Pascal Lamy to get a 2nd Term as WTO Director-General by Default

Back in November 2008, Pascal Lamy formally notified the WTO General Council, that he would be seeking a second term as the Organization’s Director-General. Under the procedures in force, WTO Members could submit other candidates for the post from December 1 to 31, 2008. By January 5, 2009 it was clear that no other candidates had been submitted, thus making Pascal Lamy the only contender for the job, and thus the position will be his by default, after his current term expires on 31 August 2009.
This is quite remarkable for the World Trade Organization, which has now had five Directors-General in its short 14 year history (and thus an average of one almost every three years). Assuming Lamy takes up another term as planned on 1 September 2009, and completes it in August 2013, he will have served as the head of the global trading body for a full eight years, and thus five years longer than the average so far.
If one considers the terms held by the heads of the WTO’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, one finds that the earlier DGs all held lengthy tenures. The first head of the GATT Secretariat, Mr. Eric Wyndham White, an Englishman, served from 1948 until 1968, much longer than Lamy can ever hope (or would probably even want) to stay in the job. The second GATT Director-General was Dr. Olivier Long, a Swiss national, who held the post from 1968 to 1980. Dr. Long was succeeded by another Swiss national, Arthur Dunkel, who served from 1980 until 1993, and became well known for his role in steering the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Talks. The last Director-General of GATT and the first for the WTO was Mr. Peter Sutherland, an Irishman, who served from 1993 until 1995, more as a kind of “caretaker” Director General than anything else. Mr. Sutherland was succeeded by an Italian, Mr. Renato Ruggiero, who served from 1995 to 1999.
It is interesting to note that half of the DGs have been lawyers (this was true of Wyndham-White, Long, Sutherland and Ruggiero). Lamy is the second DG to come to the role from the EC Commission (Sutherland being the first). Lamy is also the fourth to have held political office in his country of origin (Ruggiero, Moore, and Superchai being the others). There are certainly some interesting speculative inferences to be made from this history, such as the necessity of having someone at the helm who understands the importance of the WTO as a rules-based organization and as the final arbiter of trade disputes, or who appreciates that the WTO is an institution whose main function is to provide a forum for trade negotiations and thus it should be led by someone who understands the underlying political dynamics which ultimately govern this process.
The succession of Mr. Ruggiero was bitterly contested between the WTO Membership, and was resolved only when the top two candidates effectively agreed to share the job, by each assuming a shortened three-year term. Thus it was that Mr. Mike Moore of New Zealand served as the WTO Director-General from 1999 to 2002, and Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand, served in the same position from 2002 to 2005. Back in 2004, Pascal Lamy was originally one of four candidates for the job, namely Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa of Brazil, Jaya Krishna Cuttaree of Mauritius, and Carlos Perez del Castillo of Uruguay. It eventually boiled down to a contest between the last of these and Lamy, which the latter ultimately won.
The consensus on Lamy’s track record in the job over the last four years has generally been very positive. He has certainly shown himself to be a very determined and tenacious DG, and has doubtless viewed it as his most important mandate to do everything in his power to steer the Doha Round of trade negotiations to a successful conclusion. It is more likely this objective, which has become almost a personal obsession to the man, that moved Lamy to take the unprecedented step of seeking a second term. It is well known that Lamy is a marathon runner, and he can often be seen jogging along the shores of Lake Geneva at lunchtime. Probably Lamy sees the conclusion of the Round as the finish line, and he is unwilling to voluntary give up the helm until he has done his best to reach it.
Arguably Lamy’s first major test in office came at the Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, in December 2005. Because of the collapse of the previous Ministerial Conference in Cancun Mexico some two years earlier, expectations on what would constitute success in Hong Kong were relatively low going into the meeting. And even before it started, the new Director General was trying to ratchet down expectations even further. But there is little doubt that everyone was impressed with how Lamy conducted himself during the meeting, going out of his way to be transparent by staying up all night (after long meetings) to type away at his blog. Lamy came off as absolutely regal compared to Peter Mandelson, the EU’s chief negotiator (and Lamy’s successor in that job), who only seemed to complain about not getting enough sleep.
Over the ensuing months and years, Lamy has impressed almost everyone with his even-handedness and his stamina, as he convenes meeting after meeting, makes journey after long journey, in an unceasing effort to slowly but surely forge an emerging consensus. And it has always been Lamy who is the first to pick up the pieces when meetings have collapsed and to begin the long and arduous march towards the finish line with renewed vigor. It is in this context that his energy and drive have been on clear display for all to see.
This, despite the fact that being the Director General of the WTO at this precise moment in history is a very uphill and largely thankless task. Moreover, with bilateral and regional trade agreements proliferating at an unprecedented pace, the WTO is an organization struggling to remain relevant, which is perhaps another reason why there wasn’t a rush of other candidates for the job. However, it is probably safe to suggest that the lack of any real competition for the job is first and foremost due to the fact that most WTO Members recognize just how lucky the Organization is to have someone like Pascal Lamy at its head. The current DG, who, as already mentioned, was formerly the chief trade negotiator for the EU and before that a French cabinet minister, has an expert understanding of the technical rules as well as the underlying politics which constrain the Organization. If politics is the art of the possible, there are few people who are better placed to instinctively sense and actively nudge the Membership towards achieving what is possible in terms of concluding the present Doha Round and consequently preventing the WTO from losing its credibility and standing in the global institutional economic architecture.
Pascal Lamy would be the first to admit that the WTO and the system of rules it oversees are far from perfect. But they are the best thing the world has got at present to prevent it from falling back into the mercantilist beggar-thy-neighbor policies which proved so ruinous in the 1930s. This risk is even more apparent now, as the world faces up to the harsh realities, in terms of tumbling output and rising unemployment, of the global financial crisis.
Pascal Lamy becoming Director-General of the WTO for a second term by default is actually a blessing in disguise, and perhaps one of the best outcomes any of us could have hoped for.