US State Department cable signals support for South Korean in WTO race

What the cable said: A U.S. official said the cable directs U.S. diplomats to attempt to gauge where their host governments stood on the race for WTO chief, and that if they didn’t have a commitment or a decision, to gently nudge them to back Yoo rather than Okonjo-Iweala. Embassies in countries that have already declared a preferred candidate were not required to engage in the exercise.

A former U.S. trade official who was aware of the cable, but has not seen it, said she had been told that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had coordinated with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the issue.

Neither USTR nor the State Department immediately responded to queries about the cable on Tuesday. The White House also did not immediately reply to a question about who the U.S. supported.

Pompeo is currently in Asia on a trip that includes stops in India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He also speaks regularly by phone with foreign counterparts.

State of the race: The United States has not publicly said who it backs in director general race, which began earlier this year with eight candidates. Two previous rounds of private consultations led by WTO General Council Chairman David Walker narrowed the field to Yoo and Okonjo-Iweala.

Walker’s job is to find a consensus candidate, meaning the one that has the broadest support and the least opposition among the membership. Earlier this week, the European Union threw its support behind Okonjo-Iweala. But it’s not clear where other big players like India, China and Brazil stand.

In theory, the process could end in stalemate if any member or group of members refuses to back the consensus choice. But given the swirls of rumors surrounding the end stage of the selection process, and USTR’s silence on the issue, some degree of caution is warranted in speculating about the outcome.

“What I can say is that the consultations have just finished” and the Heads of Delegation meeting will be held on Wednesday, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said. “A General Council meeting will follow to formally confirm the assessment. That could come this week but more likely next week.”

Two scenarios: Walker could announce at the HODs meeting that his consultations have revealed that one of the candidates is more likely to receive consensus and that the other has agreed to withdraw from the race. If that happens and no one objects to the remaining candidate, she would be officially selected as the new director general at the General Council meeting.

On the other hand, the United States or some other member could still block the remaining candidate from being approved by the General Council by withholding their support. In that case, the WTO would be at an impasse.

If Okonjo-Iweala emerges as the last woman standing at the HODs, the phones at the State Department and the White House National Security Council “will be ringing off the hook” urging them to persuade Lighthizer not to block her way, the former U.S. trade official said. That could even include a call from Nigerian President .

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