The Great Transition: Non-alignment and the Rise of the Global South  

By Khalid Malik*  

In the 17th century, Ming China represented roughly one third of global output, and Mughal India a little less. Together the two countries accounted more than half of the world’s output, with a corresponding size of populations (as a proportion of total global population). By the 1950s, Mao China was a mere 5 percent of global GDP. India only 1 percent. Today, after several decades of exceptional economic progress, particularly in China, there is now a historic rise of the Global South. The two behemoths- China and India, and others in the South, are now reclaiming their historic economic weight in the world. 

The 2013 UNDP Human Development Report documented this rise of the Global South presenting evidence that China, India, and Brazil were collectively in the process of exceeding western developed countries in terms of trade and global output. China is now the largest economy in the world, calculated in PPP terms. 

The sheer speed and scale of this rise is unmatched. The economic take off in China and India began with about 1 billion people in each country and doubled output per capita in less than 20 years-an economic force affecting a larger population than the industrial revolution. The middle class in particular is growing rapidly as well in size, income and expectations. Between 1990 and 2010, the South’s share of the global middle class expanded from 26 % to 58 %. By not in too distant 2030, more than 80% of the world’s middle class is projected to be residing in the south and to account for 70 percent of total consumption expenditure.  

The Report called for greater voice and representation by the South in international institutions to reflect this changing context and to consider new ones that facilitate regional integration and South-South relationships. It recognized that these steps were essential to reduce stress on global systems of governance and allow for peaceful management of this historic change. 

Trade and investment patterns are in flux as well. Today, for instance, China is the largest trade and investment partner in almost all countries in Africa. Equally, China has supplanted western countries as the largest trading partner in many Latin American countries. And, is now the largest trade partner with Saudi Arabia. 

Power blocs and global competition 

Inevitably this profound global shift has large repercussions for the ways nations conduct their business and people relations with each other.  

A popular way of looking at great power rivalry and its consequences owes much to contemporary interpretations based on Thuycidides, an Athenian historian, who examined the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens. That analysis led to the term Thuycidides Trap, which describes an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power. 

War however is not inevitable. As the Chinese President Xi Jinping himself noted in his visit to Seattle in 2015, “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might cause such traps for themselves”. 

Objective shifts in national output nonetheless set the context. An influential review by the Atlantic Monthly (2015) pointed out that in 12 of the 16 past cases when a rising power confronted a ruling power it resulted in open hostility. 

The current rise of the Global South is even more challenging since the rapid shift in the relative power of an emergent group is taking place in a short period of time, in matter of decades rather than centuries. 

There is however an important caveat. Whereas the rise of new powers may set the conditions for war, it is fear and miscalculation that sets the stage for actual conflict. And, it is the latter concern that we must focus on. 

Paul Kennedy in his influential book on The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers presciently noted that ‘the only threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order’. 

As Kennedy himself observed military power follows economic power. So, the question remains: is conflict inevitable? How perilous is this period with the rise of China and other countries in the Global South?  

Several factors are decidedly different though in today’s contemporary context: 

a.   The existence of global institutions such as the United Nations committed to a peaceful world, and though the record is mixed in terms of their efforts to promote peace, the fact remains that there are many intergovernmental and civil society coalitions allied around the world for that purpose.

b.   Despite the many contemporary challenges, there remains an ongoing commitment to multilateralism. Post World War II, the growth of multilateral agreements has created a dense framework of rules and norms for the conduct of relations and global discourse.

c.    The pressing nature and acuity of planetary challenges such as climate change that only be resolved collectively. Our survival as a human society, perhaps even of our species itself, depends on that cooperation. 

Whereas it’s tempting to see the Global South as an emerging single bloc there is much diversity among nation states in the South and their national interests. The rise of the Global South has created greater policy space for countries, particularly developing countries, to pursue their own interests and reenergize multilateralism.  

Even in Latin America, a region historically aligned with the US, a recent article (Jorge Heine et al, 2022) argued for ‘active non-alignment’ as a guiding principle for nations in the region, given the expansion of policy space due to the growth in trade and investment between China and the region. China is now the top trading partner of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. Added to this dynamic is the rise of progressive governments in Mexico, Columbia and Brazil.  

An emerging framework for global relations-back to the future 

The non-alignment movement of the 1950s and 1960s rose out of a desire by newly independent countries (apart from Yugoslavia) to focus on their own economic and social progress and not get pulled into competing blocs of the US and the Soviet Union. 

Respect for borders and creating the conditions for peace are the cornerstone of the United Nations. The global response to the Ukraine crisis reinforced this basic principle, as highlighted by the voting at the UN General Assembly. Where differences arose rested on the measures adopted to sanction Russia and a desire for stronger efforts to stop the fighting and resolve the Ukrainian crisis. On the eve of the first year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, the UN resolution passed 141 to 7 with 32 abstentions-mainly by countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. They included China, India and South Africa. A similar UN resolution was adopted by the United Nations in March 2022. 

The Ukraine crisis has had the effect of clarifying the need for more purposeful principles to govern the conduct of relations among nations, in the time of great change and churn, so that shifts in power and influence can be peacefully managed and that global efforts are directed towards the sustainability of life and economy around the world.  

