In spite of the battle in Seattle and the subsequent inertia that has gripped the World Trade Organization, Supachai Panitchpakdi is looking forward to the challenge of taking over from Mike Moore as head of the trade body next year. He promises that he will be an active leader who will try to revive the cause of global trade, which he admits is facing difficulties.

“All these mobs at international meetings, against globalization and against all sorts of things international,” he laments. “I see it back in my own country in reaction to the crisis. Maybe it is the crisis that has intensified the fears. Maybe it is the globalization process around the world that has mutually strengthened the fears.”

Whatever the reasons, Supachai expresses unhappiness that, as he puts it, “The WTO has crept back into its shell too much. They have become too cautious in an attempt to avoid any repetition of the disaster.”

Supachai promises he will be much more assertive, an innovator, someone who will find a way round locked doors. “International trade will not die without the linkage between trade and labor issues. This is a hot red herring. Instead, you should work toward a kind of consensus that can strengthen the process. Show the solidarity of countries that want to be promoters of free trade. Have market access as a strong front-end agreement,” he said. “Work on something, such as a strong package for the LDCs (least developed countries).”

Supachai returns several times to the same theme — the need to get things moving and to not be stopped by roadblocks, especially predictable disagreements. He cites competition law as one area where the WTO had become stuck.

“Thailand is one of the very few countries with a strong competition law because of my proposals. But I fear that at the international level there are a lot of countries, even some advanced countries, that do not have a competition law — so you will need long protracted arguments and negotiations that would kill the whole round,” he said. “Let’s be mundane. If people are trying to kill you, you don’t just go out and attack. You try to be on the defensive and preserve yourself.

“My strategy is to consolidate yourself, consolidate past gains, make forward moves only for those known areas where you can gain consensus, and try to be inventive and more aggressive on new points and issues when you have recouped yourself.”

But the quest for new solutions and the wish to skirt old arguments does not mean that Supachai will be soft or a pushover. Indeed, he believes that as a Thai, an Asian and the first head of the WTO from a developing country, he has a special role to play and may become the harbinger of a changing world. He points out that Thailand is neutral and not dangerous or threatening, but has its ambitions to make its voice heard.

“My going to the WTO may help in a very small manner to change the way the world is managed,” he believes. “Asia may have to share the responsibility for managing the global economy.”

He makes a comparison with Thailand’s support for an Asian monetary fund. “We have supported the proposal whereas in the past we might have been ambivalent about it. But these days we feel we cannot leave the fate of the Asian economies in the hands of institutions that may be dominated by some countries alone.”

As a former bank president (head of the Thai Military Bank) with 15 years of political experience and a veteran of WTO meetings, including the protracted fight for the top job, Supachai also understands the political and economic forces at work in the world. He realizes that while professing free trade, many of the big economies are actually ambivalent and prepared to drag their feet.

“Each has its own agenda and would like to see part of a new round — but when you talk of the full picture of a new round, they begin to have problems, with agriculture, with investment, for example, so they say they can accept part of a new round. But how can you say you will accept a new round partially? So I will have to be provocative, or not per se provocative, but inventive.

“I have suggested that we should not wait until the full (WTO) ministerial conference to launch a new round but should organize smaller meetings of the Quad (the U.S., EU, Japan and Canada), of medium-size countries, of the European countries, so that they can narrow the gaps among themselves and among the groups of countries.

“Instead of a comprehensive agenda, let’s have a comprehensive resolve, but with the process being based on the gradual adding up of all the results to the existing agenda. Now we are negotiating on agriculture and services. These should not be held captive to negotiations on industries or environment or labor or other topics, because we may hold up the whole thing for ever.”

Supachai expresses his concerns about the role of the U.S. in international trade.

“In all fairness to the U.S. economy, they should not be expected to take up all the burden, but when they are not doing so, they have to understand that they have to share the executive management.”

He also expresses his determination to try to get nongovernmental organizations and other dissenters who have sometimes stood outside and wrecked trade negotiations involved in the argument — in the hope that they can have a stake and not be so potentially disruptive.

“Maybe we should bring in some more balance and include some dissenting voices. They cannot go to the negotiating table, but they should be part of the picture and listened to. At the same time I have to advise strong economies that they cannot use their elbow all the time.

“To say, ‘Supachai, you must bang the table and demand your way,’ this is old fashioned. I stay focused on my work at the WTO in spite of all the mobs and protests and turmoil because I have this hope that I know that I have the right ingredients to bring to this position.”

Ever the pragmatist, Supachai refuses to agree with those who protest countries like Singapore who are attempting to put together individual free trade agreements on their own.

“It doesn’t harm international trade if you have groups of countries walking toward a reduction in impediments to free trade even if they started off by doing it on a limited basis among a few countries,” he said, noting the few hundred ongoing FTAs already in existence.

“At least the building blocks will be there and it will be easier to move toward the larger world of free trade once they become accustomed to it.”

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