US election rhetoric on trade is worrying, says WTO's Roberto Azevedo

US anti-trade election rhetoric concerning: WTO
US anti-trade election rhetoric concerning: WTO

World Trade Organization boss Roberto Azevedo has a message for the U.S. electorate: Trade doesn't cause unemployment, no matter what you're told by the presidential candidates.

Azevedo told CNBC's Sri Jegarajah that he was worried by the U.S. election rhetoric around trade, particularly when candidates advocated protectionist policies.

"I'm very concerned with the type of debate I see in campaigning about trade and about the negative trade effects because that may lead to the wrong policies, to the wrong decisions," Azevedo said on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting of the world's top economies in Hangzhou, China, at the weekend.

Azevedo said he was particularly concerned by the focus on perceived negatives from global trade.

"When we talk about trade, most of the time, it's making a relationship between trade and unemployment," he said. "Trade is not the cause for unemployment. In fact, the biggest drivers for unemployment are innovation and increased productivity. It has nothing to do with trade."

The implications of global trade have been a long-running theme this campaign season, as the Democrats' Hillary Clinton and the Republicans' Donald Trump vie for the White House. Both presidential candidates oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a newly inked free-trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim nations including the U.S., that is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's focus on boosting relations with Asia.

But foreign policy veterans have said Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is degrees apart from Republican rival Donald Trump. While Clinton merely opposes TPP in its current form - the deal has yet to be ratified by Congress - Trump has vowed to renegotiate NAFTA, the country's long-time free trade deal with Canada and Mexico, and threatened to impose crippling tariffs on China. Those three countries are the top U.S. trade partners.

Analysts have said Trump's strong measures would likely start an international trade war that crippled everyone involved, with an end result of high prices around the world, and a slowdown in international growth or even an outright recession.

While he declined to comment specifically on Trump's proposals, the WTO Director General Azevedo said he was concerned about "contagious" protectionist rhetoric.

"In general, protectionist measures, especially unilateral measures, they're not helpful," he said. "Protectionism is contagious. That's the reality. One thinks that one is winning when we slap tariffs or introduce barriers to imports from another country and we think we win."

"But you lose when you export because the other countries are going to raise tariffs as well. They're going to introduce barriers as well. So you win with one hand and you lose with the other."

The WTO is both an advocate for opening trade globally as well as a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements and settle trade disputes.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo delivers a speech at the World Trade Symposium conference in the Royal Garden Hotel in London on June 7, 2016.
Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP | Getty Images

—Tom DiChristopher contributed to this article.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1