The Global South in the World Trade Organization: An Interview with Douglas Becker

LOS ANGELES — On February 15, 2021, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made history after members of the World Trade Organization moved to select her as the organization’s new director-general. Agreed to by consensus in the General Council, she is the first woman and the first African to hold this position. 

With the emergence of vaccines to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic around the world, the WTO has a critical role in ensuring vaccine distribution is equitably distributed to the Global North and Global South countries. Vaccine production and distribution is disproportionately concentrated in high income countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and member states of the European Union, which caused concern from the WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a proponent of temporarily waiving patents for COVID-19 vaccines and coronavirus related medical supplies. 

In an op-ed from the Financial Times just weeks after her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala called for a turn away from vaccine nationalism and protectionism and a move toward cooperation amongst states in more treatment and vaccine development, seeking a “third way” that does not include waiving patents but instead the promotion of multilateralism in exchange of ideas and the promotion of licensing agreements.

Glimpse from the Globe sat down with Douglas Becker, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and an expert on the global south, peace and conflict studies, environmental issues and the role of multinational enterprises in world politics. Becker spoke about the importance of an African woman leading the WTO and what news leadership may mean for the future of the institution.

Q: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is now the first African and first woman to become the director-general of the WTO. Why is this important for the future of international organizations, specifically in the role of Global South countries’ impact on these institutions?

A: First and foremost, it’s important because they didn’t have a president. The WTO has seen a weakness in the organization, particularly flowing from the trade wars that have been instigated largely by the previous president [of the United States]Donald Trump. So, there had been a contestation over the presidency. The U.S. had backed a Korean candidate [the current South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee]under President Trump. Part of the election [of Okonjo-Iweala]was the U.S. conceding [to]the popularity of Global South versus a Korean candidate would be seen as much more of a Global North friendly candidate. The U.S. had been a holdout and in essence what President Biden did was acknowledge that the U.S. was in the minority here should go ahead and support this candidacy. 

Some of this has to do with the fact the WTO — unlike institutions like the IMF [and]the World Bank — does not disproportionately represent Global North countries. There are simply more Global South votes at the WTO so the fact there is a Global South president at the WTO is a reflection of the organization. It’s important the WTO has a Global South president. Now having an African leader is at least partially a recognition that in Global South leadership positions, Africa has to be [involved]. There needs to be an African representative at this forum. So, the inclusion of South Africa [in 1995]was simply a recognition that having this Global South leadership forum, but no African state was just a huge geographic blind spot. 

The fact that the new president is Nigerian I think certainly indicates the importance of Nigeria in a position of African leadership. South Africa has such a high GDP per capita but Nigeria has the largest GDP on the African continent. So, this is partially the [result of the]Nigerian government playing a much more substantial leadership role globally. They’ve always played an important role regionally as leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and a pretty substantial role in the African Union, but this is Nigeria stepping up to a global position. 

I also want to emphasize that the new president is Nigerian-American, trained in the U.S. by all accounts. Extremely well qualified and doesn’t represent Nigeria as much as [she]represents Global South perspectives on issues of trade. So, I think that is the most important element. This is the WTO recognizing the importance of the Global South and the irony of an organization that [once was]so dominated by the Global North that the Global South sought a UN agency, UNCTAD, to counter GATT. UNCTAD is not needed as a countering of GATT now that the WTO recognizes the impact of the Global South. This is a sign of Global South leadership. 

Q: What do you think was the motivating force behind the decision to appoint Okonjo-Iweala as the director-general? Is this a reflection of the Global South’s growing impact on the global economy? 

A: Advancement of Global South economic interests. I don’t know if this was the big motivation behind the original candidacy but certainly at this moment in 2021 COVID-19 is playing a role here. The fact that [Okonjo-Iweala’s] first public statement was about vaccine nationalism and the importance of the distribution of the vaccine as a trade and economic issue is a reflection of Global South interests. I don’t know that COVID was necessary for her election, but it certainly is going to have a profound influence as to what she’s expecting to do leading the WTO.

Q: You often say that, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” A Nigerian woman now heads the table that handles rules of global trade. How should the Global South use this opportunity to push for trade rules that would best benefit their economies? Are there any needs that you believe should be met for developing countries looking for opportunities to grow their economies?

The Global South has been at the table since the creation of the WTO. The fact that she’s at the head of the table is really about how issues get framed. I think the way in which she’s framed the issue of vaccine distribution gives me the expectation there’s going to be a much deeper political conversation about trade … whether it’s issues of agriculture, medicine, energy technologies [or]intellectual property issues. [It’s up to] the WTO to address concerns that liberalization of trade has had on intellectual property rights of the control of food sources. For example, the GMO technologies which a number of countries have ignored WTO rules and developed their own industries for that. The WTO has typically supported Global North claims under the Trade and Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS) to enforce copyrights. I’m expecting the WTO to at least take up that issue and ask whether or not there should be at least some form of alteration that allows for … it’s not going to be an ignoring of WTO rules but as least some grade of cooperation on that question. 

