The World Trade Organization has a new director general. Mr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, a former Thai trade minister, recently took the helm of the trade body at a critical juncture. The global economy is experiencing one of its slowest periods of growth in decades. A new trade round is essential to rejuvenating international economic prospects and the WTO is the instrument to see this accomplished. That puts Mr. Supachai in a tight spot.
Mr. Supachai is the first head of the WTO to come from a developing nation, and that background will be critical in the years ahead. Trust between the developed and developing worlds is virtually nonexistent when it comes to trade negotiations. The industrial economies have repeatedly demanded — and won — liberalization measures from less developed countries, yet they have been slow to open their own markets to products from those developing countries. The hypocrisy threatens to derail future trade negotiations.
The acid test is the current round of negotiations. Developing countries are demanding that they be the focus of these talks. Indeed, Mr. Supachai’s term as director general is both a sign of the deteriorating trust and recognition of the seriousness of the situation. He originally contested Mr. Michael Moore for the job. Mr. Supachai was supported by developing nations, Mr. Moore by the developed world. Although Mr. Moore won the election, the split was deemed serious enough to warrant a compromise: Mr. Moore served the first half of the six-year term and Mr. Supachai will complete it.
Mr. Moore got the WTO started, and now Mr. Supachai must deliver. That means shepherding the trade negotiations forward and providing a vision for both trade and development. At his first press conference, held earlier this week, he laid out an agenda that embraced liberalization and a long-term assistance plan for developing countries. In addition, he endorsed greater cooperation between the WTO and other “responsible” multilateral public institutions, as well as regular meetings with business associations, civil society groups and experts. Only by balancing trade and development, and bringing in those disparate groups, will Mr. Supachai and the WTO succeed.
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