Does it matter who the next WTO chief is?

Does it matter who the next WTO chief is?

The race for leadership of the World Trade Organization is in its final stages. After several rounds of consultations, the field of candidates has been winnowed to two: Mexico’s Herminio Blanco and Brazil’s Roberto Azevêdo. The candidates and their respective  governments are engaged in frantic last-minute lobbying. Via today’s Financial Times:

The stakes are high. After stalled efforts to clinch a sweeping multilateral trade agreement in the decade-old Doha round, the WTO is seeking to revive its mission – and its relevancy – ahead of a big ministerial gathering in Bali in December.

But are the stakes really high for anyone other than the candidates? The trade organization has two principal functions: forum for multilateral negotiations and dispute resolution mechanism. It’s not clear that even a charismatic and effective director general has much to say about either. The Doha negotiations–or whatever replaces them–will occur well above his pay grade. And the dispute resolution system is mostly in the hands of the experts who form panels and the appellate body members who render final judgements.    

The candidates themselves sometimes seem a bit muddled about whether their skills will matter. In the space of two paragraphs in a FT guest post, Blanco suggests both that the organization’s future is entirely in the hands of states–and that the choice of  the next director general will be critical:

The current status quo is no longer an option. The WTO is as relevant as its member countries want it to be. It is now time for them to decide where they want this organisation to go and what role it should play in the years to come.

The on-going selection process for a new WTO director general constitutes a precious opportunity for members to move forward and to select a director general with the capacity to move the organisation beyond the status quo.

Blanco’s first paragraph seems correct: the organization’s membership has to decide what happens next. Both candidates are seasoned and accomplished, but neither is likely to have much impact on the organization’s future trajectory.