WASHINGTON—The Biden administration on Friday said the U.S. would support Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria as the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, hours after South Korea’s trade minister stepped out of the race.
The Biden administration’s decision is the last hurdle standing in the way of Ms. Okonjo-Iweala assuming the top job at the WTO, after South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee pulled out.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala was supported by a majority of WTO members, but the Trump administration backed Ms. Yoo, saying she was better qualified.
In a statement, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala “brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister.”
“It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of WTO Director General—the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution,” the statement said.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, who is a citizen of both Nigeria and the U.S., is a well-known figure among international economic officials, through her roles as a top official and a development economist at the World Bank, as well as in the Nigerian government.
Pressure had been building on the Biden administration to support Ms. Okonjo-Iweala. Dozens of former U.S. trade and diplomatic officials urged Mr. Biden to take action in a letter in recent weeks. Rep. Karen Bass, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, did so in a tweet last week.
“Joining the consensus for Ngozi would build early good will for the Biden administration in Geneva, paving the way for focus to shift exclusively to the critical substantive reform issues,” said Wendy Cutler, a former USTR official who is now vice president of Asia Society Policy Institute.
The appointment of the new director-general will allow the WTO members to start addressing some major challenges that have hobbled the organization in recent years, including the dysfunction of its key dispute-settlement system and subsidies used by China’s state-owned enterprises that have distorted global commerce.
David Bisbee, Washington’s representative to WTO in Geneva, told member nations last week that the U.S. is committed to “positive, constructive and active engagement” with WTO members to move forward on reforming the organization, as well as resolving pressing issues, such as ongoing talks on fisheries subsidies.
“We need to equip the institution to address pressing challenges confronting all of us—challenges such as global overcapacity in multiple industries that unfairly cost workers their jobs and the need to protect and preserve the environment,” Mr. Bisbee said.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala had previously received support from governments across Africa, the European Union and the Caribbean to become the organization’s director-general but had failed to gain backing from the Trump administration. The WTO selects its leader through a consensus-building process, not an outright election.
Ms. Yoo said she decided to resign to facilitate a consensus for the next director-general after consulting with the U.S.
“I look forward to the WTO quickly resolving its leadership vacuum to tackle its key tasks, including restoring order in multilateral trade,” Ms. Yoo said at a press conference in Seoul.
Ms. Yoo said discussions about her candidacy between the U.S. and South Korea had continued throughout Washington’s transition from the Trump to Biden administration.