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Brazil Scores Victory at WTO, But Does It Matter?


The WTO has just selected a new leader amid one of the gravest crises since its founding. The race had been narrowed to two candidates, Roberto Azevedo of Brazil and Herminio Blanco of Mexico. Both are widely respected figures from Latin Ameria, but much has been made of the fact that Blanco enjoyed the backing of Western powers like the US, EU and Japan, while Azevedo was backed by developing powers like China. After a secret vote, Azevedo was declared the victor.

This is good news for the WTO. Azevedo is professional from one of the best run diplomatic services among the emerging powers. But his win over a candidate who enjoyed quiet US and EU backing will be seen by many as sign of new day in global power relations:

Mr Azevêdo will not be the first WTO head from the developing world: Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand held that distinction between 2002 and 2005. But his ascension to the top job in global trade will still be cheered in Brazil as recognising its stature in the global economic hierarchy. It also signals that when the leadership of international economic institutions is picked by consensus, rather than quotas, the EU and the US are no longer in a position to impose their will.

“There was a day when the US and Europe would sit in a room and say this is our guy—and nobody else had any meaningful say in the process—that certainly has changed and that’s a good thing,” says Mr Gerwin. “If we really want to bring rules-based trade to the entire globe, everybody has to feel that they’re bought into the process,” he adds.

There may be some truth to this narrative, but there is less here than meets the eye. There was ultimately very little difference between the two leading candidates: In addition to the fact that both hail from growing powers in Latin America, the FT notes that, although the US and the EU backed Blanco, neither one was opposed to Azevedo.

But even more importantly, the WTO today is a far cry from the organization that inspired violent protests in the late 1990s. Over the past decade, the WTO has morphed from being the main engine of world trade liberalization to something of a diplomatic backwater. The FT mentions that the organization hasn’t even come close to achieving a major success since 2008, and the past few years have seen important states turn away from global institutions like the WTO in favor of bilateral trade agreements. Given the organization’s poor track record, it’s not clear whether the post has as much cachet as Brazil hopes.

[Roberto Azevedo image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Luke Lea

    “the WTO has morphed from being the main engine of world trade liberalization to something of a diplomatic backwater.”

    In the case of China, mightn’t this be precisely because the WTO has so abjectly failed to enforce its own rules? I am thinking of China’s flagrant subsidy of exports and her blatant currency manipulations designed to effect the balance of trade.

    But even in the absence of these abuses, our granting China most-favored-nation status with no strings attached turns out to have been a strategic blunder from a purely political, military, and human rights point of view. It’s not too late to reverse policy.

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