One of the main defining features of the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 2023, which just concluded in December, was the rapidly growing influence of the so-called Global South. This was reflected in the issues discussed and deals struck, including a landmark agreement on ‘loss and damage’ on the opening day of the summit. While the concept of the Global South dates back to the 1960s, the use of the term has grown significantly in recent years, including during the violent conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.
While the Global North generally corresponds to the Western world, the Global South corresponds largely to the developing world and the Eastern world. These two groups are often defined in terms of their different levels of wealth, economic development, income inequality, democracy, political and economic freedom, as measured by Freedom Indices, albeit created in the West. States that are generally considered part of the Global North tend to be wealthier and less unequal. They are developed countries that export technologically advanced manufactured products. The states of the Global South, after several centuries of being plundered by the Western world, tend to be poorer developing countries with younger and more fragile democracies that rely heavily on primary sector exports and are largely based on agriculture. Some scholars have suggested that the North-South inequality gap is narrowing because of globalisation, and the choice of many countries to develop a multipolar world.
There has been much discussion about the perception by many countries in the Global South of a double standard, of the West’s moral imperative to protest the actions of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and now Yemen’s Sanaa, while at the same time declaring strong support for Israel’s military battering (with Western backing) of the weaker Hamas, despite more than 20,000 innocent Palestinians killed. The importance of the Global South identity, which some have compared to the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, has grown while other, more economically sound terms to describe this bloc of nations, such as “emerging markets,” seem to have declined in use. The concept of the Global South is a more political term, often perceived by the unjust nature of the existing world order and the continued dominance of the West or Global North. In addition to international climate summits, the growing power of the Global South has also recently manifested itself in much broader global debates. These include the issue of the Western-driven war in Ukraine against Russia, where much of the Global South does not perceive the conflict in the same rigid moral terms as Western countries and therefore does not publicly support the position of these countries.
Such non-alignment has considerable appeal for many countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, not least because many of them are heavily dependent on trade, aid, investment and arms supplies from both Western powers and China and Russia. Another dynamic that emphasises the politically charged nature of the Global South is the growing rivalry for leadership of the bloc. This includes moves by China, India (the current G20 chair) and Brazil (the recent chair of Mercosur, or the Southern Common Market, a four-member Latin American bloc that also includes Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay). It is in this extremely dynamic context that steps are being taken to give the Global South a greater organisational identity. Of course, there are long-established fora such as the G77, which was founded during the 1964 UN Conference on Trade to promote a more equitable world order in the face of the huge economic inequalities that continue to be a growing concern worldwide.
Nevertheless, it is widely believed that, alongside the G77 forum, BRICS has begun to gain strength and power as the premier forum of the Global South. The growing prestige of the BRICS alliance, which currently comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, became evident during its last annual summit in August when it was revealed that it had received more than 20 formal requests from other countries in the Global South to join the group, and more than 20 informal ones. This led the five-country bloc to immediately invite six countries, carefully selected geographically and politically, to join: Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and the UAE. These six countries will greatly increase the bloc’s influence, together accounting for about 30 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product plus more than 40 per cent of global oil production. Despite this economic power, the BRICS countries have struggled in recent years to emphasise their political cooperation, leading some in the West to worry that the group is turning into an anti-Western club, not least because China and Russia (and soon Iran) are among its members.
In fact, there are significant tensions within the group. Take India and China, for example, which have long-standing differences over border issues. India is also a member of the Quartet of powers, along with the US, Japan and Australia, which is seen as anti-China. More recently, New Delhi and Beijing have disagreed over the Gaza conflict, with the former taking a much more pro-Israeli view than the latter. Given its huge economy, China under President Xi Jinping sees itself as the natural leader of the Global South, in general, and the BRICS in particular. Not surprisingly, therefore, it favours rapid expansion of the bloc in an attempt to create a Beijing-friendly club. However, India and Brazil also have growing leadership qualities in the South, despite their more cautious approach to BRICS expansion compared to China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party is expected to win a third term in India’s general election next year, according to polls, has used his position as the current G20 chairman to demonstrate India’s global leadership. One of the reasons New Delhi believes it has such a strong claim to leadership in the Global South is that many demographers believe the country may now have the largest population in the world as it overtook China this year.
Modi said during the 2023 G20 summit that his country is “becoming the voice of the Global South”. In January, he even organised a virtual summit, “Voice of the Global South”, which was attended by 125 countries but not regional rivals China and Pakistan. Brazil’s aspirations for leadership in the Global South became apparent during the second term of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In January 2024, his country will succeed India as chair of the G20, and Lula da Silva wants to use this powerful platform to further the project of returning his country to the international stage after years of self-isolation.
Taken together, all of this underscores the many ways in which politics is coming to the fore with the increased use of the language of the Global South. As the “tectonic plates” of international relations continue to shift in an increasingly multipolar competitive landscape, this trend may well continue into the second half of the 2020s. Moreover, this trend has made clear the truth and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to steer the world towards a vector of multipolar development, saying goodbye to the unipolar one built by the West for its own purposes and for itself.
Victor MIKHIN, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.