“The Global North vs. The Global South” or “Democracy vs. Autocracy”? It’s Time to Put Away the Binary Rhetoric

Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖
(Via Medium)

The term “Global South” is undergoing a transformation, shifting from its erstwhile abstract political connotation to a dynamic arena characterised by geopolitical rivalries and intense competitions for national influence. This evolving landscape has prompted certain states and coalitions of states to strategically embrace the concept as an integral component of their diplomatic calculus.

The notion of the “Global South” has taken centre stage in numerous high-level multilateral meetings in 2023, commanding considerable attention and deliberation. In early January, India hosted the esteemed Voice of the Global South Summit 2023, a testament to its commitment to fostering a shared platform for the discourse on the concerns, interests, and priorities that profoundly impact developing nations. The summit served as a pivotal forum for the exchange of ideas and the exploration of solutions, uniting these nations in voice and purpose as they addressed their shared concerns and priorities.

In February, the Munich Security Conference convened a dedicated session titled “Recalibrating the Compass: South-North Cooperation,” underscoring the imperative for Western nations to actively pursue engagement with the “Global South.” In May, during the G7 Summit held in Hiroshima, Japan, earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida championed the idea of “free and open international order based on the rule of law” and how it can benefit the “Global South.”

In the gathering of the 15th BRICS Leaders’ Summit, convened in the heart of South Africa, a momentous decision was reached on the 24th of August. The decision aimed at bolstering the collective voice of the “Global South”and the BRICS group extended an invitation to several nations. Among these invitees are Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and Argentina, each standing as exemplars of strategic importance and shared values. The Western media widely believe that this seminal step underscores China’s and Russia’s ambition to reshape the international order and to foster a united front in safeguarding the interests and aspirations on the world stage.

In September, at the concluded G20 Summit in New Delhi, India strategically leveraged its role as the host nation to both curb China’s engagement with the United States and the European Union and foster enhanced ties with countries of the “Global South.” Indian Prime Minister Modi assumed a leadership role during the summit, steering discussions towards a series of pertinent issues concerning the “Global South” and ultimately achieving concrete outcomes aimed at bolstering support for these nations. Notably, one pivotal achievement was the formal inclusion of the African Union as a G20 member, affording it a status akin to that of the European Union. India is also considered a competitor and leader in the “Global South.”

In the contemporary landscape, the growing significance of the geopolitical narrative concerning the “Global South” assumes a pivotal role on the international platform. A pressing inquiry emerges: what catalyst lies behind the abrupt escalation in focus directed towards the “Global South”? Principally, this phenomenon can be attributed to the persisting rivalry between the United States and the dynamic interplay involving China and Russia.

Over an extended period, the foreign policy strategists in Washington have maintained the perspective that China’s enduring foreign policy goals encompass a profound reshaping of the rules-based international order, ultimately aimed at displacing the United States from its global hegemonic position. Within this context, the “Global South” has emerged as a central focal point in China’s pursuit of this aspiration. Notably, during the 2023 General Assembly leaders’ meeting, China’s Vice President, Han Zheng, articulated a policy statement: “Being the largest developing nation, China naturally aligns itself with the Global South, sharing a common destiny and aspirations with fellow developing countries.”

Western nations, primarily spearheaded by the United States, have historically undervalued the strategic significance held by these nations. The present year’s resurgence in prioritising “Global South” countries can be construed as a concerted endeavour by Western statesmen in foreign policy to rectify their prior “disinterest” and to offset the burgeoning influence of China and Russia. Within this framework, the European Union has unveiled the Global Gateway Initiative as a counterpoint to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with the United States displaying keen interest in forging a partnership with India to rival China’s sway in the “Global South.” Evidently, China is leveraging its status as a developing country to foster relationships with countries in the “Global South,” seeking to erode the containment efforts exerted by the United States.

In the context of the Russian-Ukraine war, the perspectives of nations hailing from the Global South have emerged as a significant catalyst, prompting Western nations to recognise the pivotal role played by the “Global South.” Beyond the borders of the United States and Europe, these countries tend to interpret Russia’s involvement in Ukraine as a predominantly regional matter rather than a worldwide crisis. Their ethical values and strategic interests frequently diverge from those prevalent within the Euro-Atlantic sphere. Consequently, a number of them have refrained from issuing public condemnations against Russia.

Within the milieu of nations situated in the “Global South,” the question arises as to whether they are inclined to align themselves with the narrative of “The Global North vs. The Global South,” as perceived by China and Russia, or if they lean towards the Western perspective of “Democracy vs. Autocracy.” The probable response, one may posit, lies in their discerning reluctance to unequivocally align with either side. As Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong said at the Nikkei Future of Asia conference, “It’s natural for some countries to be closer to one side or the other, but most countries would prefer not to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China… A more stable, less tense configuration is for the two powers to have overlapping circles of friends.”

Despite the passage of over three decades since the culmination of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is evident that certain policymakers continue to find themselves ensnared within the confines of 20th-century paradigms that endorse a zero-sum approach. Against the backdrop of contemporary U.S.-China/Russia relations, the prevailing notion of the “Global South” finds its roots in the enduring commitment of these major powers to a Cold War mindset and a zero-sum approach when assessing and engaging with one another. The Cold War mentality, entrenched within a binary worldview, classifies international actors as neither allies nor adversaries, advocating for the management of major power dynamics through confrontational polarization. Guided by a zero-sum perspective, the United States, China, and Russia not only eschew opportunities for mutually advantageous and collaborative initiatives spanning a spectrum of shared concerns, thus yielding benefits for all three nations and the broader global community, but also resort to arbitrary suppression of each other’s interests.

The great powers must eschew the deployment of binary rhetoric. Through an idealist lens, the abandonment of such rhetoric stands as the inaugural stride towards the fostering of global cooperation and the forestalling of any deterioration of a new type of Cold War. Approaching the matter from a realist vantage point, it is crucial to recognise that the nomenclature denoting the “Global North” and “Global South” should not be misconstrued as emblematic of monolithic entities; rather, it encompasses a mosaic of nations, each vested with its own unique tapestry of cultural and national interests.

Alongside the overarching backdrop of great power rivalry, non-great power countries oftentimes prioritise immediate concerns, such as economic advancement and access to vital resources. These pragmatic objectives take precedence over considerations pertaining to ideological or strategic alignment. Consequently, their interactions with major powers transpire in a case-specific fashion, contingent upon the tangible benefits they stand to accrue from such engagements.

The utilisation of binary rhetoric unquestionably risks oversimplifying the intricate mosaic that constitutes the international landscape.

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by Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖 time to read: 5 min