The path has been cleared for Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become the first woman and the first African to lead the World Trade Organization after South Korea's candidate pulled out of the race for the job.
Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister, announced her decision to withdraw in a televised briefing on Friday.
Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and former finance minister of Nigeria, already enjoyed broad support from WTO members, including the European Union, China, Japan and Australia.
However, the United States, under the Trump administration, had favored Yoo, complicating the decision-making process since the selection of a new leader requires all WTO members to agree. Okonjo-Iweala's formal selection may have to wait until after the United States appoints a new trade representative.
Yoo said that her decision had been reached after "close consultation" with the United States. The WTO had been without a leader for too long, she added.
The Geneva-based body, tasked with promoting free trade, has been without a permanent director general since Roberto Azevêdo stepped down a year earlier than planned at the end of August after the WTO was caught in the middle of an escalating trade fight between the United States and China.
The Trump administration was highly critical of the WTO and undermined its standing by imposing tariffs on Canada, Mexico, China and the European Union. Okonjo-Iweala will thus assume control of an organization that has struggled to prevent trade spats between its members.
While US President Joe Biden has already taken steps to restore support for multilateral institutions, he is expected to proceed with caution when it comes to signing any new trade deals.
In a speech to the State Department Thursday, Biden pledged to put diplomacy back at the center of US foreign policy, but was also careful to emphasize that foreign policy should benefit middle-class Americans.
Okonjo-Iweala, who hails from one of the few parts of the world where free trade is ascendent, told CNN in August that trade would play an important role in the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
"The WTO needs a leader at this time. It needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it's in," she said in an interview.
Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director. She also chaired the board of Gavi, which is helping to distribute coronavirus vaccines globally, stepping down at the end of her term in December.
The appointment of Nigeria's ex-finance minister to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been thrown into doubt after the US opposed the move.
On Wednesday, a WTO nominations committee recommended the group's 164 members appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
She would be the first woman and first African to lead the WTO.
But the US, critical of the WTO's handling of global trade, wants another woman, South Korea's Yoo Myung-hee, saying she could reform the body.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala said she was "immensely humbled" to be nominated.
But the four-month selection process to find the next WTO director-general hit a road block when Washington said it would continue to back South Korea's trade minister.
In a statement critical of the WTO, the Office of the US Trade Representative, which advises President Donald Trump on trade policy, said the organisation "must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field".
Ms Yoo had "distinguished herself" as a trade expert and "has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organisation", the statement said.
It added: "This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform."
The statement did not mention Ms Okonjo-Iweala.
Earlier on Wednesday, after a WTO delegates meeting to discuss the appointment, spokesman Keith Rockwell said just one member country did not support Ms Okonjo-Iweala.
"All of the delegations that expressed their views today expressed very strong support for the process... for the outcome. Except for one," he said.
Mr Trump has described the WTO as "horrible" and biased towards China, and some appointments to key roles in the organisation have already been blocked.
The WTO has called a meeting for 9 November - after the US presidential election - to discuss the issue. US opposition does not mean the Nigerian cannot be appointed, but Washington could nevertheless wield considerable influence over the final decision.
Mr Rockwell told reporters there was likely to be "frenzied activity" to secure a consensus for Ms Okonjo-Iweala's appointment. She has the support of the European Union.
The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala, 66, served as her country's first female finance and foreign minister and has a 25-year career behind her as a development economist at the World Bank..
She also serves on Twitter's board of directors, as chair of the GAVI vaccine alliance and as a special envoy for the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 fight.
If Ms Okonjo-Iweala is eventually appointed she will have a full in-tray. The WTO is already grappling with stalled trade talks and tensions between the US and China.
Earlier this month she said that her broad experience in championing reform made her the right person to help put the WTO back on track. "I am a reform candidate and I think the WTO needs the reform credentials and skills now.
The selection of a new director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is entering its final stage.
The final two – from an initial list of eight candidates – are Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.
Both are female which means that if members of the WTO can coalesce around one them in the final stages of selection, it will be the first time the job has been taken by a woman.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Yoo both have political and international experience and both were students at American universities.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala, who also has US nationality, has had two spells as finance minister and a short stint as foreign minister in Nigeria.
Much of her career was spent as an economist at the World Bank. She eventually rose to the position of managing director, essentially second in command at the institution. She has been an unsuccessful candidate for the top job at the bank.
She is currently chair of the board of the international vaccines alliance, Gavi.
She has not spent her career immersed in the details of trade policy as some other candidates did. But her work as a development economist and finance minister means she has often had to deal with international trade.
She describes trade as “a mission and a passion”.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala would be the first African to be director general of the WTO.
Ms Yoo is much more of a trade specialist.
Her statement to the WTO’s general council hinted at a literal lifetime in the area – she said she was born the same year that South Korea acceded to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which became one of the key elements of the WTO’s rule book.
She started her career in trade, she said, in the year the WTO was born, 1995.
She has been involved in some of South Korea’s key trade negotiations in that period, including with China and the US. She makes a point of her “deep knowledge and insight into the details of various areas of trade agreements”.
Both candidates were keen to point out their abilities in bringing sides together in negotiations.
That is a skill the successful candidate will have to draw on extensively.
It is important to remember that a WTO director general can only make progress if they can get the member countries on board.
It has been said that the DG has no executive power; that they are more like a butler announcing to the member countries) that dinner is served.
But the WTO is an organisation under stress. Two of the biggest commercial powers on the planet – China and the US – are embroiled in bitter trade conflict.
The US has some substantial concerns about the WTO. Many of them pre-date President Trump, but his administration has taken a less collaborative approach to pursuing them.
The US has undermined the WTO’s ability to carry out one of its main functions – settling trade disputes between member countries.
It has refused to allow the body which hears appeals to appoint new members, effectively judges. That reflects US concerns that the body’s judgements were going beyond the WTO rulebook. The US block has left it unable to take new appeal cases.
It doesn’t mean the dispute settlement system doesn’t work at all, but it is seriously impaired.
In terms of diversity, the WTO seems to be heading into new territory. It will, almost certainly, have a woman as Director General for the first time a woman.
The regional representation might also break new ground, if the African candidate gets the job – there has been an Asian director general before, from Thailand.
If all goes to plan we will know who it is by early November.