Winds of change
As had become obvious, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has indeed been named to be the WTO's first woman Director-General. Her elevation to the post came not too long after the Biden administration threw its support behind her. The American-educated Ngozi has a considerable portfolio of work to back up her new position. She has twice been the finance minister and also the first female foreign minister for Nigeria. In her term as finance minister, she was known to be a reformer who went after corruption in her native Nigeria. One of her more significant achievements came in 2005 when she helped to secure Nigeria a USD 18 billion debt write-off from a group of largely western creditors. After her work in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala became part of the World Bank and steadily rose to become managing director for the organisation. Her latest experience saw her serve as the board chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, a relevant experience given that she has made a fair trade and inequitable vaccine access a priority for her new role at the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala acknowledges that the WTO has lost its way and that it has not functioned as it should for quite some time. Wide chasms of trust between members and a never-ending trade-war between the US and China has made the WTO increasingly irrelevant in recent times where it came to be seen as a symbol of a bygone era in world politics when multilateralism was on the rise.
Once upon a time, the WTO was all-powerful and was seen as the one true constitution for world trade, a model example of what world government should ideally be. The WTO had the power to enforce its will on member nations by way of its powerful appellate body. Any member refusing to walk the line marked out by the WTO could find itself very isolated in regards to trade. In that regard, WTO was treated as a blunt instrument to be used by the great western powers, the so-called developed world, against the developing world to force their interpretation of 'free trade'. India indeed was a frequent target of the
WTO with the body going after the protectionist measures that the nation instituted to protect its farmers, dairy owners, etc.
While the WTO still stands as an absolute proponent of free trade, it has lost it persuasiveness over time. At some point, its one-sided arbitrations that appeared to favour the 'developed' world made it an instrument of tyranny against many of the newer nations that emerged post-decolonisation. As the world changed subsequently, the WTO failed to keep up. Its biggest challenge, however, came after the admittance of China to the body. Over time, WTO has been accused of turning a blind eye to China's theft of intellectual property while also providing the necessary cover to allow China to flood foreign markets with Chinese goods while allowing limited foreign access to its markets. While the US and many other nations had made an issue of the whole situation for some time, it was Donald Trump that brought the situation to an all-out confrontation with the trade war. Furthermore, Trump also moved to block the nomination of new judged to the powerful appellate body of the WTO last year, which, when combines with the unexpected exit of its last Director-General all but made sure that 2020 could be the last year for the body.
Yet, despite its flaws both Okonjo-Iweala and the US agree that the WTO is vital and must be reformed to protect the vision of multilateralism. She acknowledges that the body formed its rules at a time when the era of decolonisation had just ended and the 'developing' world had just come about. The body, she says, must seek a more equitable practice of trade that does not become a one-sided tool for powerful nations to push their agenda. While she may focus on the global vaccine supply chain in the short-run, eventually she will have to shift focus back to healing the vast divides at the WTO. A tall task indeed at a time when politics of nationalism are reaching their peak.