Trump administration wins big with WIPO election

An election last week for an obscure UN agency will be seen as the beginning of a greater tussle between China and the West about what kind of world we want. The victory for the United States and its allies in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Director General election will be seen as a “before and after” for the several-decade marathon that we will run in multilateral fora. The WIPO victory is also a case study for what kind of effort the West will need to win these key roles. 

Multilateral agencies have power, hold sensitive information and enjoy a very strong imprimatur — especially in developing countries. Multilateral development banks dispense tens of billions of dollars and dispense much-heeded advice. Multilateral agencies are often standard makers. Who runs these agencies is very important.

The Reagan-era dictum “Personnel is Policy” absolutely is valid in these multilateral organizations. If led properly, these institutions should be a force multiplier of Western norms and a Western form of globalization. If not led properly, they are force multiplier for other interests.

On March 4, 2020, a key WIPO Committee nominated a new Director General, Mr. Daren Tang, from Singapore. WIPO is the “Major League Baseball Commission” of patents and trade secrets. When one registers a patent in the United States, that patent is also sent to WIPO in Geneva — so the protection of trade secrets and intellectual property is a key function of WIPO. Given China’s reputation for stealing intellectual property, having a Chinese Director General of WIPO would have been like having the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. 

The WIPO committee responsible for choosing the next Director General met last in “extraordinary session,” and there were two rounds of secret voting. The first-round voting was used to cull the list down to two finalists. In the second round, Mr. Tang won a resounding — and surprising — victory, with 55 votes for him versus 28 votes for the Chinese candidate.

What are the lessons learned?

First, the U.S. and its allies realized in time that China could win, and they understood the stakes. The number of elections that China had won — and the consequences of those victories — had begun to add up. For example, after China won the top job at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which decides global flight paths and who has control of what airspace, the ICAO kicked Taiwan out of the organization. The U.S. had also “lost” a recent election for the FAO — the FAO knows where the world’s best agricultural land is located and is one of the bosses of the World Food Program. The World Food Program manages the “UN’s air force” for airplanes and inserts itself in politically fraught conflicts with food aid. 

Second, the U.S. (finally) had an excellent ambassador in Geneva running point. After more than a year not filling the slot, the Trump administration nominated Ambassador Andrew Bremberg to the post. Then Democrats in the U.S. Senate held up Ambassador Bremberg’s nomination for a year for political reasons. Thankfully, he was confirmed in the Fall of 2019. A confirmed, senior official like Ambassador Bremberg was critical to run point, whip votes, and button-hole delegates — some of the 80-plus votes were decided by representatives in their Geneva missions. Ambassador Bremberg played a key role helping push U.S. inter-agency and U.S. “interested parties” (e.g. associations representing the private sector) to pick a candidate. 

Third, various senior staffers at the White House and across the government mobilized. Cabinet level officials made phone calls, did interviews and published op-eds. It helped that a bipartisan letter by four House and Senate members was sent to the White House signaling that this was important and that the administration should get involved.

Fourth, dozens of U.S. ambassadors and diplomats were mobilized to engage counterparts in the dozens of countries that were going to vote. Many countries decided their vote back in capitals, and that is where our embassies played a key role. This is what U.S. embassies are supposed to do, and they did their jobs well.

Fifth, the U.S. and allies were able to come to a consensus around a candidate. Each UN agency has a different set of rules about how leaders are picked. In the case of WIPO, there is an implicit system of geographic “turns.” For the last 12 years, an Australian held the job. Before him, an African had held the job. There was a sense that it was the “turn” of “developing Asia” (a grouping in WIPO) or Latin America (another grouping). Latin America had two candidates, perhaps splitting their vote. Mr. Tang — who is from Singapore, which is grouped in “developing Asia” (even if Singapore is not really “developing Asia”) — and Singapore itself have a reliable “country brand” for intellectual property.

Sixth, we could not have done this without key allies such as Japan and Australia. Europe, South East Asia, Canada, Latin America and many others who were on the voting committee also had shared interests. All of these countries rely on intellectual property for their economies or aspire to have a larger share of their economy driven by the creative economy — something that requires strong intellectual property protections.

Seventh, maybe the lopsided victory was partly due to China fatigue? If China had won the WIPO post, that would have been the fifth major UN agency run by China. Did actions taken by China in other multilateral fora give some countries pause? Did Coronavirus’s hit to China’s country brand have an impact? 

The good news is that the U.S. and its partners worked together — and effectively — to ensure that a qualified candidate won the WIPO election. The bad news is that there are many of the almost 200 other multilateral agencies where we are going to have to be as prepared and as organized.

article published in on March 9, 2020.

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