U.S. Backs Okonjo-Iweala, First Woman and African, to Head WTO

The Biden administration declared its “strong support” for former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Friday, Feb. 5 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.

Yoo’s withdrawal signaled 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,” according to a statement issued Friday by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

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.

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.

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