A WTO Leader From Our Hemisphere

A Latin American candidate is poised to take the helm of the WTO. Jennifer Jeffs evaluates the strengths each candidate can trade on.
By: /
May 3, 2013
2013_05_RTXYENK3.jpg

Two Latin American candidates have emerged as the lead contenders for the post of Director-General at the World Trade Organization: Herminio Blanco from Mexico, and Roberto Azevêdo from Brazil. The WTO Director-General administers and advises WTO member states as they make decisions within the organization. Despite the lack of formal control, the prominence and prestige of the post offer the incumbent an opportunity to exert real influence on the policymaking process.WTO leadership is chosen by consensus rather than election. Herminio Blanco and Roberto Azevêdo are two highly qualified candidates.  An unprecedented nine contenders entered the competition to succeed Pascal Lamy, who has now served two terms as WTO Director General. The majority of the competitors were from the developing world, reflecting a consensus that the latest round of multilateral trade negotiations - the Doha Round - will have a greater chance of success under the directorship of a representative from one of the WTO’s historically under-represented member countries. 

Herminio Blanco brings with him a pronounced philosophical commitment to free trade, honed at the University of Chicago. He served as Mexico’s chief negotiator for NAFTA, as well as for many other FTAs. In fact, during his tenure at Mexico’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, which currently holds 12 FTAs involving 44 states, Mexico became the country with the largest number of trade agreements in the world.

Mr. Blanco’s candidacy likely has support from the Asia-Pacific Rim due to Mexico’s membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Brazil is not a member of this group, nor is it a member of the Pacific Alliance, despite the fact that it is on track to become Latin America’s largest trading bloc, with 60 per cent more exports than MERCOSUR, historically the region’s main economic body.  

While Roberto Azevêdo is a respected diplomat from a country of importance, his country’s protectionist stance on various issues during his posting as Brazil’s WTO representative may undermine his chances of winning the leadership.  Brazil is generally faulted for unraveling the FTAA negotiations, and its historical support for multilateral trade is weaker than Mexico’s.  But it should be noted that Mexico has sought fewer multilateral positions related to its status as country of the global south; its constitution commits it to a policy of political non-intervention outside its borders. Brazil, in contrast, has played a leading role in global south groupings and initiatives, as well as in UN missions to Haiti and the Congo.

The Brazil that Roberto Azevêdo represents is far from insular. While the world considers Brazil a Latin American nation, Brazil balks at that characterization, despite its 10 shared Latin American borders. With its conglomerate of cultures and ethnicities, Brazil is very conscious of its status as the lead letter in the BRICS acronym, signifying its identity as global economic powerhouse with the capacity to compete strongly against Asian rivals. The strength of Brazil’s international stature buttresses Azevêdo’s bid.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. warned that the WTO as a forum for state-to-state negotiation was hurtling towards irrelevance, given the stalled Doha round and negligible progress, even on smaller issues.  Today, more than ever, the WTO needs a decisive leader with strong managerial skills. Herminio Blanco’s extensive private sector experience suggests that he comprehends the issues of contemporary trade from the diverse perspectives of multiple stakeholders; he has made clear that the system is not working and needs to be changed.  And as his active Twitter feed demonstrates, he understands the importance of effective communications for the achievement of outcomes, and is not timid about trying new strategies.

Three senior diplomats from member-states – Jonathan Fried from Canada, Joakim Reiter of Sweden, and Shahid Bashir of Pakistan, leader of the WTO’s Governing Council and charged with steering the group – have spent several weeks identifying the candidates likely to garner the most support. Those with less backing have pulled out, leaving Blanco and Azevêdo. The final round of consultations started on May 1 and will conclude by May 7. Credible and qualified Asian candidates – Mari Pangestu of Indonesia and Bark Tae-ho of South Korea, as well as Tim Groser from New Zealand, an early favorite – did not make the final round, possibly indicating Asia's focus on developments in its own region: the Trans-Pacific and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnerships are two important multilateral initiatives, potentially more attractive to Asia than the WTO forum.  It is also possible that Latin America’s demographics, democratic development, natural resource capacity, and economic potential simply make this the time for a candidate from that region – our hemisphere – to lead the WTO.