The World Trade Organization is stuck in a serious, even existential crisis, leadership candidates said Wednesday as the first wave of contenders made their pitches for the post.
Eight candidates are running for the job of reviving stalled international trade talks and sorting out simmering tensions between the United States and China.
The next WTO director-general will also have to take the helm in the midst of a global economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The candidates started taking their turns Wednesday before the 164 member states' representatives at the global trade body's headquarters in Geneva, in pitches spread over three days.
Mexico's Jesus Seade Kuri, Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt set out their stalls on Wednesday, giving 15-minute presentations before facing a 75-minute grilling over their plans for shaking up the beleaguered WTO.
"There's a serious crisis going on," former WTO deputy director-general Seade told reporters afterwards.
"There has been an absolute... loss of trust between delegations," he said.
"That lack of trust makes it more difficult to negotiate", creating "huge-pent up pressure for issues to be addressed".
Former diplomat and WTO veteran Mamdouh went even further, saying the organisation was going through an "existential crisis", having lost its common sense of purpose.
- Calm down -
The United States wants China moved up from the developing economies category, is blocking the WTO's dispute settlement appeal system and has threatened to leave the organisation altogether.
"Let's calm down the political tensions and the emotions and let's come to the WTO and see how we can deal with those differences," said Mamdouh.
"The WTO should be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Nigeria's former foreign and finance minister Okonjo-Iweala urged Washington to stay.
"Don't leave now; let's try to fix what needs fixing," she said.
After two months of charming WTO delegates, an elimination process based on consensus starts in September, lasting up to two months.
There are three African candidates, two from Europe, two from Asia and Seade from the Americas.
Africa's trio are Mamdouh, Okonjo-Iweala and Kenya's former WTO General Council chair Amina Mohamed.
Britain's first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox and former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi are the two from Europe.
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee and former Saudi economy minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri are in the running from Asia.
Ulianovschi, Yoo and Mohamed take their turn before the WTO on Thursday, while Tuwajiri and Fox go on Friday.
- African hopes -
Since the WTO was created in 1995, three of its directors-general were from Europe, while one each came from Oceania, Asia and South America.
Africa therefore fancies its chances, even though there is no regional rotation principle at the global trade body -- and the continent is yet to throw its weight behind one contender.
"I'm proud of my continent for producing three good candidates," said Okonjo-Iweala.
"I'm sure Africa will come behind my candidacy."
But Mamdouh dropped a reminder that he was the only one with the African Union's express backing.
"The respectable, honourable candidates from Kenya and Nigeria have not passed through the processes and procedures of the African Union as the Egyptian candidate did," he said.
The WTO is staging a swift contest to replace outgoing director-general Roberto Azevedo.
In a surprise move in mid-May, the Brazilian career diplomat announced he was ending his second four-year term 12 months early at the end of August for personal reasons.