Editor's Voicemail

Go Ngozi

Go Ngozi

Who will be the next director general of the World Trade Organisation? Who cares? But, in truth, these are the sorts of leaders who could guide us out of the current mess

Go Ngozi. One of the things I learned this week is that I really care about who’s the next director general of the World Trade Organisation. I hope that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala gets it. She’s a long-time World Banker and former Nigerian finance minister. She’s backed by the Europeans. And she would be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO. She’s also, in my experience, an inspiring politician. I hope she wins out over Yoo Myung-hee, a woman who serves now as South Korea’s trade minister and is backed by the US.

But the fact that I’m in favour of Ngozi doesn’t, frankly, matter at all. The fact that I care so much about who gets it, though, does.

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise and, this week, I want to make a small start on how we restore global leadership. It’s a distillation, really, of what I’ve heard in a series of calls over the past week.

Because, over a number of days, I had this pretty high-wattage group of briefing calls – pre-meeting calls, those calls that you have to discuss the conversations that you’re about to have in front of a larger group of people. There were calls with Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister; Ana Palacio, the former Spanish foreign minister; and Jim Messina, who worked in the Obama White House and is now a political adviser.

And, listening to each of them, it helped me at least begin to answer a question that’s dogged us since the start of the pandemic. How are we going to rebuild a sense of global leadership in the world?

Here’s what I learned from Jim Messina about the US election:

  • What we know now is that the mail-in and early voting in the US is off the charts – as I’m recording this, 78 million Americans have already voted and we’re headed for an enormous overall turnout.
  • Another thing: the US is in the grip of an unprecedented recession and, looking back over more than a century of US history, eight out of nine presidents seeking re-election in a recession have lost.
  • And then, one final thing, while the count may take a while, if Biden wins either Florida or North Carolina, there’s no path back to the White House for Trump – i.e. we really could know on the night.

But here’s the bigger, more lasting point, the one that goes beyond Tuesday, beyond the election result: it’s that economic anxiety and division, populism and nationalism, won’t end next week.

It feeds into what I heard from Dominique de Villepin: the world is divided. US vs China on trade, on tech, on rights and the rule of law. It’s divided inside Europe; there are different visions of the future, North vs South, East vs West. And, within countries like the US, society is also divided – by geography, identity, race and the economy.

The problem for liberal democracies at home is that they cannot deliver enough for their people. The problem for them abroad is that the post-war institutions – Nato, the transatlantic alliance – they’re old, they’re out of date, they’re no longer up to the job. And the question, then, is how can we invent a new world while liberal democracies are so weak and divided? As things stand, according to de Villepin, when China reaches the centenary of the Communist Revolution in 2049, it will find that it’s won. To him, the contemporary crop of western leaders look lost, short on passion and ideas, worrying instead about comms and the media.

And with that alarming – and, I have to say, convincing – analysis ringing in my ears, I called Ana Palacio, Spain’s former foreign minister. She was not much persuaded by Dominique’s idea of inventing a new world. Her idea was less revolutionary but, I’d say, a more actionable idealism.

It was this: let’s fire up the tier-two multilateral organisations, by which she means that alphabet soup of international organisations like the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Inter-American Development Bank – the WHO, the FAO, the IADB – multilateral organisations that have been neglected by the West while China has been working on its influence within them. Multilateral organisations that might not have the prestige of NATO or the UN Security Council, but ones that we need to work in the age of the pandemic, when we need to develop joint approaches on global health, on resilience and supply chains, and on food security. Organisations that can be seen to deliver global leadership, not just in rhetorical flourishes, but in real action.

And so to the WTO – a second-tier multilateral organisation staffed by trade lawyers wrangling small print but tasked with nothing less than the job-making responsibility of bringing the world together to make globalisation fair and safe, efficient and resilient, prosperous and purposeful.

The vacancy at the top of the World Trade Organisation might feel as technocratic and remote a problem as it’s possible to find. But it might also be the beginnings of an answer to the vacuum in global leadership in 2020. Go Ngozi.