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Does ‘Global South’ Need to be Retired?

Factually, the term ‘Global South’ is inaccurate since many heavyweight countries covered under this term are located north of the equator, such as China, India, and Russia. However, the concept of the Global South as a political and economic collaborative framework has become entrenched in the lexicon of international relations in recent years.

Notably, the countries endorsing this term share a common trait: distancing themselves from Western powers, if not expressing outright resentment towards them. Despite its flaws, the Global South terminology is gaining momentum and emerging as a global opposition force challenging the current world order.

As it clings to power and resists reform attempts, the Western-dominated international order of the past eighty years has perpetuated deep inequities, and injustices, and marginalized large parts of the world. It is time for the ailing international order to acknowledge its flaws, democratize, diversify, and make room for the rest of the world, regardless of the terminology chosen to frame its efforts to gain a seat at the table.

According to Anne Garland Mahler of the University of Virginia, the Global South term is utilized to describe nations that are “economically disadvantaged” and have “a shared experience of subjugation under contemporary global capitalism” regardless of their geographical location. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Global South term encompasses “Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia (excluding Israel, Japan, and South Korea), and Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand).” Typically comprising developing and less economically developed nations, the concept emerged as a geopolitical and economic classification to juxtapose with the wealthier and more industrialized nations of the northern hemisphere, commonly referred to as the “Global North.”

Southern nations, characterized by diverse polities, cultures, economies, and vast natural resources, typically encounter similar socioeconomic developmental challenges. Moreover, these countries share common histories of colonization followed by Cold War era manipulation. Such shared characteristics have fueled a growing collective resentment against the post-World War II international order that resulted in disadvantages and marginalization of Global South nations. Despite notable disagreements among them, Global South nations often unite in advocating for a more equitable world order and a fair representation in the decision-making process within the United Nations and global bodies.

Citing its geographical inaccuracy, generalizations, and lack of conceptual coherence, Joseph Nye, the former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and others caution against the usage of the term considering it biased and misleading. Taking critics’ views into consideration, Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani asserts the Global South’s growing sense of agency in the world arena despite differences among major actors within the group. Southern nations tend to politically support each other, especially when dealing with Western powers. Now the Western dominance is eroding, Mahbubani noted, the Global South nations desire to shape the newly emerging world order. Narendra Modi, India’s populist prime minister, articulated such a desired goal of the South when addressing the Voice of Global South Summit in 2023.

Noting the significant political and symbolic power of the term, Dena Freeman argues that the Global South has defined itself globally since the 1960s, predating modern globalization and academic discourse. Collaboration among Global South nations have roots in the G77 Group and the Non-Aligned Movement which both emerged in the 1960s. Global South nations have long been working on developing their own version of the world order, seeking implementation through debates and negotiations within United Nations agencies, contended Freeman. These efforts, Freeman observed, faced resistance from the Global North, which has recently attempted to create a counter vision aiming to bridge the gap between North and South and prioritize broader global partnerships. The debate over the Global South terminology, enthusiastic and polarizing at times, appears far from resolution.

Similar to other contested terms, such as the ‘Middle East,’ ‘terrorism’ and the enigmatic term ‘globalization’ which defy precise definitions, the term ‘Global South’ has evolved into a significant geopolitical identity and socio-economic framework for countries representing over two-thirds of the world’s population. It is time to accept the term as a global reality rather than expending energy and effort challenging it.

Fostering better communication between the powerful North and emerging South requires dismantling the walls of the Western echo chamber. Western leaders and policymakers need to attentively heed the increasingly vocal voices emerging from other parts of the world. Resistance to the Global South terminology stems from a perceived Southern hostility that threatens Western hegemony. This perceived rivalry is rooted in a Western political mindset built upon the notion that opposition equates to enmity.

Such rigid Western ideology, which leaves no room for maneuverability, frequently faces dissent and disapproval from significant Global South powers and actors. Affirming the complexity of having a “unidimensional relationship” in global affairs, India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, emphasized the distinction between being “non-West” and “anti-West.” Participating in the Munich Security Conference in February, Jaishankar characterized India as “a country which is non-West, but which has an extremely strong relationship with Western countries.” President Xi Jinping similarly emphasizes cooperation over competition with Western nations, stressing the importance of building bilateral relations on principles of “mutual respect, peaceful co-existence, and win-win cooperation.”

Drawing on shared principles of the G77 Coalition and the Non-Aligned Movement, Global South nations advocate for an equitable, inclusive, and comprehensive world order. While avoiding a confrontation, Southern nations seek to rectify injustices, marginalization, and economic imbalances experienced across their geographical boundaries under the current dysfunctional global order.

This stance, by Southern nations, does not imply animosity towards Western powers. Expressing disapproval of inequalities, resentment against injustices, and pointing out Western hypocrisy and double-standard practices does not equate to seeking conflict with the West or aiming to displace any power. Rather, it signifies a call for a re-evaluation of the system that has led to these outcomes, rectifying injustices, and constructing a more equitable one. The colonial era, followed by the Cold War division, and the world order of the past 80 years have failed to serve the interests of the Global South. Consequently, Southern nations are not interested in perpetuating the outdated dichotomy of either being with us or against us.

Questioning a rules-based world order that often produces outcomes favoring Western interests, Julien Barnes-Dacey and Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations succinctly highlighted the Western hypocrisies and its geopolitical inconsistencies. The dominance of the Western narrative has eroded, argues the writers, due to actions in Iraq, Gaza, and the Niger Delta. Russia and China merely articulated, not fabricated, sentiments long felt by the Global South. Pinpointing the fact that the Global South is not a prize for the West to win or lose, Dacey and Shapiro urged a Western shift from moralizing to fostering equitable partnerships with Southern nations. Achieving such a shift, according to the writers, requires the U.S. and Europe to drop paternalistic lectures, prioritize mutually beneficial geopolitical agreements, and acknowledge Southern countries as middle powers deserving of respect and equal treatment.

Global South nations reject Cold War partisanship and coercion into alignment. The rise of China and the shift into a multipolar world order do not imply division, but rather an evolution toward a more democratic global order. In this emerging paradigm, coercion and manipulation by any single global power is no longer feasible. The fading era of unipolarity has marginalized Southern countries, relegated them to mere vessels, and hindered their socioeconomic development.

Firmly fleshing into a solid international collaborative framework, the Global South rejects unnecessary wars and refuses to be coerced into supporting policies that do not benefit its nations. Southern nations are entitled to the freedom to voice their opinions, choose their paths, and be respected within an equitable world order. Enthusiastic about creating a better future, the Global South nations advocate for equitable partnership, fair trade, and a universally applied rules-based order. Western nations have the discretion to either engage in shaping an inclusive world order or risk being sidelined as the rest of the world collaborates to establish it.