What should these principles consist of?  

One.

Recommit ourselves to the guiding principles of the United Nations and multilateralism more generally, by actively supporting the aspirations for equity and justice of ‘we the peoples’.  

That recommitment however has to be based on a critical reflection about why basic UN principles have been breached in the past and how best membership at large and UN institutions in particular should internalize lessons learnt from the fallout of UN Security Council decisions, for instance, relating to Iraq and Libya, and the inability of the UN, despite much effort, to resolve protracted crises like Syria.  

Lack of progress in the basic UN purpose of promoting peace and preventing conflict have dented the authority and prestige of the United Nations. 

In the end, global and regional institutions can only function well if and when their members, especially the larger, more dominant ones, commit their full energy and resources in support of the objectives of those institutions. The principal aim being to save succeeding generations from the ‘scourge of war’, to promote social progress and better standards of living in greater freedom, and aim for a better balance between man and nature. 

Two.

Pursue ‘active non-alignment’ in the conduct of relations among nations. The term refers to a foreign policy approach in which countries, especially those from the Global South, refuse to take sides between the great powers and focus on their own interests. An approach characterized by The Economist as ‘how to survive a superpower split’.  

In the past this position was connected to a desire by countries to address development challenges.  Today this approach can provide clarity of purpose in pursuing international relations.  Furthermore, pursuing such an objective is now possible in a world where policy space has been extended with the rise of the Global South.  

Take the case of the Gulf countries. A recent CNN broadcast by Fareed Zakaria highlighted this shift in their perspectives towards international relations. Zakaria noted in particular the large strategic shift by Saudi Arabia in making peace with its neighbours, and in simultaneously pursuing close economic ties with China and Russia and close security interests with the US. 

For a more peaceful world, we need to move away from strategic relations conducted between ‘blocs of influence’. The term ‘active non-alignment’ captures well the underlying principle of all of us sharing the same planet and breathing the same air. 

Three.  

Broaden the frame of reference in the conduct of relations between nations. 

Traditionally foreign policy priorities are set by national governments. In the current setting of great change and an inter-connected world, national priorities can no longer be adequately or easily settled by ‘government to government’ interactions alone. They require consultations with international bodies, the civil society and close bilateral partners leading up to a national consensus.  

Such priorities in the end have to be driven by two key thoughts: putting peoples’ welfare first (not just people within national boundaries but also regional and global) and by taking a longer-term perspective towards peace and prosperity, as also collectively agreed in the 2030 SDGs agenda. 

Four. 

Go global by focusing on the regional. 

Many of the current challenges are regional in nature.  We need to look at stronger cooperation mechanisms and institutions including regional financial bodies to reduce overall stress on country systems and de-risk global challenges and contagion.  

Multilaterism could be much advanced by stronger global links with existing regional bodies such Ecowas and Asean.  

Reform of the UN especially the Security Council could in particular be guided by the desire to embed incentives for regional responsibility and peaceful cooperation. New members of the Council could be tasked with the added idea of how best to represent the interests of their region or sub-region. And, how well they bring along their regional community could influence their longevity on the Council.  

Five.  

Deepen legitimacy and representativeness. 

At the recent G-7 meeting in Japan, the UN Secretary General underlined that the time has come to fix the Bretton Wood system and reform the UN Security Council. He called for urgent reform to correct the systemic and unjust bias in the global economic and financial system. The UN Secretary General strongly felt that the financial system created at Bretton Woods had simply ‘failed in its core function as a global safety net’ in the face of the economic shocks from the Covid crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The key global institutions today-the Bretton woods agencies and the UN system were created in 1945 by the victors following the end of the Second World War. They reflected the power arrangements of that period.  After all the UN Charter was signed in June 1945 by 50 countries (Poland joined a few months later, becoming the 51st founding member). Today there are 193 countries in the UN. 

Global transitions require thoughtful, planned adjustments in global economics as well. Some have argued that fixing the economics will fix politics. The reverse can be argued as well. The pushback on globalization for instance occurred mostly because the inequitable economic model pursued left many poor countries and large segments of people in both developed and developing countries in a perilous state.  

Necessary changes need not be short changed by outmoded thinking in a global world. Keynes famously mentioned that ‘practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist’.  

The world is in a profound transition with the rise of the Global South. The future does not have to become a zero-sum contest. The rising south needs better representation in global financial institutions. But more than that, new and more effective regional institutions have to be created to promote prosperity and prevent crises from one part of the world affecting others.  

In the end, there is an urgent need for reforms to address a rapidly changing world. Arriving at a ‘fit for purpose’ global architecture is now much overdue. The United Nations, and multilateralism more generally, could play a critical role in advancing these necessary reforms.  

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Bibliography: 

–Graham Allison, The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War, Atlantic Monthly, September 24, 2015 

–Carlos Fortin, Jorge Heine and Carlos Ominami, European War and Global Pandemic: The Renewed Validity of Active Non-Alignment, Global Policy, 2022 

–Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987 

–UNDP Human Development Report, 2013-The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World.  


*Honorary Professor, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, Co-Chair, Global Sustainability Forum, former Director, UNDP Human Development Report O. Article sent to Other news by the author