- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The World Trade Organization today begins the search for a new chief, a politically charged process that in the past has pitted rich against poor countries and undermined global talks.

Four candidates from three continents have been nominated. France’s Pascal Lamy, Mauritius’ Jaya Krishna Cuttaree, Uruguay’s Carlos Perez del Castillo, and Brazil’s Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa are scheduled to make brief presentations and answer questions from the WTO’s 148 members today in Geneva.

The men will campaign for the position through the end of March. WTO members then will try to forge a consensus on their new leader before Sept. 1, when the current director general’s term ends.

The last campaign, which ended in 1999, was bruising.

Developed and developing countries split over who should head the WTO, leaving the organization without a leader for a year and tainting efforts to start a new round of trade talks. A new trade initiative collapsed spectacularly in 1999 in Seattle, leaving the organization listing for two years.

“U.S. and foreign officials noted that WTO members’ selection of a new director general … had been lengthy and divisive. This experience left members without leadership during a good part of their preparations for Seattle and lingering hard feelings,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in 2000.

Opposing sides compromised on the director general’s post by splitting the four-year term into two, three-year appointments, giving the first part to New Zealand’s Mike Moore, and the last to Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi — one term each for developed and developing nations.

WTO guidelines call for the new chief to be appointed for a renewable four-year term.

Mr. Supachai’s successor will oversee an ambitious round of talks started in 2001 to lower trade barriers, reduce government subsidies, and codify international copyright and patent rules. The negotiations have moved in fits and starts, missed deadlines, and still face the most difficult work.

Keith Rockwell, a WTO spokesman, said all four candidates are qualified for the post, but the challenge will be finding a consensus among the WTO’s members in a timely manner and without creating ill will.

“What’s important isn’t so much who these [member states] choose, but that they choose,” Mr. Rockwell said.

WTO observers do not expect a repeat of the fight and troubled compromise from 1999.

“The last battle was so ugly and so destructive … that it’s likely that it won’t proceed to that level of bitterness,” said Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group skeptical of free trade. “But there’s already an undercurrent of north and south [tension].”

Mr. Cuttaree and Mr. Perez del Castillo have framed the decision as a choice between rich and poor.

“The director of the World Bank is reserved for the Americans, the head of the International Monetary Fund is reserved for the Europeans, and now the EU [European Union] also wants the WTO,” Mr. Cuttaree told Agence France-Presse.

The Bush administration said it welcomes a qualified slate of candidates but has not tipped its hand on a favorite.

“We look forward to hearing from the candidates and hearing their views on how they would lead the WTO,” said Richard Mills, spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Powers and duties for the trade chief’s slot are poorly defined. A recent WTO report said “directors general have increasingly seen their role as a form of international spokes-person and marketing executive.”

The chief has had to rely on command of trade issues, personality and charm to advance the WTO’s goals.

The director general oversees a relatively small bureaucracy by the standards of international organizations, about 600 workers.

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