May 18, 2020 11:07 AM

KU Trade expert: WTO Director-General pick gives look at group's future

Posted May 18, 2020 11:07 AM

By NICK GOSNELL

Hutch Post

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevêdo announced Thursday his resignation, surprising the international trade community and adding to uncertainty caused by the global coronavirus pandemic. A University of Kansas trade expert sees the resignation as an important turning point in the potential future of the WTO.

"The WTO Director-General is selected by consensus of the 164 members," said Raj Bhala, the Brenneisen Distinguished Professor of Law at the KU School of Law. "In practice, this means that everyone, all the members agree to that candidate being the Director-General and there's no individual or group of country members that are blocking a consensus, that are saying, no, we steadfastly object to that candidate, the way that's happened with the U.S. on appellate body candidates."

Fundamentally, this could give a vision into whether or not the WTO can remain functional or if the fractures between the U.S. and other members are such that it really won't work going forward.

"There will be macro level geopolitics and there will be micro level WTO reform issues," Bhala said. "At the end of the day, I think the most important thing to appreciate is, this is really going to tell us, this selection process, is the world committed to the World Trade Organization? Is there really a common consensus that we all need this organization led by a thoughtful, high integrity, non-political Director-General?"

Any candidate that doesn't have support from the U.S., China, and the E.U. will have trouble getting the post.

"Is the world really, now, you know, amidst this pandemic and amidst the Sino-American trade war, saying, look, we don't find much use in this multilateral organization anymore?" Bhala asked. "We are retreating back into sort of protectionist and even nationalist policies. This is really a testing point here."

Bhala practiced international banking law at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York before entering academia and currently serves as senior adviser to Dentons in Kansas City.