The Ghost of the Global South

Opportunities for a new multipolar world order

Uwe Hoering, October 2, 2023

The multi-layered conflict between China and the USA and their relationship with Russia and Europe determine the current geopolitical discussions and antagonisms. The Ukraine war has become a ‘dress rehearsal’ for a looming military confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. Especially in the transatlantic discourse, the crucial role of the ‘Global South’ in this hegemonic realignment is often overlooked. However, the South’s role will determine whether the conflict will escalate into a new bipolar bloc confrontation like during the Cold War or whether the adversaries will incorporate their hegemonic ambitions into a new, more equal or equitable multipolar world order.

Ein Gespenst geht um in der Welt – das Gespenst des Globalen Südens. Alle Mächte des alten Westens haben sich zu einer heiligen Konkurrenz um dies Gespenst verbündet. Der Globale Süden wird bereits von allen alten westlichen Mächten als eine Macht anerkannt.

I admit: Comparing the Global South with the “Ghost of communism” invoked by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their 1848 manifesto seems a bit far-fetched. But many comments in the run-up to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2023 carried similarly gloomy anticipations about a changing world order as in the mid-19th century, about the rise of a diffuse power whose outlines are very ambiguous – and consequently about the extent of the threat to the ruling powers.

The widely used term ‘Global South’ as a pendant to the ‘Global North’ is, like the now obsolete term ‘Third World’, both a self-attribution and an attribution by others for the developing and emerging countries. It was first used by the political activist Carl Oglesby in 1969 and introduced into the development policy debate by the World Bank at the end of the 1980s. It imagines an identity for both sides that does not exist. It simplifies the geopolitical and economic complexity and obscures the manifold differences and contradictions.

In some ways, however, the current view of the Global South is actually more like the situation after the Second World War, when the colonised countries won their independence. Back then, the spectre was also communism and, as today, the young People’s Republic of China played a central role alongside the Soviet Union. A catalyst for the young nations’ attempt to shape the post-colonial order was the Bandung Conference in 1955 with leaders from India, Egypt, China, Indonesia and other countries in Asia and Africa. There, “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” were formulated: Respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and cooperation, and peaceful coexistence.[1] 

During the Cold War, the post-colonial states were referred to as the Third World, as the “others” to the supposedly progressive and democratic West and to the socialist East, while starting from 1961, as the Non-Aligned Movement, they sought to secure for themselves space for self-determined development. These aspirations for autonomy vis-à-vis the former colonial powers were put down partly with brute force, partly with the might of the capitalist world system. Efforts such as the proposal for a New World Economic Order after the 1973 oil crisis, which aimed to reduce the persistent imbalances and asymmetric dependencies between industrialised and developing countries, were stifled by the debt crisis in the 1980s and the structural adjustment programmes of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Again and again, postcolonial interference and neoliberal development strategies disrupted attempts at self-determined, sovereign development in Africa, Asia and Latin America and established neoliberal elites in many countries that indirectly continued the rule of the colonial powers. With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the collapse of the socialist economic bloc, the ghosts seemed definitely banished.

But with the rise of China since the beginning of the 1980s, the global economic and political balance of power between the geopolitical West and the rest of the world, and thus the position of the latter in globalised capitalism, began to shift fundamentally. A recent alert for the Western world was the summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in Johannesburg. The five-member club BRICS, which has existed since 2010, has long been regarded as a loose discussion format with few tangible results. But now it is being classified as a Sino-Russian agenda, as a counterweight to the G-7 of the leading Western industrialised countries, even as a means of leveraging change in the world order.

The significance of the 15th BRICS Summit

So what happened? Unexpectedly, the five BRICS countries were able to agree in Johannesburg to offer membership to six more countries from January 2024. Besides Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran is also among them, a move that is considered a clear affront to the USA. This is surprising, because from a Western perspective it had been expected that India, which together with the USA is also a member of the Indo-Pacific security alliance Quad[2], South Africa and Brazil would tend to oppose China’s and Russia’s plans for membership expansion, because this could possibly weaken their own standing in the alliance. But it is now becoming apparent that this could only be the first step: three dozen other countries are said to have expressed an interest in joining, including also more democratic countries such as Indonesia and even the NATO member Turkey. This would then unite all the countries in BRICSplus, which, according to political analyst Tareq Hassan, “will decide the future of geopolitics”[3]. What is now being debated in the commentaries about the summit is whether BRICS will become an instrument of China and Russia through enlargement, whether countries like Argentina, India, Brazil and South Africa can still be a counterweight and whether enlargement will strengthen or weaken the alliance. More

These are the first paragraphs of the essay ‘The Ghost of the Global South’. For the full text (pdf) see The original version (in German) has been published in: Wolfgang Kastrup/Helmut Kellershohn (Hg.): Der Krieg in der Ukraine. Weltordnungskrieg und “Zeitenwende” (Edition DISS, Bd. 52), Münster: Unrast 2023

[1] In 1957, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously committed itself to these principles.

[2] The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a U.S. military alliance with India, Japan, and Australia initiated in 2007, was for a long time rather inconsequential, but is now being revitalized.

[3] Tareq Hasan: The Future of Geopolitics Will Be Decided by 6 Swing States, in: Modern Diplomacy, 8.6.2023, (Abruf: 9.9.2023)

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