Who will become the WTO's interim director-general? One source says Washington is pushing for the US envoy to get the job

Geneva (AFP) - The WTO’s bid to pick an acting chief before September has been complicated by US “politicisation” of what should have been be a straightforward process, a diplomatic source lamented Thursday.

The World Trade Organization, already engulfed in multiple crises, could be left with no one at the helm if it fails to find a replacement before Director-General Roberto Azevedo steps down at the end of August.

In May, the Brazilian diplomat made the surprise announcement that he would end his second term 12 months early, and while there are now eight people vying to replace him, the process is expected to last until mid-November.

According to WTO guidelines, if such a situation arises, one of the organisation’s four deputy chiefs should be chosen to hold the reins until the next director-general can take over.

- Keep the trains running -

The position of acting DG is considered a purely administrative position, aimed basically at “making the trains run on time”, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters last week.

The WTO’s General Council began discussing the issue last week, and most people expected a quick decision, but were caught by surprise when the US turned it into a “political issue”, a Geneva-based trade diplomat told AFP.

The current deputy director-generals come from the United States, China, Germany and Nigeria, and most members had anticipated that the German, Karl Brauner, who is in charge of WTO secretariate administration, was the best placed for the job.

“But not the Americans,” said the trade diplomat, who asked not to be named, adding that Washington is stubbornly insisting that the US envoy Alan Wolff get the job.

“Most people thought that this was an apolitical affair,” the diplomat said, stressing that “we only need someone to act as a caretaker for a limited period, to keep the ship on course.”

But once the US “politicised” the issue, “it became a political issue for others as well,” the diplomat said, adding that while no members opposed Wolff personally, China and a number of others were not prepared to give Washington its way.

The US meanwhile insists on its right to make its preferences known and rejects that Brauner’s selection was a foregone conclusion.

“This notion that the US is deadlocking is false,” a senior US official who asked not to be named told AFP.

“No one gets this job automatically.”

The standoff comes as the WTO is already grappling with hopelessly stalled trade negotiations and surging trade tensions between the US and China, and as the world faces a devastating global economic downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, the appellate branch of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, stopped functioning in December after years of relentless US opposition.

Washington accuses the court of major overreach and has blocked appointments of new judges, leaving it without the quorum needed to hear cases.

- ‘A symptom’ -

To unblock the issue of finding an acting chief, the General Council chairman will reconvene members on Friday.

But with all sides digging in their heels, it appeared increasingly unlikely the needed consensus will be reached.

When asked Thursday what to expect, Rockwell would only say: “let’s wait and see what happens tomorrow.”

The US has said it is willing to accept a compromise in which there would be a month-to-month rotation between Wolff and Brauner until a permanent director-general assumes office.

The Geneva-based trade diplomat said that failing to agree on an interim leader would not spark a “practical crisis,” because the four deputy director-generals could simply carry on handling areas they are already in charge of.

And the General Council could put any outstanding issues that needed urgent attention directly to the membership.

The problem, the diplomat said, is that “this is a symptom of conflicts within the membership that are surfacing and impacting even in the most routine and everyday issues.

“People are exasperated that such a straight-forward issue can be politicised in this way.”