3 April 2024

The Trouble With “the Global South”

Comfort Ero

Not so long ago, policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals gave little apparent thought to the possibility that the rest of the world might hold opinions distinct from their own. There were some exceptions: governments that the West deemed “good partners”—in other words, those willing to advance U.S. and Western security or economic interests—continued to benefit from Western support even if they did not govern themselves in accordance with Western values. But after the Cold War ended, most Western policymakers seemed to expect that developing countries would, over time, embrace the Western approach to democracy and globalization. Few Western leaders seemed to worry that non-Western states might bridle at their norms or perceive the international distribution of power as an unjust remnant of the colonial past. Leaders who voiced such views, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, were dismissed as eccentrics, their ideas behind the times.

Today, by contrast, many Western policy discussions treat it as an established fact that a global South exists with its own distinct outlook. The phrase has become a nearly unavoidable shorthand—my colleagues and I use it ourselves at the International Crisis Group, the organization I lead. And, indeed, non-Western leaders including Narendra Modi of India and Mia Mottley of Barbados have begun to articulate the priorities of a collective—if still rather amorphous—global South on issues such as climate financing and the role of international institutions. Disappointed by many developing countries’ refusal to take serious steps to penalize Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, U.S. and European officials have started to pay new lip service to concerns of this group of states.

Although this acknowledgment of the rest of the world’s interests is a welcome development, it is connected to a particular understanding of the global South, which, as a term, is conceptually unwieldy. There is no hard-and-fast definition of the global South, but it is typically used to refer to the bulk of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It lumps together powerful members of the G-20, such as Brazil and Indonesia, with the world’s least developed countries, including Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste. These countries do share some common historical experiences and future objectives, such as changing the balance of power in the international system. In conversations with politicians and officials from countries considered to be members of the global South, I have encountered a range of views on how coherent a unit it is. Some accept the term—but others do not. For these countries can also have dramatically diverging interests, values, and perspectives.

Policymakers in the West risk losing sight of the diversity the term encompasses. When they regard the global South as a more or less cohesive coalition, they can end up simplifying or ignoring countries’ individual concerns. Western officials who want to cultivate better ties with their non-Western counterparts may become tempted to focus on winning over a few supposedly leading global South states, such as Brazil and India. Their assumption is clear: bolster ties with Brasilia or New Delhi and the rest will follow. The Biden administration and its allies invested so heavily in making last year’s G-20 summit in India a success at least in part for this reason.

A policy that focuses too heavily on a narrow cadre of non-Western states is insufficient. It can obscure the tensions among developing countries and the unique pressures—such as debt, climate change, demographic forces, and internal violence—that are shaping politics in many of them. In doing so, such a policy may also veil opportunities for building better ties with small and middle-sized states by addressing their individual interests. The term “global South” may offer a compelling but misleading simplicity (as can its counterpart, “the West”). Treating countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America as a geopolitical bloc, however, will not help solve the problems they face, nor will it bring the United States and its partners the influence they seek.


It is true that the countries of the global South, as defined here, have some common causes as well as incentives to coordinate. Most of these states fought against colonialism (and, in some cases, U.S. interventions) and cooperated in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, coalitions that brought developing countries together during the Cold War. Both live on as formal blocs at the United Nations. In many multilateral settings today, non-Western states often opt to negotiate as a team rather than parley with the U.S. and its allies alone. This coordination enhances the affinity among countries frustrated with an international order that too often works against their interests.

Recent global events have made schisms between these countries and the West more pronounced. When many non-Western governments refused to take sides after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Western leaders acknowledged the need to address allegations of a double standard—specifically, the perception that they only took principled stands when a European nation was attacked. Only with the support of a large bloc of states that are usually considered part of the global South, after all, could the UN General Assembly deliver a strong show of solidarity with Ukraine. But Western governments did not seek to apply this lesson beyond the Russia-Ukraine war. If the war in Gaza posed the next test of whether Western leaders truly grasped the importance of facing accusations of hypocrisy, those leaders appear to have failed. Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, officials and citizens believe that the United States and some of its allies in Europe have greenlighted Israel’s wholesale destruction of Gaza. The perception of double standards is stronger than ever.

Similarities in outlook, however, do not mean the countries generally assumed to belong to the global South act as one. Non-Western leaders are no different than their Western counterparts in their desire to pursue their states’ own interests, and not all of them see their countries as members of a broad-based group. Take, for example, their recent actions at the United Nations. In debates in the General Assembly over development policy, a small caucus of hard-line G-77 members, led by Cuba and Pakistan, insists on an aggressive approach to negotiating reforms to the international financial system with the United States and the European Union, and the group denounces the West for failing to live up to past aid pledges. Russia, in coordination with this caucus, used discussions of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2023 as a platform to criticize the global economic impact of U.S. sanctions. Yet in private, many other G-77 members expressed discomfort with this sharp-elbowed diplomacy, arguing that it undercut efforts to find common ground with Washington and Brussels to reduce their debt burdens.

Similarities in outlook do not mean the members of the putative global South act as one.

Splits within the putative global South extend beyond economic issues. Some Latin American countries led by liberal governments, for example, would like to promote progressive agendas on gender issues and LGBTQ rights at the UN, but they run into opposition from more conservative G-77 members, including many Muslim-majority states. Brazil and India have long pursued permanent seats on the Security Council, but regional rivals such as Argentina and Pakistan aim to stymie them. And although non-Western diplomats often have practical reasons to stick together, those representing larger powers put their national positions ahead of group solidarity when it suits them.

