Russia’s war in Ukraine has reminded Western observers that a world exists outside the great powers and their core allies. This world, predominantly comprising countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, has resisted taking clear sides in the conflict. The war has thus shone a spotlight on the global South as a major factor in geopolitics. Indeed, Foreign Affairs recently devoted a magazine issue to understanding the motivations of the “Nonaligned World.” Today’s geopolitical landscape is not just defined by the tensions between the United States and its great-power rivals China and Russia but also by the maneuvering of middle powers and even lesser powers.
The countries of the global South contain the vast majority of humanity, but their desires and goals have long been relegated to the footnotes of geopolitics. In the second half of the twentieth century, groupings such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77 at the United Nations sought to advance the collective interests of poorer and decolonized countries in a world dominated by formerly imperial powers. Their solidarity was substantially grounded in ideals and a sense of shared moral purpose that did not always produce concrete results. Even before the end of the Cold War, the moralism that motivated these states to band together began to dissipate. The unipolar decades after the end of the Cold War seemed to have sidelined the global South for good as a clear force.
Today, however, the global South is back. It exists not as a coherent, organized grouping so much as a geopolitical fact. Its impacts are being felt in new and growing coalitions—such as the BRICS group, which may soon expand beyond its original members, Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa—but even more through the individual actions of its states. These actions, driven by national interests rather than the idealism of southern solidarity, add up to more than the sum of their parts. They are beginning to constrain the actions of the great powers and provoke them to respond to at least some of the global South’s demands.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The process of decolonization that followed World War II added scores of new nation-states to the United Nations from the 1940s to the 70s. In a 1952 paper, the French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World” to refer to these countries. He saw a parallel between newly independent former colonies and the “ignored, exploited, scorned” Third Estate of pre-revolutionary France, the segment of society composed of common citizens. After the Cold War’s end and the dissolution of the communist “Second World,” the term “Third World” seemed to have become outmoded. It also came to be seen as pejorative toward weaker states in the international system.
Read the full piece in Foreign Affairs.