Just before the US election, members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) elected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next director-general of the global trade body. But her nomination was opposed by the Donald Trump-led administration.
With Trump now sitting as a “lame-duck” president until January 2021, the incoming administration to be led by Joe Biden, the 46 president-elect, will be potentially calling the shots on local and foreign policy. But what does that mean for Okonjo-Iweala?
In 2019, Okonjo-Iweala, who had lived and worked in the US for over 30 years, took up American citizenship, making her one of those with the ability to claim the American commonwealth.
Biden, during his first speech as president-elect, said it was time to heal, time to serve all Americans — home and abroad.
“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again, to make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy,” he said, promising to be president of all Americans.
TRUMP AGAINST THE WORLD
Donald Trump prefers bilateral relations to multilateral relations; in 2017 he pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement after claiming the agreement as a “massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries”. In 2020, he also formally moved to withdraw the US out of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Biden opposed the move and said, “on my first day as President, I will rejoin the WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage.” He also promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement.
At the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Trump also trumped up his presence as an existential threat, stating that if the organisation does not shape up, he would pull the US out of it.
Robert Lighthizer, US trade representative, doubled down in a statement, saying “the WTO is completely inadequate to stop China’s harmful technology practices”.
He said, “the United States must be allowed to defend itself against unfair trade practices, and the Trump administration will not let China use the WTO to take advantage of American workers, businesses, farmers, and ranchers”.
The US opposed the member’s overwhelming pick of Okonjo-Iweala as the next DG — despite her status as an American.
While Trump believed in “America First” and nationalist interest, Biden believes America can be first and can also lead on the global stage, cooperating with the rest of the world. Trump may have been against the rest of the world, Biden promises to “heal and unite”.
THE POLITICS OF EVERYTHING
Okonjo-Iweala seems to have a better relationship with the Democratic Party than the Republican party; this may or may not have affected Trump’s administration’s stance on the potential WTO DG.
In 2016, the former World Bank MD, was invited by the Democrats to the 2016 national convention that saw Hillary Clinton flag off her campaign against Trump.
“Great to be invited as an International Leader to this historic 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC). A watershed for girls and women,” Okonjo-Iweala said in July 2016.
In August 2016, she posted a picture of herself and Clinton, saying “with Hillary Clinton”. At the time, “I’m with her” was the campaign slogan for the Clinton campaign. Okonjo-Iweala’s tweet could easily mean she was in support of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and effectively against Trump.
It is, however, unclear if the decision to block Okonjo-Iweala’s election as WTO DG had anything to do with her support for Clinton in 2016.
WILL BIDEN BACK OKONJO-IWEALA?
The WTO postponed the meeting to decide Okonjo-Iweala’s fate until further notice. This is believed to be as a result of the US elections, which was still undecided as at the time the notice was released but had begun to favour Biden.
But would Biden’s presidency favour Okonjo-Iweala’s selection?
Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and a senior lecturer at the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, said during a foreign press briefing that Biden will distinguish himself from Trump in the way he handles international trade issues.
“I would bet that a Biden administration would not get in the sort of trade war with China that we’re having now,” Shapiro said.
If Biden’s approach on China is different from Trump’s, then there is a high likelihood of supporting the member’s decision to have Okonjo-Iweala lead the WTO.
Shapiro believes the US “influence is in multiplied through organizations” like the WHO and WTO. To keep multiplying that influence, the US — after Trump — may need to support Okonjo-Iweala to maintain core relevance at the World trade body.