The World Trade Organization (WTO) has overseen a 12-year stalemate in global trade talks. On Wednesday, it will decide whether an insider or an outsider is better placed to break the deadlock.
In Mexico’s Herminio Blanco and Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, the WTO has a choice between two highly qualified Latin American trade diplomats who would bring very differing approaches to the job of replacing veteran WTO head Pascal Lamy.
Azevedo, Brazil’s WTO ambassador and chief trade negotiator, has been closely involved with the trade body for almost its entire history since its creation in 1995.
Blanco, a former trade minister who negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and has spent the last 12 years in business, sits on the boards of a Mexican bank and a chemicals firm and advises companies on international trade.
The two are the last of a field of nine candidates hoping to succeed Lamy as director general (DG) on September 1.
As one of only two non-ministers in the race, Azevedo began as a relatively junior contender. But he was admired for his diplomatic skill, such as his success in getting the body to discuss currencies as a factor in trade — a toxic topic for some because it threatened to throw a slough of new disputes into the WTO, including simmering suspicions of China in Washington and criticisms of the US policy of “quantitative easing”.
Creativity is what the WTO needs from its new chief, trade experts say, because the job comes with little executive power and the director general must be able to make things happen without being able to tell the WTO’s 159 members what to do.
Lamy has been unable to break the impasse in global trade talks during his eight-year tenure.
While Azevedo has pitched himself as a listener who will earn the trust of member countries by understanding their negotiating standpoints, Blanco says an outside force is needed to persuade governments to show flexibility.
The catalyst, he says, is business. “One of the first targets has to be the United States,” he told Reuters in an interview in February.
“The private sector of the United States has to tell the government: You have to move in Geneva... you have to be more reasonable in your positions, you have to get to the table and you have to negotiate.”
But Blanco believes the attitude towards trade has changed since Doha’s demise and many countries now