While many purport to speak for the global South—at the UN or otherwise—no single country can claim the mantle. Over the last year, Brazil, China, and India have tussled to present themselves as the group’s most effective leaders. All three countries are founding members of the BRICS, whose core members also include Russia and South Africa. During India’s 2023 G-20 presidency, Modi promised to represent “our fellow travelers from the global South” and helped the African Union gain a permanent seat. China, meanwhile, concentrated on expanding the BRICS, leading a successful push to extend invitations to Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to join. (Argentina declined its invitation.) Brazil plans to use its role as president of the G-20 this year and host of the COP30 climate summit in 2025 to advance what President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) has presented as a vision of a “multipolar, fair, and inclusive order” in which countries of the global South would have greater influence than they do today.

Yet even as these powers vie to lead developing countries, some of their recent foreign policy choices suggest they prioritize other relationships. China has been quietly strengthening its ties with Russia since the two powers declared a “no-limits partnership” in 2022. India has increased its trade with Russia and has drawn closer to the United States and U.S. allies in its role as part of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), a maritime security forum that also includes Australia and Japan. The Modi government broke with a majority of the members of the Non-Aligned Movement at the UN in October, too, when it refused to sign on to a General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. Although New Delhi supported a subsequent resolution in December, the October vote testified to India’s deepening ties with Israel in recent years.

For Brazil, China, and India, claiming leadership of the global South offers clear advantages.

Lula, meanwhile, has taken a more strident stance than other non-Western leaders on the Israel-Hamas war, comparing Israel’s offensive in Gaza to the Holocaust—comments that got the Brazilian president declared persona non grata in Israel in February. But Brazil has also sought favor with the world’s great powers, deftly navigating the frictions among China, Russia, and the United States in order to bolster ties with all three. For Brazil, China, and India in particular, claiming leadership of the global South offers clear advantages, including opportunities to expand their global diplomatic heft and firm up economic relationships. Despite their rhetorical support for the countries in this group, however, hard-headed realpolitik frequently takes precedence.

Other aspirants to lead the global South seem even less equipped to claim the position. South Africa, for one, seems to take seriously the idea that it could represent this group; South African officials have been especially keen to play a peacemaking role in Ukraine. President Cyril Ramaphosa led a delegation of African leaders to Moscow and Kyiv last summer—but he made no progress toward ending the war. South Africa has arguably had more influence by bringing a case against Israel under the Genocide Convention before the International Court of Justice, a move that has shaped international debates about the war in Gaza. But a South Africa that still struggles to project itself as a leader on its own continent—where other powers such as Kenya and Nigeria prefer to chart their own paths—will not find it any easier to rally a globe-spanning coalition.

No other candidates for the leadership position are likely to emerge. The small but influential Gulf Arab countries, for instance, caucus at the UN with developing nations in the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77, and they have used these ties to garner support for the Palestinian cause during the Israel-Hamas war. But Arab officials tend to present their interests as separate from those of the global South, given their countries’ economic growth and relative political stability. Russia has also tried to win the backing of non-Western countries, and it uses anticolonial rhetoric to justify its confrontation with Europe and the United States. But many officials in these states see Moscow as too erratic and bellicose to trust in full, and Kenya in particular has criticized Russia for waging an imperialist war in Ukraine.


Ultimately, there is little value in striving to identify who, if anyone, can lead the global South. When officials in poorer countries look at the cast of contenders, they often question whether they have anything in common with those major and middle powers. As one African politician recently told me, smaller, poorer countries worry about being pushed into the role of the “South of the global South”: in need of outside support and facing condescension not only from former colonial rulers but also from non-Western states that are better off.

The parlor game of global South leadership also pulls focus from the real challenges facing small and medium-sized states. Just as Western pundits have started to speculate about what new kinds of power developing countries can exert as a bloc, the fortunes of many individual non-Western states have taken a turn for the worse. Almost two-thirds of the world’s least developed countries now face serious debt distress. Some of the poorest—including several in West Africa—are experiencing political instability and deteriorating security conditions, which will only compound their economic woes. Regional bodies that were set up to mediate political problems, such as the African Union and Organization of American States, have lost credibility amid squabbles among their members. Helping vulnerable countries, particularly those that face conflict and humanitarian catastrophe, navigate the mutually reinforcing shocks of violence, inflation, food insecurity, climate change, and the lingering effects of the pandemic is more pressing than determining which power’s cues they follow in international diplomacy.

The spike in chatter about the global South has at least done the service of highlighting mounting problems.

Even the states that aim to lead Africa, Asia, and Latin America face serious internal fractures, such as the high level of criminal activity in Brazil and South Africa or the recent upsurge of ethnic conflict in northeastern India. Ethiopia’s stature may have risen with its invitation to join the BRICS, but the country is recovering from a bloody civil war and contending with multiple insurgencies. The governments of many major non-Western powers are attempting to take a greater role on the global stage while facing persistent or increasing instability at home. Although the same can be said for several advanced economies in the West, in neither case is this a recipe for consistent leadership and problem-solving.

The recent spike in chatter about the global South has at least done the service of highlighting mounting problems faced by countries beyond the West—problems that will require a global effort to address. To head off future instability, the United States and its allies must work to ease the international debt crisis and help vulnerable states resolve internal conflicts and governance issues. Progress will require multilateral negotiations to reform the global financial architecture—during which developing countries will likely continue to work as a bloc—and increased attention to each country or region’s specific economic and political circumstances. With Chinese initiatives such as the South-South Cooperation Fund and the BRICS New Development Bank presenting alternatives to Western public finance, genuine efforts from Washington and its partners to address these countries’ concerns will be particularly important.

But the terminology problem remains. Although many Western policymakers think they know better than to treat the non-Western world as an unvariegated whole, they should use the phrase “global South” with particular care. Specific dynamics within and among the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America will shape their political futures more than their identity as a group. The West must see these states as they are, not fall for the fallacy that they operate geopolitically as a single entity.

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