has lost its momentum on major issues of war and peace and its moral authority in speaking for and defending the planet’s most vulnerable.

It would be simple to blame the above on the lack of American leadership during the four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” policies. There may be more systemic problems behind the stagnation. For example, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is up for re-election in 2021. When he was elected in 2016, there was an open, transparent process that included public presentations and debates among all the candidates. Guterres, the former Portuguese Prime Minister and head of the UN’s refugee agency, was far and away the most impressive.

What has he done since? His timidity in denouncing gross violations of human rights and lack of moral leadership may be directly tied to his wish to be re-elected. One of the most promising reforms of the UN system was to be guaranteeing one extended term for the Secretary-General, allowing him or her to be more independent. Many remember how Boutros-Ghali was punished for speaking out by his non re-election in 2001. He had criticized the United States for not paying its dues on time as well as criticizing Israel. Only one permanent member of the Security Council voted against him, the United States. “How can I fight Goliath?” he asked.

The return of the United States to the multilateral system through re-engagement with the Paris Agreement on the climate, the World Health Organization, and the Human Rights Council gives reason for optimism. As the leading force behind the creation of the UN and the multilateral system after World War II, the United States is central to the success of the UN.

But, and this is a big but, the United States cannot have its way now as it has done in the past. Other countries have moved forward during the U.S.’ retreat, especially China. While confrontations between the United States and China within the multilateral system are not as spectacular as confrontations between battleships on the South China Sea, they are worth watching. Negotiations at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will never make front pages. They are very technical and are dominated by lawyers and experts. Nonetheless, they have become an integral part of the remaking of global politics.

And, most importantly, they are being conducted in multilateral settings where other actors are involved. Multilateralism is not bilateralism. Trying to win votes in an international organization is not the same as seeking allies to bolster troops on the battlefield. While the language of reporting on votes in these institutions may be similar to sports reporting, they are not the same as just who won or who lost. And we should be thankful for that.

To return to the World Trade Organization and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. This is important because in many ways she represents the hopes and future of multilateralism. When she speaks of dealing with people “in their everyday lives,” we must remember she has an undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard, a PhD from MIT, was twice finance minister of Nigeria under different governments, and had a managerial post for 25 years at the World Bank. All her academic and professional work has dealt with development, inequality and the so called developing world.

Despite her impressive academic and professional background, Okonjo-Iweala understands that behind complex multilateral meetings are consequences for you and me. The word populism has gotten a bad name. Today, it refers to Donald Trump and his followers in the United States or people like Viktor Orban in Hungary and his Fidesz Party. I would prefer to think of Ms. Okonjo-Iweala as a true populist.

Will it work? Can she make the WTO relevant and inject a breath of fresh air in the multilateral system? The system has been more than stagnant, it has been moribund. It will take a lot of oxygen to get it restarted; something that has been in very short supply during the pandemic and the last decade.

“We have to be more accountable to the people we came here to serve – the ordinary women and men, our children who hope that our work here to support the multilateral trading system will result in meaningful change in their lives…” Okonjo-Iweala declared in her first official speech. That’s not just true for the WTO, but also for the entire multilateral system.

This first appeared in the Geneva Observer.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.