U.S. backs Okonjo-Iweala, first woman and African, to head WTO

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The Biden administration declared its “strong support” Friday for former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to serve as the World Trade Organization’s next director-general.

The decision breaks with the Trump administration’s opposition to Okonjo-Iweala and brings the U.S. in line with much of the rest of the world. It will also allow the WTO to confirm its next leader after years of the organization’s influence being diminished due to a lack of U.S. engagement.

The other candidate: South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee withdrew her bid for the position on Friday. The Trump administration backed Yoo for director-general in October, but Okonjo-Iweala had support from almost all of the WTO’s 164 member countries.

Crisis averted: Yoo’s withdrawal signals the end of months of uncertainty over who will lead the WTO for at least the next four years. Yoo and Okonjo-Iweala were the last candidates from an initial field of eight and the first women to be seriously considered for the role. Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil stepped down as director-general in August, a year before his term expired.

“It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of WTO Director General — the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative wrote Friday in an unattributed statement.

Late last month, the administration signaled its support for quickly installing a new director-general. President Joe Biden spoke with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in on Wednesday, though neither country indicated that the WTO position was discussed.

About the frontrunner: Okonjo-Iweala, who became a U.S. citizen in 2019, would be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. A trained economist, she spent the bulk of her career at the World Bank, eventually holding its No. 2 post as managing director of operations. She twice served as Nigeria’s finance minister.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister. She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership,” the USTR office wrote in its statement.

Okonjo-Iweala tweeted Friday that she was “grateful for the expression of support” from the U.S. and congratulated Yoo on a “hard fought campaign.”

What’s next: The WTO’s next General Council meeting is scheduled for March 1-2, but a special session to appoint Okonjo-Iweala could now be called sooner.

Doug Palmer contributed to this report.

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