The Return of the Global South – Foreign Affairs Magazine

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.


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.

The term “developing countries” came into use during the early years of the United Nations. Although it continues to be used today, it, too, is gradually falling out of favor. The very notion of ranking countries as either “developing” or “developed” has come under criticism for implicitly endorsing the idea of a linear pathway of development—that societies are in a backward state until they resemble those of Japan, the United States, and Europe.

The term “the global South” avoids these pitfalls. It, too, has its origins in the twentieth century. The term was used in a well-known 1980 report, North-South: A Programme for Survival, issued by an independent committee led by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and in a 1990 report, The Challenge to the South: The Report of the South Commission, issued by a UN panel led by Julius Nyerere, then the president of Tanzania. The prefix “global” was added in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, possibly a byproduct of the rising popularity of another term, “globalization,” that came into vogue around then.

The global South exists today not as an organized grouping but as a geopolitical fact.

The global South comprises a large swath of mostly (but not only) poorer or middle-income states stretching from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands all the way to Latin America. In the early decades of decolonization, it was not inaccurate to speak of the global South as a coherent entity. Practically all of its states were acutely shaped by the colonial experience and their struggle for freedom from European rule. Almost all were economically weak and had little industry to speak of. They also banded together in forums and institutions that promised to birth a new, vital force in global politics with a coordinated platform of action. The 1955 Bandung conference of African and Asian states and the 1961 founding of the Non-Aligned Movement articulated a vision of solidarity premised on opposing colonialism and racism, backing dirigiste economics, rejecting nuclear weapons, and keeping faith with the UN to maintain peace and resolve inequities in the international system.

But even in the 1960s, cracks were appearing in this movement. India’s devastating military defeat at the hands of China in 1962 hobbled its potential to better shape the global South’s unity. A series of military coups in states ranging from Chile to Uganda sullied the movement’s moral claims. Soon afterward, India and Pakistan began developing nuclear weapons.

The collapse of the blocs that defined the Cold War and the unipolarity of U.S. dominance that followed further eroded the Non-Aligned Movement’s coherence and moral claims. The question arose: With respect to whom was it now nonaligned? Southern solidarity, it seemed, was dead.


Not so fast, however. As the unipolar era that followed the end of the Cold War recedes, the global South is coming alive once again. But its guiding principle this time is not idealism but realism, with an unhesitating embrace of national interests and increased recourse to power politics.

Like any other meta-definitions (for example, “the West”), the term global South can be a little ambiguous. For the purposes of this argument, the membership of the G-77, an organization founded in the United Nations in 1964, can serve as a reasonable guide to the global South’s composition. The grouping, with 134 member states today, defines itself as “the largest intergovernmental organization of developing countries in the United Nations, which provides the means for the countries of the South” to “enhance their joint negotiating capacity.” It includes almost all states other than Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States, and European countries, as well as a few others including two great powers, China and Russia. This broader definition of the global South includes states such as Turkey (a NATO ally), Gulf petrostates such as Saudi Arabia, and formerly poor countries such as Chile and Singapore that have become much more prosperous. Being low- or middle-income is only one indicator that a state is part of the global South. Others include having a colonial past or not being a great power or a core ally of a great power.

The diverse countries in this new iteration of the global South share several features. Memories of European colonial domination, especially in Africa, remain a factor shaping geopolitical thinking. These countries may have largely abandoned the autarkic state-driven economic policies of yesteryear, but their drive to “catch up” with wealthy states is a common and, if anything, more urgent imperative. Their desire for both strategic autonomy and a much greater share of political power in the international system is strong and only getting stronger, particularly among the global South’s middle powers, such as Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa.

Many commentators focus on the emergence of institutions such as the G-20, the BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as emblematic of the global South’s return. But focusing on intergovernmental coalitions misses the biggest way that the global South is asserting itself: through the actions of individual states. These diverse and mostly uncoordinated actions, grounded strongly in the national interest of each country, are likely to have an impact greater than the sum of their parts.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Beijing, April 2023

Pool / Reuters

Global South states are greatly focused on attracting trade and investment and moving up the value chain. They rarely suffer from the deep and generalized anxieties about trade agreements that have gripped the United States of late. Over the last couple of decades, most of these countries have opened themselves to the forces of the market even as they retain, and sometimes entrench, selective protectionist policies. Within the past few years, moves by Indonesia and Zimbabwe to restrict exports of nickel and lithium, respectively, are aimed at attracting higher-value investments from abroad. Chile’s new lithium policy includes a much greater role for the state in its mining and processing. Similar forces are at work in the Saudi push to create a green hydrogen industry and India’s drive to attract electronics manufacturing. Ideology has given way to pragmatic experimentation with hybrid economic models.

Looking out for No. 1 also extends to rejecting a new cold war dynamic that pits the United States, Japan, and Europe against a gathering coalition of China and Russia. Many global South states are wealthier and savvier than they were in the twentieth century and have learned how to play off both sides to gain benefits for themselves. They have seen from experience that limited great-power competition has its uses but that a new cold war would endanger their interests and roil their societies. Some proxy wars may yet come to pass, but the large-scale depredations of the Cold War—when many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America endured repeated and destructive interventions by one or the other superpower—are unlikely to be repeated.

