Guest post: lessons of Azevêdo’s victory at the WTO

By Paulo Sotero of the Woodrow Wilson Center

The process that culminated Tuesday with the selection of Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil (pictured) to lead the World Trade Organization is a precious opportunity for the international community to move away from the increasingly balkanized system of trade that gained ground in the past decade as the United States and the European Union lost political and economic capacity to dictate global rules.

Those, including many in Brazil, who attribute Azevêdo’s victory to the diminished importance and role of the WTO underestimate both the urgency of revaluing multilateralism in a world still dealing with the consequences of its worst financial crisis in 80 years, and the energy and personal credibility this engineer turned diplomat will bring to the task of building bridges and reaching consensus among nations.

The selection process left a few scars. It also revealed the political creativity of governments able to think strategically and accept that the Brazilian candidate was the most qualified to push the trade agenda forward. The Obama administration is a case in point. It was assumed from the start, especially in the self-referential world of think tanks, that Washington would back Herminio Blanco, the able but not particularly liked former Mexican minister of trade and NAFTA negotiator. Blanco did get the US vote, but barely. Following a traditional American tactical posture in such disputes, the US remained neutral during the campaign. When it came to picking the two finalists, it voted for both Blanco and Azevêdo. As the final round approached in Geneva, the American ambassador to the WTO, Michael Punke, asked for and was granted the last time slot to vote, last Tuesday. His instructions were to vote for Blanco, he told the troika of ambassadors in charge of tallying the results. Punke, who has a good personal relation with Azevêdo, made clear, however, that the US had no objection to the Brazilian candidate and would not be dissatisfied with his election.

The European Union representative, who voted immediately before Punke, cast the block’s 27 votes for Blanco and made a similar qualification, reflecting maybe the preference of the European Commission – the EU’s governing body – for Azevêdo. With Blanco barely attracting 60 of the 159 available votes, including those from Europe, the EU was left with no alternative. The qualification of its vote was, however, of minimum political significance, having been undermined by an intense campaign of sabotage of the Brazilian candidate carried out by the United Kingdom, France and Sweden in the weeks prior to the final vote and amply reported in Brazil.

In Brasília, some jokingly attributed the perplexing Swedish stance to a lingering effect of the humiliating 5-2 defeat Pelé and Garrincha imposed on their national soccer team in front of the home crowd at the World Cup final in Stockholm in 1958. There was no joke about France and the UK’s posture. The fact that both nations have established “strategic partnerships” with Brazil made their behavior difficult to swallow in Brasília. “It is perfectly legitimate to support and campaign for another candidate, but totally unacceptable to try to veto the one you do not like, for whatever reason,” said a Brazilian diplomat when the campaign against Azevêdo was in full swing. As seen in Brasília and elsewhere, the motivations of Paris and London in their failed attempt to undermine the winning candidate were indicative of the challenges Azevêdo will face in reviving the stalled global trade negotiations.

Criticized even by the International Monetary Fund for the excesses of its economic orthodoxy, David Cameron’s government was clearly motivated by conviction as it campaigned against Azevêdo, denouncing Brazil’s recent reversal to more protectionist policies. Coming from a government that seems to love austerity for austerity’s sake, that is understandable. France’s posture is a whole different matter. The nominally socialist government of Paris joined the UK bandwagon under the false pretence of advancing freer trade when it has been and remains the single most important obstacle to liberalization of global agricultural trade. This is a cause Brazil and other developing countries have an interest in and will continue to press in light of the need to provide food security for the two billion additional mouths the world will have to feed by 2050. The reactionary parochialism that justifies French agriculture protectionism was the real reason behind Paris efforts against Azevêdo and was taken as such by policy makers in Brasilia. As reported by Brazilian media, it is likely to have an adverse impact on bilateral relations, especially with a country that holds today the largest defence contract Brazil has with any nation.

Now that the dispute is over, Azevêdo will certainly be the first to move to heal the wounds as he prepares the way for the WTO ministerial meeting in Bali in November, which will attempt the herculean task of re-launching the moribund Doha round or replace it with a meaningful alternative.

On the plus side, the campaign and outcome of the WTO election is a valuable reminder to the government of President Dilma Rousseff and Brazilian society in general of the importance of remaining engaged in international affairs, picking battles carefully and daring to assume the risks inherent in the exercise of leadership in the defence of national interests and the common global good. It is well known that Rousseff does not share her predecessor’s appreciation of diplomacy, which has contributed to make Brazilian foreign policy atypically defensive and reactive in the recent past. It is also known that there are people within her government who would rather not see a Brazilian at the helm of the WTO. One of them – a representative in a multilateral organization – said as much last March to a perplexed audience of Brazilian diplomats serving in a foreign capital, adding that having a candidate to lead the WTO was “a mistake” because the organization “caused only problems for Brazilian industrial policy.”

President Rousseff obviously disagrees. It is self-evident that a nation invested in continuing the historic transformation of democracy, economic prosperity and social progress started three decades ago cannot afford such myopic views. As Roberto Azevêdo’s campaign and election suggests, a Brazil that cares for the well-being of its citizens and the citizens of the world is bound to remain involved and take a lead. Not for the sake of leading, but because the difficult and unavoidable task of confronting global issues like trade and financial governance, social development, environmental sustainability and international peace and security requires that Brazil and its able diplomats be at the table.

Paulo Sotero is director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington

Related reading:
Azevêdo targets next WTO talks in Bali as proof deals can be done, FT
A win for Brazil’s WTO rainbow diplomacy – now for the hard part, FT World blog
Sealed with a smile: how Brazil got its man Azevêdo into the WTO, FT
New boss of WTO: it’s the Brazilian, beyondbrics