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If the US wants a better WTO, it should lead the way

In the wake of the sudden departure of World Trade Organization (WTO) Chief Robert Azevêdo, multiple nominees have been put forward to lead the organization into the next phase, which at the moment feels very uncertain. But one name is missing: That of an American. With two of its largest member countries, the United States and China, in conflict about the WTO’s direction, this is an opportunity to defend the rules-based trading system that the United States founded and professes to value.

Uncertainty and changing attitudes threatened to derail the organization even before the onset of COVID-19. We need a leader to put the WTO back on track so that trade can fuel, rather than hinder, the world economic recovery. That’s why the issues that divide WTO members cannot be ignored or placated away — they must be addressed head-on to reinvigorate a fair and free international trade system.

The job won’t be easy. None of the individuals singled out below has indicated interest, and there are any number of good candidates. Think of them as examples of what an American director general might bring to the table while ushering in the next phase of the 25-year-old Geneva-based institution.

Indra Nooyi is the former chairman and chief executive of PepsiCo. She stirred a revival of the century-old soda company. Embracing the elephant in the room, which at the time was the declining demand for the firm’s signature Pepsi-Cola, Nooyi focused on the core mission of a CEO: Maximizing shareholder value and planning for the long run. Looking back, Nooyi did what was sometimes a thankless job in superhero-like fashion. And anyone who makes the Forbes list of “World’s Powerful Moms” has to know how to juggle strong and divergent needs.

Indian-born with a PhD in hard sciences, Nooyi’s career has been incredibly varied across three continents in sectors including consumer products, automotive electronics, heavy industry and international business consulting. Yet as an outsider to government, she is untarnished by any WTO dead weight in Geneva. She has the background to lead the organization into the future while keeping intact the core trade regime valued by the 164 member countries.

Alan Wolff, the WTO’s current deputy director general, would be a logical choice to take a simple step up. The ambassador’s speeches signal his commitment to a strong, open, rules-based multilateral trading system. As a highly regarded trade lawyer on a number of landmark cases and senior trade negotiator for both Republican and Democratic administrations, he is witness to the reach and healthy limitations of a well-functioning international organization.

In a recent essay, he called for “serious WTO reform,” which signals keen awareness of the long haul ahead — one that will need to go beyond simply tightening deadlines or making personnel changes. Yet he is apparently so good in his current job as the much-needed counterweight to his Chinese counterpart, it is not clear whether the move would result in a net gain or loss for the organization and world trade.

Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina, would be a familiar choice for the Trump administration and international community. In normal times, lacking a trade background might exclude her from consideration. But these are not normal times. 

The fact that Haley is not a so-called “trade person” could be a political asset, because the job ahead involves far more than overseeing members’ squabbles over tariff schedules. Her U.N. record demonstrates her style: A no-nonsense, mission-focused leader. Not everyone likes Haley, a Republican who seemed to have the ear of President Trump for a time, but many respect her.

While the WTO could be seen as a step down from her prior diplomatic post, if saving the rules-based trading regime helps facilitate a global economic recovery, then its importance cannot be overstated. Resolving the ongoing face-off between the world’s largest economies – the fight for a market-based approach versus a state-based approach on trade – will be paramount. Haley went to the U.N. focused on a mission rather than making friends, yet her departure is still felt in the hallways of the U.N. Security Council in Manhattan.

Washington and Beijing hold different views on the role of the WTO. Either one economic superpower stays and the other one leaves, or the organization embraces the crisis in front of them and undergoes reform. All members must dig deep and ask themselves what they want. The leader who can get them there could very well be an American with the values that brought the world together in the first place.

Christine McDaniel is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Tags Donald Trump Indra Nooyi International trade Nikki Haley Pepsi-Cola PepsiCo Roberto Azevêdo Trade War World Trade Organization World Trade Organization WTO

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