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Jun 29, 2023

The Global South Is a Geopolitical Reality

Caught in a Western, Eurocentric world view, the European Union has not yet woken up to the fact that it needs to fundamentally change its approach to developing countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, at the Planalto palace in Brasilia, Brazil June 12, 2023.
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Focused on great power competition, European policymakers once dismissed Asian, African, and Latin American countries as marginal, easily pliable, and largely insignificant. They were viewed as attractive markets, investment destinations, and raw material suppliers. But developing countries’ voices, priorities, and concerns were mostly disregarded in an international order crafted and led by the West.

Times are changing. As illustrated most recently at the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, the Global South is now climbing up the international agenda, with Western leaders seeking to court and coax developing countries to shun relations with Russia and China in favor of closer ties with a united and “revived West.”

Geopolitics is no longer that simple, however. While they were certainly interested in some of the G7 offers, and flattered by the international attention as well as invitations to show up at once-exclusive gatherings, the small group of selected leaders invited to the summit in Hiroshima did not fall obediently in line with Western demands.

As they did in 2022 when asked to publicly vote against and condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine—and impose sanctions on Moscow—most countries of the Global South are staying out of the fray, determined not to disengage from Russia or join the West’s geopolitical and geo-economic contest with China.

Instead, for many the focus is on ensuring national economic development amid geopolitical uncertainties. It is also on the impact of rising debt levels on their ability to provide food and healthcare for their citizens, and ensuring climate justice while coping with an energy crisis caused by rising prices for oil and gas.

A Eurocentric World View

These and other concerns do get some international attention—sometimes. Mostly, however, Western policymakers as well as think tankers, academics, and journalists remain anchored in a West-centric and Eurocentric worldview. Little attention is given to Senegalese President Macky Sall when he warns that Africa’s “burden of history” means the continent does not want to become the breeding ground for a new cold war, or when Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar urges Europe to “grow out of the mindset that its problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

Resistance to the subtle and often not-so-subtle global transformations is strongest in Washington where US policymakers are fixated on consolidating American dominance as an “indispensable nation,” preserving inter alia the international supremacy of the US dollar, and where China’s rise is seen as an existential threat that must be contained.

Despite the pro-development rhetoric and less confrontational approach toward China, EU institutions in Brussels and national governments appear to be equally at sea as they struggle to understand the scope of the global re-ordering underway, and the many ways in which Europe must adjust and adapt its foreign, trade, and development policies—as well as its public diplomacy outreach—to life in a transformed and increasingly complicated multipolar or post-unipolar world.

The Need for Change

For the European Union, there is much to reflect on—and much to change. With its multiple economic cooperation agreements and millions of euros spent on development projects in poorer nations, the EU has long thought of itself as a champion of multilateralism, a force for global good, and a benign international actor. Yet across EU capitals, developing countries are still largely viewed through a self-centered and mostly transactional and transatlantic lens. Little surprise, then, that many in the Global South see the EU as “hypocritical, self-serving, and postcolonial.”

Many European policymakers privately acknowledge the need to change. But old habits die hard. For all the talk of building “equal partnerships” with developing countries, especially in Africa, access to EU trade and aid benefits goes hand in hand with simplistic “us and them” narratives embedded in Orientalist and postcolonial approaches. EU conversations with developing nations tend to center on stopping illegal migration and fighting corruption; in addition, there are usually stern lectures on human rights. Little time is spent on listening and responding to demands from the Global South for reform of multilateral agencies, quicker implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or eliminating global inequalities including in accessing COVID-19 vaccines.

Betraying just such a bias, in an October 2022 speech to young European diplomats, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, Josep Borrell, compared Europe to a garden which is “the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity, and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build.” In contrast, he underlined: “Most of the world is a jungle and the jungle could invade the garden.” 

Borrell has walked back on the statement, admitting in a more recent blog post that much of the “fence sitting” on Russia’s war against Ukraine by the Global South is the result of “perceived double standards and frustration that other issues do not receive the same sense of urgency and massive resources that have been mobilized for Ukraine.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also recently recognized that developing countries are unhappy with the “unequal application” of international rules, want representation on equal terms, and emphasize the need to end Western double standards because “if countries get the impression that we only approach them because we are interested in raw materials or because we want their support on a UN resolution it should not surprise us that their willingness to cooperate is limited at best.”

Facing Facts

Such self-criticism and recognition of past mistakes are important. But Europeans will need to do much more to upgrade their muddied relationship with an increasingly self-confident, vocal, and influential Global South. Below, based on years of experience covering EU foreign policy, are some partial but hopefully helpful suggestions.

First, it is important to face reality and stop finding comfort in self-soothing narratives. Like it or not, the Global South is now a geopolitical reality, not a Russian invention or a Chinese-led conspiracy against the West. Leaders in developing countries who do not want to isolate either Russia or China are not foolishly naïve or chronically misinformed. Like the West, they are pursuing their domestic and external interests.

Realpolitik has certainly played its part in determining the positions of certain countries on Russia’s war against Ukraine. India has traditionally been dependent on Moscow for military supplies. Southeast Asian countries need Russian and Ukrainian grain and fertilizer, as do many African countries that also have long-standing military links with Moscow. China’s “no limits friendship” with Russia may have more to do with its competition with the US than with any real feelings of warmth toward Moscow, but it makes it impossible for President Xi Jinping to openly criticize President Vladimir Putin.

