Exclusive: WTO unlikely to get interim leader as U.S. insists on its candidate, causes impasse

WASHINGTON/GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization will likely not appoint an interim chief to succeed outgoing Director-General Roberto Azevedo in late August, three sources following the process said on Wednesday, after Washington’s insistence on a U.S. candidate caused a deadlock.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is pictured after a General Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Keen to avoid a leadership void, WTO members were due to select an acting chief from among Azevedo’s deputies to take over from the Brazilian while they consider eight candidates vying to head the global trade watchdog, which is facing an acute crisis amid rising U.S.-China tensions and intense criticism from Washington.

Azevedo resigned a year before the end of his term to allow his successor time to prepare for the next major ministerial conference in 2021.

Under the new proposal, four deputies - from the United States, China, Germany and Nigeria - would keep their current responsibilities, instead of one being named to act as interim chief until Azevedo’s replacement is chosen later this year.

“The U.S. is insisting on an American, but China and Europe put the brakes on that,” said a former WTO official familiar with the current process.

A decision to finalise the interim arrangement is expected on Friday when WTO members are due to meet. A new, permanent director-general is expected to be named by Nov. 7, a timeframe which could allow for input following the U.S. election.

No comment was immediately available from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office in Washington. WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said: “Let’s wait and see what happens on Friday.”

The choice of an acting chief, an administrative job described by Rockwell as “making sure the trains run on time”, was supposed to be easy. Members had thought German Karl Brauner was likely to get the temporary job.

However, Washington has been pushing its candidate, Alan Wolff, six sources told Reuters, and this paralysed the process. Intense consultations have ensued.

“They jumped into the fray. The Americans are saying they want an American,” said one delegate.

While trade insiders have praised Wolff’s extensive experience, many consider the choice to be controversial, partly because of geopolitical tensions.

Not only is Washington at loggerheads with another key member, China, but it has paralysed the WTO’s top appeals court by blocking the appointment of new judges. U.S. President Donald Trump has even suggested quitting the body, although no firm plans have been announced.


Some experts argue Wolff would be a good choice given his expertise, and that it is Washington’s turn since it has never headed a body it had a major hand in shaping.

Crucially, he is thought to have a good working relationship with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, one of the few top Trump advisers who has survived the president’s entire first term.

Some members say the controversy over the caretaker role bodes ill for the choice of a more permanent chief, which members must make by consensus.

“If we can’t even decide on the interim, how will we choose a DG?” said one delegate.

Rufus Yerxa, a former WTO deputy director general who now heads the National Foreign Trade Council, said it could prove difficult to choose a successor for Azevedo even after the U.S. election, if the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, wins.

Biden’s team would likely want to hold off on finalizing a selection until his inauguration in January. “That could lead to a longer hiatus,” he said.

However, others say the failure to select an interim leader could put pressure on WTO members to move forward more quickly with selecting a successor for Azevedo, the first chief in WTO history to leave early.

“It makes the void more pronounced,” said one of the sources. “If you have an acting (chief), there’s no hurry.”

Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Emma Farge; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Cynthia Osterman