And then there were two.

The process of selecting a new Director-General for the WTO is heading to a conclusion, with the third and final round of consultations with members scheduled to start today. After the previous two rounds, the original nine-person shortlist has been whittled down to just two candidates: Mexico's Herminio Blanco and Brazil's Roberto Azevedo, meaning that a Latin American will get the top job for the first time. None of Asia's candidates, including Indonesia's Mari Pangestu, made the final cut, prompting some speculation that this showed the region's declining interest in the organisation.

For the next week or so, the focus will be on the differences between the Brazilian and Mexican candidates. For example, one view sees Azevedo as the preferred candidate of the BRICS and Blanco as that of the US and the 'trade establishment'. Another looks to the quite different trade policy stances of their respective nations. 

Whichever candidate wins is going to face an uphill task to restore the health of a body which, back at the turn of the millennium, was seen as the 'Great Satan' of globalisation but which now appears to be slipping into irrelevance.

The signs are not hard to find. Back in 1999, the prospect of another global trade round was enough to turn the streets of Seattle into a battleground. Today, more than a decade on from its launch in 2001, the Doha Round remains moribund – the trade round that time forgot. Just last month, the US warned that even the current attempts to salvage small elements of the Doha Agenda were going nowhere and that the WTO was headed for 'irrelevance' as a negotiating forum. 

The warning came as the WTO reported that world trade growth in 2012 had slumped to just 2% and was likely to remain similarly sluggish through this year, and as the current Director-General Pascal Lamy cautioned that the 'threat of protectionism may be greater now than at any time since the start of the crisis'. 

Critics increasingly argue that the WTO's negotiating agenda seems to be stuck in the 20th century and is failing to grapple with the pressing issues of today's global economy. As a result, the trade policy agenda appears to be moving further away from Geneva and towards so-called 'mega regional' agreements such as the TPP and the proposed Transatlantic agreement linking the EU and US.

Taken together, these trends feed a growing sense that the multilateral trading system is in trouble. The new DG, whoever he is, will have to work hard to save it. More importantly, so will the world's leaders, who at times have shown an almost cavalier disregard for the importance of maintaining a robust multilateral trading system.

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Ressa.