There are other important reasons at play. Many developing countries see Russia’s war in Ukraine and the West’s rivalry with China as distracting from urgent issues such as debt, climate change, and the ongoing effects of the pandemic. When asked to condemn Russia’s aggression, they point to the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as proof of Western hypocrisy and double standards. There is also shock at the disconnect between the West’s show of compassion for the victims of war in Ukraine and their indifference to the suffering of those elsewhere.

International charities point out that the UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Ukraine has been 80 to 90 percent funded in contrast to similar UN interventions for people caught in crises in Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen. African and Asian countries have also drawn attention to Europe’s warm welcome of  Ukrainian refugees and the very strict implementation of “Fortress Europe” policies toward those fleeing other wars.

A Multipolar World

Second, like it or not, accept it or not, it is a multipolar world. German Chancellor Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron and the EU’s Borrell have made cautious references to the need to adapt to global changes, with Scholz even highlighting the “multipolar character of the world.” But they remain the exception. For others, accepting multipolarity is difficult because of the false assumption that it implies accepting Russian and Chinese narratives, and is therefore inherently anti-American.

The truth is more complex. Certainly, China and Russia are using the moment to step up their own outreach in Asia, Africa, and Latin America but so are the US, the United Kingdom, and the EU. Beijing may seek to present itself as the champion of Global South interests, but it faces pushback not only from India, but others including Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia. There is no “leader” of the Global South today and there is unlikely to be one in the future.

Multipolarity, however, is here to stay. The US still has a unique capacity to project military power across the globe, and also has command of most multilateral agencies. American soft power is unmatched and potent. Yet, instead of only looking to the US or the EU, many Global South countries are picking and choosing among an array of partners, including China. Many don’t like to talk about permanent “alliances,” preferring instead to focus on issue-based cooperation.

“Mix and Match” Partnerships

Examples of such “mix and match” partnerships abound. India may be on the West’s side when it comes to bashing China—but it certainly is not embracing US and EU demands to stop buying oil from Russia or sanction Moscow. Japan is trying to keep its relations with China on a stable footing, despite developing closer links with the US, Europe, and NATO. Arch-adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran have signed on to a Chinese-brokered diplomatic deal even though Riyadh isn't giving up its long-standing US ties. Israel is close to the US but also increasingly close to China. The US dollar reigns supreme but many states are moving away from the greenback as the international reserve currency.

It is going to get even more complicated. As developing nations continue to struggle with the economic fall-out from Russia’s war against Ukraine, they are likely to become even more persistent in driving home their concerns both through the G20, which is currently led by India, and through bilateral talks with G7 leaders. Expect fireworks also at the meeting of the BRICS group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which will meet in Johannesburg in August, with expansion to include a potential 19 hopeful entrants and the feasibility of introducing a common currency on the agenda.

Adapt and Adjust

Third, despite the challenges and the complexities, the EU is well positioned to adapt and adjust to the global transformations. With the EU as a collection of disparate, diverse, and often squabbling states, European policymakers have experience in dealing with complexity and know a thing or two about the art of compromise and negotiation. If they play their cards right, Europe can actually thrive in a multipolar world.

But there is work to be done. Getting ahead in such an environment will require the EU to move beyond the West-centric transatlantic frame and truly engage with developing countries. It means sharing Europe’s knowledge, experience, and wisdom with partners—but not lecturing and hectoring them. It means listening and learning, not moralizing and finger-wagging.

Governments that violate the UN charter must be taken to task. But pressure to safeguard a “rules-based international order” is pointless unless everyone is held to the same standards. Certainly, the EU must continue to comment on poor governance and human rights violations in the Global South. But it should be careful not to engage in selective outrage or to weaponize human rights in the name of geopolitical competition.

There’s also the awkward question of double standards. Much of Europe’s legitimate concerns about the erosion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law worldwide are being undermined by its failure to put its own house in order. Rising racism, the increased popularity of Europe’s far-right parties, and the presence of populists in power are making a mockery of Europe’s claims to be a union of values and equality. EU leaders can hardly call out discrimination against minorities abroad if they are ready to accommodate racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism at home.

Europe’s hopes of upgrading its trade, business, and diplomatic relations with the Global South will depend not on promoting values via referencing “democracy vs. autocracy” arguments, but on respecting differences among nations and prioritizing economic interests. This requires EU policymakers to stop talking about upping the EU’s game in the global “battle of narratives and offers” and start working on real policy reforms. Brussels’ hopes for closer relations with African leaders, for example, will continue to be stymied by immigration policies that are perceived to be embedded in structural racism. Making the EU Global Gateway connectivity project more attractive to the Global South will require listening to their concerns, not imposing EU standards.

As they seek to globalize the EU Green Deal, European diplomats will have to take note of comments such as those by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo who has cautioned the EU about the disconnect between its stated goal of equal ties with nations and its restrictive environmental and trade policies.

Many in the West may still prefer life in a unipolar set-up, but there is really no option: the world is moving on and if the EU is serious about retaining its influence as a global actor, not merely a regional one, it must embrace the future, learn to live with the Global South, and acquire the skills needed to navigate an unpredictable and often fractious multipolar world. To misquote Borrell, abandoning the comfort of a tidy, well-managed European garden will not be easy. But the EU has much to gain and little to lose by venturing out into a vibrant and exciting jungle.

Shada Islam is a Brussels-based specialist on EU affairs running, inter alia, the global strategy and advisory media company, New Horizons Project (NHP).