Cold War, Trade War: The Soviet Union, the EEC, and UNCTAD’s battle for free trade

In 1964, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was born with an ambitious objective: convincing UN member states to lower or remove all barriers to the free circulation of goods and commodities worldwide. According to the liberal convictions of UNCTAD founders, free trade was the best tool to boost development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and reduce the inequality gap with the “Global North”. The Soviet Union and most of the socialist world jumped on the UNCTAD bandwagon immediately. As one of the largest commodity exporters in the world, the USSR had much to gain from selling its oil and gas to the West without tariffs and restrictions. On the other hand, the capitalist world resisted UNCTAD’s call. The European Economic Community in particular had no intention of extending favorable trade conditions to non-member states, with the exception of a few former colonies in Africa. This paper explores the ensuing battle between these large economic blocs, from the mid-1960s until the late 1980s. Each bloc attempted to draw maximum benefits from the possibility of free exchanges, while applying a different standard when it came to opening up its own markets. Cold War divisions mattered little, revealing the unexpected roles that the capitalist world, the socialist bloc, and the Global South played in shaping global trade reform.

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