Even before Roberto Azevedo stepped down on August 31, a year ahead of his term as Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the multilateral trade body was in a state of fix as to its role in bringing cohesion in global trading regime. While a lot of backlogs, including even those of the Doha Ministerial, were piling up with no clear roadmap for any headway, renunciation of some of the core rule-based issues by the former US President had almost threatened its existence as a global forum and multilateralism as a trade discipline. Now with significant changes on the scene, including the appointment of the new DG, is it not time to expect the WTO to keep doing what it was meant to be doing--- that too when global trade and commerce are taking the worst toll due to the Covid pandemic?
The new DG Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist and former government minister, took charge of the WTO on March 1. On the day of her assuming office, she addressed the ambassadors and other top government envoys that make up the 164-member body's General Council and said what she had to say in the plainest terms-- without pretending to be meaninglessly optimistic. "The world", she said "is leaving the WTO behind. Leaders and decision-makers are impatient for change." She also told the envoys that several trade ministers had warned her "if things don't change," they would not attend the WTO's biggest event-a ministerial meeting-"because it is a waste of their time."
No doubt, this encapsulates the present state of the WTO, rendered so not solely because of the WTO itself but because of the situation it has been through for years. The trade war between China and America over the past couple of years that flouted WTO rules in imposing import duties, decimation of WTO Appellate Court, and threats from the US of leaving the organisation were ominous signs to dampen the morale of the secretariat. The good thing following the takeover of US presidency by Mr. Biden is his rescinding the threat of his predecessor to leave the WTO and his assurance that the US would help revive multilateralism. In an interview with Haley Ott of CBS News some days back, the new DG did sound assured by the message of support from the US President, though she refrained from making any statement on a question on American workers and American interest in global trade and commerce that the Biden administration has made known as its top priority.
However, aware that nothing in tangible terms has been done over the years but for lingering on long overdue issues, Dr. Ngozi said, "It cannot be business as usual. We have to change our approach from debate and rounds of questions to delivering results." Spelling out the role of the WTO, she further said, "All members must intensify efforts to do what they can-at home, and collectively-to foster a strong rebound. In our activities here at the WTO-on monitoring and transparency, implementation of commitments, negotiations and broader reform efforts-we must work to ensure that our organisation emerges out of this crisis more resilient than ever, and even more responsive to members' changing needs."
The challenging issue ahead of the new DG is the next ministerial conference, MC12, which was scheduled to take place on June 8-11, 2020 in Kazakhstan's capital, Nur-Sultan but got postponed due to the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. It may be recalled that the last ministerial was a failure in reaching any clear consensus on most of the issues on the agenda. So, it's not just about taking stock of the unresolved issues but also about setting out a credible roadmap on how to go about those as well as pick up emerging issues for negotiations.
It is true that the surge of regional trade deals have dented the multilateral mechanism of the WTO over the last decade as overriding priorities attracted countries to team up in such deals finding those more purposeful than what the general rules of the WTO could offer. Still, for most countries the rule-based system is crucial, particularly in redressing arbitrary trade measures taken by one against another. In this regard, reviving the appellate body is the foremost task for the new DG. As for the developing and least developed countries, they are yet to see any progress on many of the unfulfilled commitments and resolutions that need to be brought to the table, preferably well ahead of the next ministerial conference in order that things could be sorted out and firmed up conclusively. Over and above, there is an urgent need to find ways and means to help countries, especially the LDCs and developing ones, which are facing difficulties in trading goods and services in the wake of the pandemic. Also, it is important to energise programmes like Aid for Trade and undertake liberalisation and waivers in some of the core trade impeding areas.