It is official now. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has pronounced the expression “Third World” as dead. This comes with some delay. In theory, use of the term should have ceased more than twenty years ago, in November 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the “Second World”, that of “actually existing socialism.” Without a Second World, is it possible to have a Third World? There is a lag between events and linguistic use, but, twenty years?
Isn't this a bit much for the digital age, one marked by the 24/7 news cycle, the “CNN syndrome,” Twitter, and one that coins new terms almost every hour?
There are at least two reasons why the term “Third World” had such a good run ever since Peter Worsley coined it in 1964 with his now classic book, The Third World: A Vital New Force in International Affairs. The expression captured well the condition of the post-colonial world in Africa, Asia and Latin America emerging at the time. Worsley, who held the first professorship in Sociology at the University of Manchester, spent part of World War Two in Africa and in India, and had first-hand knowledge of the changes taking place there. He didn't like the ideological straitjacket imposed by the ideological divisions between East and West. He felt energised by what was happening in the South, as the colonial empires crumbled, and the Castros, Nehrus, Nkruhmas and Nyereres disposed of the debris left behind and embarked on the arduous task of nation-building. He was one of the very first western social scientists to capture that what was happening there was giving new meaning to old movements like nationalism, populism and socialism.
The second reason is that no alternative term captured with the same precision and élan the true condition of the young nations. Other technocrats from the IFIs gave us, seriatim, a variety of terms — underdeveloped, developing, lower-income — each more anodyne than the other. Their blandness seemed to relegate the post-colonial nations to a mere footnote to the real History (with a capital H), being written in the First World.
The term “South” was perhaps the one that came closest to substitute “Third World.” (I still remember an excellent monthly magazine — alas, no longer in existence — published out of London in the eighties and nineties, entitled South, which took as its brief serious reporting on what happened in that part of the world), but perhaps because of its rather neutral, mere geographical connotation, never took on the way it should have. As The Economist never ceased to point out, it had also the problem of leaving out, at least nominally, such heavyweights as China, India, Algeria and Egypt, that happen to be located in the Northern Hemisphere. That is why the term “Global South” took centre stage, and is in many ways the expression of choice these days, with its conceptual rather than strictly geographic umbrella. Its undisputed capital is New Delhi.
That said, the term “Global South” doesn't do justice to the enormous changes that have taken place in the global political economy over the past two decades. As the recent meeting of the BRICs group in Rio de Janeiro and the upcoming one of the G-20 in Toronto next June illustrate, it's a whole new world out there. Now that Mr. Zoellick has kindly given us the go-ahead, perhaps it is time to update our vocabularies, not just to reflect these new realities but to keep on changing them as well.
What is it these new entities like BRICs, IBSA and BRICSAM are all part of? What do they embody and where are they headed to? What should we make of them?
Truth is, the rise of China (since 1979) and of India (in theory since 1991, but in practice since the eighties) has led to the emergence of a very different setting from that described by Worsley in his classic book. This has radically altered the terms of reference in which nation states operate.
In the sixties and seventies, the new nations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and to some extent the older ones in Latin America (seen by some as the “middle class of nations,” though never really fitting that somewhat pretentious category), were economically weak, highly dependent on trade and investment links with the North and resentful about the legacy of colonialism. Believing there was strength in numbers, they gathered in a vast array of entities, led by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Group of 77 at the United Nations, and UNCTAD, also at the U.N. Speaking from weakness, they still banged on the table and engaged in the “diplomacy of the cahier des doleances, with proposals like that of the New International Economic Order (NIEO), demanding massive transfers of resources from North to South. Though they sometimes found sympathetic ears up North (during the early years of Carter administration in the U.S., and in the drafters of documents like the Brandt Report), by and large they had little to back up their demands with (beyond their voting power in the United Nations General Assembly). They thus ended up empty-handed.
Over the past twenty years, and particularly over the past ten, this has changed. It is now a whole new ball game. With the rise of China and India, but also of Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and countries like Indonesia and Turkey, with fast-growing, large economies that speak from strength rather than weakness, the South does not ask for aid, but demands to be able to trade. It expects a greater voice at the IFIs, and a place at the high table of global economic governance. It wants access to Northern markets, and is able to hold out in terms of access to its own, if its demands are not met. In many ways, the lopsided relationship between China and the U.S., in which the latter, which has turned into the world's largest debtor nation, has become largely beholden to the former, the world's largest holder of U.S. Treasury bills, is emblematic of this cataclysmic change between North and South.
But there is more. The visit of Brazil's Planning Minister Miguel Jorge to Iran this April, joined by an 80-strong business delegation (to be followed by another visit by President Lula to Teheran in May), tells us something else. Southern countries are no longer beholden to trade and investment ties with the North. They can also do that among themselves. Growth rates in many Asian countries triple those of western nations, while their debt-to-GDP ratios are one fifth of those of G-8 members. Latin America emerged largely unscathed from the Great Recession of 2008-2009, one largely triggered by Wall Street, and whose most devastating repercussions were to be felt in Central and Eastern Europe.
There is, in other words, a New South that has emerged in this new century. It is already redrawing the boundaries and the patterns of behaviour of the current international system. Noted historian Ramachandra Guha recently gave a lecture in Ottawa with the provocative title, “Why India will not and must not become a superpower,” presumably partly in reaction to that favourite phrase of the Indian press, “The Global Indian Takeover.” In it, and in follow-up interviews, Guha takes on what he considers to be the somewhat unwarranted claims of some sectors of Indian public opinion to Indian “superstardom,” pointing out that in India “there are lots of disparities, conflicts, tensions within Indian society, institutional breakdowns to address before we start claiming the world prematurely.”
Point well taken. Both India's domestic challenges, and the rocky character of its immediate neighbourhood are a drag on India's global role. That said, no one has seriously posited that India will or can become a superpower in the foreseeable future. There is only one of those around right now (the United States), and though it may be in decline, it still produces between a fifth and one fourth of the world's product and is unlikely to be threatened in its pre-eminence by any other single power for at least a few decades.
What India is doing is to make the transition from a regional middle power, to an emerging power with global aspirations, which is very different. In so doing, and speaking from the strength of its high growth and savings rates, huge hard currency reserves, and its dynamic high-tech industry and IT-service sector (“Indovation,” as the FT has dubbed it), it is joining forces with other such powers from the New South — the BRICSAMs of this world — to rewrite the rules on how the world is run. This does not make it into a superpower, but it can make for a fairer and less skewed world order. This is what the Third World of yesteryear tried to do, albeit unsuccessfully. It is my impression that the New South of today has a better crack at succeeding at it.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. His latest book (with Ramesh Thakur), The Dark Side of Globalization, is forthcoming from United Nations University Press.