The head of the World Trade Organization is stepping down early from his post, opening a vacancy at an institution that is grappling with global trade tensions and a collapse in commerce during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Roberto Azevêdo, a former Brazilian diplomat who has held the director-general post since 2013, will tell WTO ambassadors this afternoon that he will end his term of office in September, a year before it expires. The story, originally reported by Bloomberg, was confirmed by Geneva trade officials.
The WTO has struggled to maintain its relevance after consistently being attacked by Donald Trump’s administration, which has strongly criticised its over-reach and blamed it for allowing China to practise unfair trade. The appellate body, the highest authority in the organisation’s dispute settlement process, ceased to function late last year after the US blocked the appointment of new judges to replace two who retired.
Under Mr Azevêdo, the organisation has deliberately kept a low profile during the coronavirus pandemic, staying largely silent over the global rash of export restrictions on medical equipment.
The process of appointing his replacement could stretch into next year if the WTO appoints an acting director-general from one of its existing senior staff, but the timing of the resignation will hand the Trump administration a considerable amount of power over the nomination.
Simon Evenett, international trade professor at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, said that Mr Azevêdo’s departure showed the limitations of a low-key technocratic approach to trying to revive the WTO, which has not concluded a major global trade agreement since its creation in 1995.
“The resignation marks the end of the ambassadorial small-fix approach to getting the WTO negotiating function back on track,” he said. “[Mr] Azevêdo has improved the atmosphere in Geneva with a series of small trust-building exercises but has not really engaged the big players.”
Unlike his predecessors in the job, Mr Azevêdo had been a WTO ambassador rather than a minister, and Prof Evenett said he lacked the political clout to raise the organisation’s profile.
“We need a DG who has a more flexible approach and is listened to in the halls of power,” he said.
Mr Azevêdo’s resignation, which Prof Evenett described as “extremely unfortunately timed”, leaves the WTO without its top leadership at a time when it is struggling to define its future. The institution has largely been forced to the sidelines during the increase in trade tensions since Mr Trump’s election and the subsequent tariff war between the US and China.
Citing its lack of authority in the area, the organisation has also declined to intervene publicly during a spate of official export restrictions on face masks and other medical gear during the pandemic. The blocks on exports have set off a global procurement scramble and further increased trade tensions.