This does not mean that cooperation between the United States and global South states will necessarily wane. Some of these states may even form limited ententes with the United States, or indeed other great powers, to further their interests. New Delhi’s security convergence with Washington exists to balance Beijing and take advantage of friend-shoring opportunities. But even this entente has limits: India is unlikely to contribute much beyond logistical and perhaps temporary basing support in the event of a war over the South China Sea, for example. And India follows its own compass when it comes to Russia, importing weapons and jointly developing and producing the BrahMos missile, which it is now exporting. Vietnam continues to doggedly pursue maritime claims against China even as it successfully attracts a surge of Chinese trade and investment and resists being drawn into a quasi-alliance with the United States. Brazil under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva cooperates closely with the United States on climate change even as it maintains warm relations with Washington’s great-power rivals China and Russia. And Pakistan has a forged a deep military and economic partnership with China while its relationship with the United States has become mostly transactional.

Global South states also gain leverage through the power of denial. Practically all global South states have rejected the sanctions regime adopted against Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Some have increased their trade with Moscow, greatly undermining the efficacy of Western sanctions. In 2022, Russia’s trade increased by 87 percent with Turkey, by 68 percent with the United Arab Emirates and by a whopping 205 percent with India. Other U.S. allies and close partners such as the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand could well act to limit U.S. policy in the heat of any crisis with China.

Global South states are greatly dissatisfied with their weight in global institutions.

Most important, global South states remain greatly dissatisfied when it comes to their weight in global decision-making structures. This marginalization is increasingly inconsistent with the actual economic influence that middle powers wield, a heft they simply did not possess in the 1960s. Some of these states are crucial sources of minerals, supply chains, and, sometimes, innovations that are essential for global growth and for combating climate change, which gives them greater leverage than they had in the twentieth century.

This growing incongruity also deepens their dissatisfaction with the current world order and generates urgency for substantive change, for example in the UN system. Reform in the UN Security Council, however, will not come quickly. The body still reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945, and its expansion is a remote prospect. The United States also still dominates international finance, allowing it to work with its core allies to threaten far-reaching secondary sanctions that are in effect directed at global South states. But global South states will continue to seek more autonomy and to exercise greater global influence through public statements and proposals that aim to shape or contest global norms (such as the Ukraine peace plans some have proposed), coalitions such as the one with China and Russia in the BRICS, regional institutions, and growing bilateral trade in local currencies.

The effects of these efforts may be visible already; it is noteworthy that Washington has not yet imposed major secondary sanctions when it comes to Russia. The U.S.-led G-7 has also scrambled to put together an infrastructure initiative, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and Washington has been relatively cautious in responding to the Sahel belt’s anti-French coups. In time, the new global South could force the great powers to at least partly accommodate its demands for a greater say in international institutions and to refrain from most proxy war activity.

The new south will make its influence felt chiefly through the actions of individual states grounded in national interest. However, echoes of the deeper coordination of the Bandung era can be heard in two arenas. The first is climate change. In international negotiations, members of the global South collectively confront wealthier countries, pushing for greater climate finance and “climate reparations.” The other area, though still far from being realized, is countering dollar hegemony. The incentives for the global South to bypass the dollar regime are strong, but major structural impediments prevent an easy solution. Trade in local currencies is growing, however, and over a longer period of time a more comprehensive solution could emerge. The recently announced expansion of the BRICS during its August summit in Johannesburg could aid both these efforts.


The wide heterogeneity within the global South and the rise of its middle powers raises some questions about the durability of the framing. The global South could become less relevant as a geopolitical fact if its members were to pursue serious rivalries with one another. Climate action could also act as a spoiler; a rift could emerge between states with large carbon footprints, such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia, and smaller, poorer states, principally in parts of Africa, that will never contribute much to greenhouse gas emissions even as they face all its consequences. So, too, a gap between middle- and low-income countries could undercut the south’s impact. Over time, a substantial differentiation has emerged between middle-income countries such as Chile and Malaysia and the more than 50 states, mostly in Africa, that are suffering from major debt crises.

Such ruptures, however, are currently not in sight. Few signs of major rivalries are emerging between middle powers such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. Their geographic separation and a lack of disputes affecting their central interests will likely ensure that relations remain cordial into the foreseeable future. Global South states have mostly maintained a united front in demanding more climate financing from their European and North American counterparts. And middle-income global South countries are showing sensitivity to the economic needs of poorer ones; for example, India, currently president of the G-20, is pushing for debt relief for low-income states.

The global South will persist as a geopolitical fact so long as it remains excluded from the inner core of international structures of power. As long as these states are denied a greater material say in governing the international system (which includes, but goes well beyond, the UN Security Council), the global South is likely to be a force for change, exerting pressure on the great powers, challenging the legitimacy of some of their policies, and limiting their scope of action in key arenas. Maintaining the status quo of the current global order and resisting the democratization of its governance, as the systemic leader the United States and its closest allies seem to be trying to do (with China and Russia also resisting substantive changes to the UN Security Council), will only heighten the impatience for serious reform. Insofar as it is defined by its distance from the core of the international order, the new global South will lose its geopolitical coherence only when its goals have been substantially achieved.

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