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WTO chief insists trade body remains relevant as tariff-wielding Trump makes a run at White House

GENEVA — The head of the World Trade Organization insisted Friday that it remains relevant and its leaders focus on reform “no matter who comes into power” as Donald Trump — who as U.S. president bypassed WTO rules by slapping tariffs on America’s friends and foes alike — makes another run at the White House.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said it “really bugs me” when the Geneva trade body is depicted in the press as seemingly irrelevant — a claim based around the fact that its system of resolving trade disputes is gummed up.

“It’s like the air you breathe: You take it for granted because you don’t see it every day,” she told reporters at WTO headquarters. The organization will host trade ministers and other officials from its 164 member countries in Abu Dhabi from Feb. 26-29.

“People don’t realize that they’re taking for granted that 75% of world trade is taking place on WTO terms,” she said.

Okonjo-Iweala drew plaudits for rallying member countries at the last big gathering in Geneva two years ago by shepherding through agreements to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries and banning government subsidies for fishing of some species, like bluefin tuna, that are overfished.

In Abu Dhabi, countries will discuss a “Fish 2” deal to ban subsidies that contribute to too many boats — or overfishing in general. Agriculture will be on the agenda, too, as will a call to extend a pause on duties on goods in digital form, like music and movies.

Overall, the WTO has been on its back foot in recent years: The United States under the past three administrations has blocked appointments to its appeals court, and it’s no longer operating. Washington says the judges have overstepped their authority too often in ruling on cases.

Trump, who once threatened to pull the United States out of the WTO, ignored its rules by using tariffs — or taxes on imported goods — as a punitive tool against friendly countries in the European Union, Canada, Mexico and others, but especially China.

Okonjo-Iweala, who has both Nigerian and American citizenship, said the world is facing uneven challenges: An economic slowdown has hit some countries like Britain and Japan, while the U.S. economy seems alone to be “going gangbusters.” And at the same time, farmers from India to Europe have held massive protests. It has created a “tough environment” for deals in Abu Dhabi at the end of the month.

Elections in dozens of countries this year make for a tricky political backdrop — including the United States, which she called a “very consequential country” — without mentioning Trump by name.

“What we are focused on at the WTO are what are the appropriate reforms we need to do – no matter who comes into power, when,” she said, insisting that the trade body remains relevant. ”if we get to what you’re saying — that the WTO becomes irrelevant — everyone, including you and me, will be in trouble.”

Trade wars, she said, affect both international trade flows and the countries that engage in them.

“I think that the way we cope with the world and build resilience is to focus on delivering those reforms,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “The best we can do is to demonstrate why … continuing to follow WTO rules is the best thing for the world.”

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