Since the start of the war in Ukraine, foreign policy pundits have resurrected political jargon that suggests that Western efforts to protect the liberal international order are being challenged by nation-states that belong to the so-called “Global South.”
Even a conservative realist scholar like Walter Russel Mead has been prone to refer to the South, a term coined by neo-Marxist political economists during the 1980s, when he recently wrote that the skepticism expressed by Brazil’s President Lula Da Silva regarding NATO’s policies in Ukraine reflect “decades of wariness in the Global South about the Wilsonian agenda.” Further, Mead noted the continued existence of the perception that Wilsonian or multilateral institutions formed after World War II are “instruments of Western domination that should be feared and resisted.”
To recall, according to the intellectual jargon that was trendy before the end of the Cold War and the ensuing era of globalization, the terms “North” and “South” were used as a way to compare the industrialized and developed nations associated with the mostly white nations of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia to the poor, “underdeveloped,” or “less developed” and mostly non-white countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, later to be known as the Third World.
Neo-Marxist scholars came up with the grand theory of “dependency” that stipulated that the global capitalist system encouraged the flow of resources from the “periphery” of poor states in the South to the “core” of wealthy nations in the North, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. In order to correct this injustice, they said, there needed to be a major transfer of wealth from the North to the South that would then develop by rejecting Western forms of capitalism and embracing centralized economic systems.
Even liberal-internationalist American policymakers bought into this political-economic model, arguing very much like Mead does today that the opposition to American Cold War policies by the likes of Venezuela, Nigeria, or Nepal is rooted in their common belief that the white industrialized nations have failed to help them deal with their social-economic challenges.
From that perspective, the Soviet Union was seen at that time—like Russia and China today—as exploiting the misery of the South. So, in order to strengthen its geostrategic position and win the hearts and minds of the Southerners, the North had to slow down its drive to spread capitalism and free markets and trade worldwide. Instead, it helped create a New International Economic Order that would channel economic resources to what were then authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
Needless to say, much of the above proved to be, in retrospect, like much of Marxist thinking, no more than provocative but useless intellectual exercises, with the international economic order shifting in the direction of free markets and liberalized trade. That helped bring countries like India and China out of poverty and turned the so-called “Asian Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) into economic success stories, with the former poverty-stricken city-state of Singapore enjoying a higher rate of Gross National Income per capita today than the former imperial power that ruled it, Great Britain.
The North not only helped the South integrate into the global economy and take the road toward industrialization and prosperity, but the North, led by the United States, also ended up winning the Cold War against the Soviet Bloc. Of course, this was not due to it being white—after all, so were the Russians and Eastern Europeans—but because its military strength depended on its economic power. Contrary to some ensuing myths, the role that America’s allies in the South played in that victory was marginal. If anything, arming countries in the Third World and subsidizing their corrupt leaders proved to be a burden and not an asset in the competition with the former Soviet Bloc.
The United States and its allies became popular after the collapse of the Berlin Wall not because of the amount of economic assistance they provided to Third World countries but because they were victorious and their model of economic development helped turn, say, South Korea into a regional and international winner as opposed to North Korea that remained behind as a loser.
But Mead gets one point right: Contrary to fairy tales disseminated by Western propagandists, America and its allies were driven not by altruistic notions of spreading democracy but by self-interest that in many instances was fused with Realpolitik cynicism. The West was committed to ensuring that the Soviet Union and its allies didn’t dominate the Eurasian continent and pose a direct threat to Western interests in maintaining a free association of nations states, including free navigation and trade.
This explains why the United States and its NATO allies are now backing Ukraine. It’s not part of a narrative in which democracies are standing up to authoritarian regimes, but a strategy aimed at containing an aggressor that has challenged the status quo and balance of power in Europe. That poses a direct and immediate threat to the interests of the United States, Germany, France, Poland, and the other members of the NATO alliance as well as some of its leading partners in East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, which rely on the United States to contain the influence of China, another potential challenger to the regional status quo.
However, Russia’s aggression doesn’t pose an immediate and direct threat to the long list of nation-states that have very little in common in terms of their economic and social development, culture, race, and overall direction of foreign policy.
After all, what binds together Brazil and other American partners in Latin America, technologically-advanced and pro-America Israel, wealthy Saudi Arabia, post-apartheid South Africa, and the mighty regional power and great civilization of India? Each of these states made a cost-benefit calculation which led them to conclude that the costs of joining the United States and its allies in a global military-economic campaign against Russia outweighed the benefits they could derive from such a policy.
Mead is wrong to think that the problem, to quote United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, is that the West has failed to grasp just how alienated the South has become from the Western world system, supposedly reflecting the “gravest levels of geopolitical divisions and mistrust in generations.”
The challenge facing the United States and its allies is mostly geostrategic. Its interest lies in ending the war in Ukraine without allowing Russia to defeat its partner, Ukraine. There needs to be a debate on how the United States could and should achieve that goal. But if it does, expect most nations of the “South” to applaud. As before, interests rule the day.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz (Hebrew).
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