As the leadership race for the World Trade Organization (WTO) enters its second stage, the UK’s candidate, former secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, speaks to GTR about his priorities for the global body if elected as director-general, how he aims to tackle the various challenges facing the organisation – and addresses the apparent incongruity of his support for both Brexit and free trade.

GTR: The WTO faces epoch-defining challenges, from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic to ongoing trade disputes. What is your motivation to take on the tough task of leading it?

Fox: It’s a great organisation. It’s got great people with great technical skills and great institutional memory. But it lacks the political weight at the top, and by that I mean someone that not only has international experience in trade, but also someone who has run a big organisation.

Having run both the ministry of defence and the department for international trade, as well as having done a ministerial job in the foreign office, I think I can bring those skills to the organisation, at a time when it is not short on challenges. But I think it is a prerequisite for keeping global trade flowing optimally, for resolving disputes, and for bringing further trade liberalisation on a multilateral basis. So the prizes are well worth the effort.

GTR: Politico recently reported David Henig, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, as saying: “This doesn’t look like a serious candidacy”, and that it simply “looks like the UK wants to give a signal to other WTO members that it’s there”. How would you respond to this?

Fox: I think it’s complete nonsense. We set out a very clear agenda for the reform of the WTO and this has been taken very seriously by the membership, which is why we are now in the second round and hopefully just about to go into the third.

We have set out our views on what we think the trading system needs to do, we have set out our views on internal reform, on the development agenda, on why we need more women to get into the trading system, and today, we are setting out my views on how we can improve the investment environment to help countries move out of special treatment.

Believe me, there is nothing tokenistic about this, and I think it shows a lack of understanding by those who have reported it otherwise.

GTR: At a time when the US has blocked the appointment of new members to the WTO’s appellate body, how do you intend to win back hearts and minds for the WTO, and for multilateralism, among major trading powers?

Fox: There is still a very strong appetite to see a successful multilateral environment for trade, and I thought that [US trade representative] Robert Lighthizer’s piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago was very much an olive branch in that direction, when he said the US wanted to commit itself to the multilateral system, but that it would have to work better.

A lot of countries, including the UK, strongly sympathise with the objections that the Americans raised to the current operation of the appellate body, and in fact a lot of countries have been happy to hide behind the United States on this issue. It takes too long to reach a judgement. If you can get a competitive advantage by breaking the rules for three years before the organisation catches up with you, there is quite a strong incentive for bad behaviour. Secondly, the concept of overreach, that the appellate body is going beyond the strict interpretation of the rules into more political areas, is a reservation shared by a lot of countries.

There is, if you get the right political drive, a willingness to seek a solution to these problems. I think that everybody accepts that the adjudication of disputes is probably the greatest value-added element that membership of the WTO brings, especially to smaller countries.

We have to recognise that the Covid pandemic has shown us that we live in a very interdependent, interconnected and integrated world. This is as true in trade as in anything else. Our global institutions need to reflect that reality much better than they have in recent times. The principle of multilateralism is key, but it needs to work in the interests of its members better than it has in the recent past.

GTR: There are deep rifts among trading nations around, for example, Chinese support of state aid enterprises. How will you balance the very different perspectives held by WTO members in what is becoming a very polarised trade landscape?

Fox: I think you have to concentrate on issues that really matter to countries. There are a lot of conceptual arguments going on that don’t actually address some of the real issues.

The number one issue for the new director-general will be, how does the system respond to the challenges of Covid? What does it mean for the gap between the richest and the poorest countries? What will we do in terms of special and differential treatment? What will we do in terms of dismantling some of the non-tariff barriers that the developing countries have erected in recent years?

Therefore, you need to start with a practical agenda that builds trust amongst the members by dealing with real issues that will provide real jobs and real prosperity. There needs to be a confidence-building exercise looking into three elements: How we work together with other institutions; how we bring countries at different stages of development into the process; and how we deal with the practical impediments to the growth of our SMEs.

If you spend all your time debating endlessly the colour of the agricultural box we’re going to discuss this week, rather than how we provide real, genuine help to economies, especially in what is likely to be a period of contraction in global trade in the global economy, then you are missing the point.

GTR: In your campaign literature, you talk about the moral case for free trade, and say that new trade barriers are a victory of special interests over free choice. How do you reconcile this stance with your support for Brexit, which saw the UK lose its free trading ability with the EU?

Fox: Brexit wasn’t just about trade. In fact, I would have thought trade was one of the last elements on the minds of people who voted to leave the European Union. It was mostly a constitutional and political decision.

The UK is committed to the multilateral system. It is committed to an open, rules-based system. We want to have a trade agreement with the European Union, but without the political ties that we have had in the past, and of course, we have been pushing the concept of free trade with a number of agreements in preparation of the present time. We want to see a vision of comparative advantage in the global economy that genuinely means that countries can use their natural resources and their talent pool and the creativity they have to push that forward.

In many ways, I think that the Brexit debate is a complete red herring. When I voted to leave the European Union, I didn’t do so on the basis of trade. I did it because I wanted the decisions and the running of my country to be taken in the United Kingdom. I never at any point have seen it as Britain going backwards on its commitments to international trade.

In fact, if anything, the discussions we have had about the need to remove distortionary agricultural subsidies, and the boost that we gave to the least developed countries through one of our first Brexit decisions, which was to retain duty-free and quota free tariffs, are a sign of our commitment both to an open global trading system and our understanding of the depth and the complexity of the development agenda.

The only people who really ask me about Brexit are the European press. The rest of the world seems to regard it as a European sideshow.