In a historic first, the next leader of the World Trade Organization will hail from Latin America. A field of nine candidates has now been winnowed down to two, one from Mexico and one from Brazil, meaning that, at a crucial moment in the history of the international trading system, the leader of the central organization for resolving global trade differences and shaping future agreements will come from the emerging part of the Western Hemisphere.
One candidate, Roberto Azevedo, is currently Brazil's ambassador to the WTO. The other, Herminio Blanco, is a former Mexican trade minister and one of the architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both are widely respected and well-liked by those who know them well. On the surface, the two candidates seem extremely similar. But to suggest that these men represent a common perspective could not be further from the truth. They illustrate a choice as stark as past and future for an organization that finds itself at a critical turning point.
The knock on Azevedo is that he has never served as a trade minister, a post that has typically been a jumping-off point for past WTO chiefs. But he has been exceptionally active within the halls of the trade organization's Geneva headquarters -- an acknowledged leader there, especially among the world's rising powers, and he is seen as more closely in touch with the trade issues of the day than is Blanco.
Blanco, trained at the University of Chicago, is exceptionally competent. I worked with him when I was a senior U.S. trade official during the Clinton administration and I know that my colleagues and I always held him in very high regard. But, in the eyes of his critics, he has been out of the international trade arena for too long, having been working in the private sector and not actively involved in the complex, frustrating debates surrounding the Doha world trade talks or the need for meaningful reform of the WTO. The organization, set up officially in 1995, doesn't seem up to addressing the problems of a modern world crisscrossed with non-tariff barriers or grappling with the new problems of Internet- and services-based trade, widespread currency manipulation, and incipient protection appearing in many guises.
There is, however, a bigger difference between the two men that is already manifesting itself in the early whip-counts of potential voters from around the world. According to trade-community insiders in Washington and around the world with whom I have spoken over the past few days, Blanco is seen as the preferred candidate of the United States and much of what might be described as the traditional or old-school trade establishment. Azevedo, on the other hand, appears to have deeper support among the BRICs and among many of the other representatives of the emerging world.