This conference must also establish in plain terms the right of all peoples to unrestricted freedom of trade, and the obligation of all states signatories of the agreement emanating from the conference to refrain from restraining trade in any manner, direct or indirect.—Ernesto Che Guevara, speech delivered March 25, 1964, at the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development1
Much globalization scholarship assumes that the United States and other advanced industrialized capitalist countries are the primary agents of globalization. Meanwhile, in spite of nonaligned and socialist countries’ historical claims to internationalism, scholars have often presented Third World countries primarily as passive victims of globalization and socialist countries as autarkic and thus isolated from the rest of the world until the 1990s.2 Both supporters and critics of globalization have equated economic globalization with capitalism and specifically neoliberal capitalism.3 This would make it difficult to understand Che Guevara’s statement above. Such scholars have also pointed to alternative globalizations, grassroots movements opposed to neoliberal capitalism, but these movements have been understood more as political protest movements than as producing economic globalization.4 However, if we examine economic globalization more closely and from the perspective of Second and Third World institutions, we can see that the Non-Aligned Movement, the Second World, and the Third World more broadly worked hard to create a global economy in the face of active resistance by the United States and other current and former colonial powers, which sought to maintain the economic status quo of the colonial system. Only later, in the 1980s and 1990s, after the defeat of Second and Third World internationalism, could the United States and other core capitalist countries coopt and exploit the emergent global economy for their own benefit and appear as agents, rather than enemies, of globalization.
In this essay, I explore one of the centers of global economic thought and policy for the New International Economic Order (NIEO): the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In 1964, the first UNCTAD conference took place in Geneva, Switzerland, bringing together over four thousand representatives, including Che Guevara, from 120 countries. In contrast to the Bretton Woods institutions, UNCTAD included, on an equal basis, all nation-states recognized by the UN; focused on the trade and development problems of the Third World; worked against colonialism; and worked toward what Raúl Prebisch, the famous Argentinian economist and UNCTAD’s first secretary-general, already in 1963 called a “new international economic order.”5 To explore the economic ideas of UNCTAD, I use both the official proceedings of UNCTAD’s first meeting in 1964 and documents from the UNCTAD archives in Geneva and New York City.