Another key component out of all of this is the president of WTO can help set the agenda for new negotiation in the WTO. The WTO’s most important body [the appellate court]still can’t meet until the U.S. agrees to it. The U.S. and China fundamentally disagree as to who might be seated on the appellate court. Right now, there’s not enough judges to actually hear cases. That was partially derived from the fact that President Trump realized the U.S. was likely to lose several cases as a  result of the trade war so he just kept the body from meeting. That’s still a huge challenge for the WTO. 

The relationship between the presidency and the settlement board is the presidency can help to align the agenda in the negotiations over the WTO. It can help to set the priorities of the negotiations although she won’t be able to determine outcomes and these are still going to be negotiated by states. Agenda-setting is extremely important, but the enforcement question is … going to have to jump through several hoops. You can’t just announce there’s going to be a different set of rules. You’re going to have to propose different sets of rules, negotiate those new rules and see how they get interpreted through the dispute settlement board. It’s not to discount the influence she has, it’s just to show you that purpose in respect to actually changing the rules.

Q: Connecting back to what you said earlier in terms of the United States conceding to the agreement as having Okonjo-Iweala as the director-general [as]the Global South makes up a larger pool of many of the international institutions [in place]. What should be the next move of Global North countries as the Global South starts to take on more of a role in international organizations?

One of the frames we like to use is organization shopping. States will choose which organizations they want to use based on expected and preferred outcomes. The Global South has a certain voting power, particularly in organizations that are based on the principle, “One Nation, One Vote”: so, the UN and the UN system. The Global North has a tendency to go shopping for organizations depending on if they think they’ll get their preferred outcomes. In extreme circumstances though it’s not common, it’s more of a U.S. thing. If a Global North [country]doesn’t agree broadly with their agenda, they’ll just walk away from that organization. Formally, like the US did with the WHO or much more frequently informally … take an example that would be WHO in the COVAX initiative to develop a global vaccine and vaccine distribution for COVID-19. On one level … of course the [Global South is] going to demand some sort of distribution that’s reflective of population rather than just economic power. If [Global North countries are] being told they’re going to have to give up their vaccines to Global South countries because there’s more of them they’ll just ignore [COVAX] and not give up the vaccine. 

But the Global South leadership has done a very good job of linking this to globalization, economic growth [and]access to markets to say in essence, “if you block Global South countries, you’re doing this at the peril of your own economies.” Therefore, there’s a shared interest in developing a model that reflects [both]Global North and Global South economic interests. That’s just an example of what I think any of these organizations need to do. There’s going to be increased Global South representation and Global South voices much more commonly heard and it’s about building a cooperative model where Global North and Global South countries see themselves on the same boat with respect to the economy. The realist in me might suggest this is going to be Global North versus Global South [competition]and frequently when you hear that, it’s China versus the U.S. as the model and there’s certainly those elements. But the liberal in me suggests this is a positive sum gain. It’s about building cooperative models… elevating Global South voices so that the terms aren’t simply dictated to them. It’s more complex than just Global South advancing their interests and [assuming the]Global North [will]jump on board. They have to navigate that well. [The Global South] may not be on the menu but if they don’t agree on what the menu is nobody is going to sit down to eat. 

Right now, I think vaccine distribution and reigniting the regrowth of the global economy as a result of this pandemic is such a huge issue that the models that we put in place for negotiations between the Global North and Global South are going to have a huge impact on economic cooperation and political cooperation going forward. And frankly, I think this is what the U.S. is doing in its decision to support the new WTO president. This is President Biden saying, “you’ve just seen 4 years of the U.S. having no interest in cooperation that we will concede the need to cooperate on these symbolic issues.” Though make no mistake, it’s not that the U.S. is going to just concede on [all]the Global South issues. The presidency is much more symbolic of President Biden saying on multiple occasions, “It’s not America first, it’s America’s back.” That’s a signal that we are prepared to be a negotiation partner. The U.S. is never a coequal partner. They always exercise much more authority. I think the Global South is finding reason to negotiate these issues more effectively and [the appointment of Director-General Okonjo-Iweala]is an example of this.

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Director-General Okonjo-Iweala has much ahead of her as she takes on this leadership role in an institution that promotes free trade liberalization in a global economy where the interests of states take hierarchy over a push for multilateralism. In pursuing equitable vaccine distribution, there is an opportunity to reinforce globalization in a way that integrates the interests of the Global North and Global South. 

Since a healthy global society is vital for the health of the global economy, the plan Okonjo-Iweala is able to propose and negotiate amongst the WTO’s global members will be important in mitigating COVID-19, while also prioritizing the interests of the Global South on the international stage.

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Rhondaya Fishburne

Rhondaya Fishburne is a junior studying International Relations. Rhondaya has interned for Congresswoman Carolyn B. Malony. She previously was an editor for the Social Justice Review through the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, conducted research with an associate professor in the School of International Relations, and was a counselor for the university’s first student-led High School Leadership Conference. While interested in various fields of international affairs, she seeks to highlight social movements across the globe, as well as issues of climate and human righs, and U.S.-Africa policy.

fishburn@usc.edu