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Peter Sutherland Led Negotiations to Create the WTO
became the world’s top trade official in July 1993, negotiators had been bickering for nearly seven years in what seemed like a futile quest to reduce tariffs and other barriers to international commerce. Mr. Sutherland, a gregarious Irish lawyer who had broken his nose nine times playing rugby, declared it was no longer enough for national leaders to “mouth good intentions.”
Within six months, as director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, he had badgered and shamed 117 nations into accepting the market-opening accord that created the World Trade Organization, an engine for globalization that later helped lift China out of poverty and transformed industries world-wide.
By the time Mr. Sutherland died on Jan. 7 at age 71, the backlash against globalization was in full swing. Even so, he remained committed to global rule-making. The alternative, he argued, was a return to nationalism and conflict that could impoverish billions. He described Britain’s plan to withdraw from the European Union as “insanity.”
Mr. Sutherland found his calling as a globalist in 1985 when the Irish government sent him to Brussels as a commissioner of what was then the European Community. He pushed for freer competition between airlines and telecom companies, cracked down on government subsidies propping up dying industries and helped lead the way to the European Union and its single market.
His experience as a Eurocrat and global trade czar made him irresistible to corporate recruiters. A chance 1980s meeting with a
Group executive in an airport lounge eventually led to a partnership in that investment bank that made him rich. He also served as chairman of BP PLC. In his later years, he advised the United Nations on migration and the Vatican on its finances.
One regret was that he never was appointed president of the European Commission, the administrative body of the EU. “I would have given my right arm and leg” for that job, he said in a 2010 interview.
Peter Denis Sutherland was born April 25, 1946, in Dublin, where his father was an insurance broker. At a Jesuit-run boys school, he relished rugby and debate. After graduating from University College Dublin, he qualified as a lawyer. He married Maruja Cabria Valcarcel, a Spanish woman he met while she was working as an au pair in Ireland.
In his mid-20s, he ran for a seat in the Irish parliament but was trounced. Instead, he became a close adviser to Garret FitzGerald, a leader of the Fine Gael party. When he became prime minister, Mr. FitzGerald named Mr. Sutherland attorney general, a position that thrust him into tricky battles over abortion and the Irish Republican Army.
After he was sent to Brussels, he was given the European Community’s competition portfolio and used it to crack down on cartels and subsidies. He fined 15 chemical companies for fixing prices of polypropylene.
After leaving Brussels in 1989, he became chairman of Allied Irish Banks. When the global trade talks were bogged down in 1993, he was the choice of both U.S. and European politicians to head the global trade bureaucracy in Geneva.
Using a combination of charm and threats, he herded trade negotiators into line. His pitch was that freer trade would create millions of jobs. Among the last-minute issues he resolved were efforts by aircraft makers and European farmers to save their subsidies. In December 1993, he banged down a gavel to signal agreement on a 22,000-page trade agreement. Delegates to the Geneva trade talks gave him a standing ovation.
Mr. Sutherland’s involvement with Goldman Sachs began in the 1980s when Eugene Fife, an executive of the investment bank, spotted the Irishman as the two prepared to board a Concorde flight across the Atlantic. Mr. Fife was impressed by Mr. Sutherland’s insights into politics and economics and vast array of contacts. “It was very hard to find anybody who didn’t like him,” Mr. Fife said.
The Irishman first served on an international advisory panel for Goldman and later was chairman of the arm of the bank responsible for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Colleagues discreetly advised the rumpled Mr. Sutherland that, as a Goldman partner, he could afford to upgrade his suits.
At BP, Mr. Sutherland became chairman in 1997. He appeared to work well with the oil company’s CEO, John Browne. But Mr. Sutherland in 2006 insisted on setting a specific date for Mr. Browne’s retirement amid speculation that the CEO might want to linger indefinitely. (Mr. Browne ended up resigning abruptly from BP in 2007 amid a scandal over his relationship with a former lover.) Mr. Sutherland retired from BP at the end of 2009.
In May 2016, he told an Irish newspaper he was busy advising the UN on refugee crises. “I’m up to my gills in travel and dealing with the migration issue,” he said. Later that year, he suffered a heart attack from which he never totally recovered.
He is survived by his wife, three children and 10 grandchildren.
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