Never mind hypocrisy, the West faces another challenge

Instead of acknowledging double standards, the West must re-embrace globalization if it wants to win friends in the Global South, writes Daniel Drezner.

The World Today Published 2 February 2024 Updated 21 March 2024 2 minute READ

Daniel W. Drezner

Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

I am old enough and American enough to have lived through the series of different terms used to describe countries not considered to be part of the advanced, industrialized world.

When I was a child, they were called the ‘Third World’, reflecting both the Cold War mindset and the dismissive attitude of most policymaking elites. In the post-Cold War era they were called ‘emerging markets’, reflecting the more upbeat globalization mindset of the time as well as the slightly superior attitude of ‘the West knows best’.

Defining the Global South

Over the past decade the term has been the ‘Global South’, which reflects a convergence of a number of trends. The first is that the countries in the actual South are more heterogeneous than before. Any description of the Global South that includes Singapore or the United Arab Emirates, for example, is defining things wrongly. The second is that the term has lost the quasi-patronizing tone that it once had.

The third is that these countries matter for international relations more than ever. If this is an era of great power competition, then the great powers have to compete over something – and that something is the support of the rest of the world. Rising Sino–American tensions, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the explosion of violence in the Middle East means that countries such as India, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia have become pivotal to geopolitics.

Much has been written about the West falling behind Russia and China in wooing the Global South. Russia has been accruing allies there by playing on longstanding ‘anti-imperialist’ ties that date back to the Soviet Union. China has been attracting capital–starved nations interested in access to Beijing’s development loans.

Diplomats from Moscow and Beijing have argued that US domestic instability shows its eroding ability to commit.

All of this has been happening as the United States has become more erratic in its foreign policy, see-sawing from Obama to Trump to Biden to maybe Trump again. Diplomats from Moscow and Beijing have exulted in US domestic instability, arguing that it shows America’s eroding ability to credibly commit.

It is difficult for the US to push back on this propaganda when the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity stalls, and Congress is unable to approve more foreign aid. Accusations of western hypocrisy in its foreign policy have sounded more convincing in recent months. The same leaders who bang on about Russian war crimes in Ukraine have been more circumspect about Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

How concerned should policymakers in Washington, London, Brussels, Tokyo, Canberra and elsewhere be about the geopolitical hedging of the Global South? The Eagle View is more sanguine than most, for a number of reasons.

Russia and China face foreign policy headwinds

The first is that Russia and China can do all the wooing they want but both countries have their own foreign policy headwinds to face. Russia is running out of reserves to finance its war in Ukraine. The falling value of the rouble will make it more difficult for Moscow to exert much influence beyond a few fragile autocracies. China has been winding down its Belt and Road Initiative; most of its current loans are going to longstanding borrowers to keep them afloat. Russia and China may be investing to win friends in the Global South, but that is more difficult when their wallets are leaner.

Western leaders would be mistaken to believe that acknowledging hypocrisy is the key to winning friends in the Global South.

Second, most countries in the Global South do not want to oppose the West. They do not want to oppose anyone. They simply want the freedom to set their own policies free of outside interference. India wants a strong partnership with the US – but it also wants cheap Russian oil.

Turkey does not want to antagonize Russia, but it is not leaving Nato either. Most countries in the Global South would jump at the prospect of becoming a key node between US-based and China-based supply chains. Some countries, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh or Morocco have already made the leap.

As for the hypocrisy charge, well, let’s be honest, it sticks for a reason. One can excuse residents of the Global South for being cynical when statesmen who repeatedly cite the ‘rules-based order’ suddenly go quiet if Israeli actions are a topic of debate.

The hypocrisy cuts both ways, however. It is difficult to reconcile claims of anti-imperialist sentiment with passivity in the face of Russia annexing territory it had previously recognized as belonging to another sovereign state. And while Israeli actions in Gaza merit investigation, it is worth asking why institutions dominated by the Global South – such as the UN Human Rights Council – pay so much attention to that country and so little to the rest of the world.

It would also be a mistake for western leaders to believe that acknowledging hypocrisy is the key to winning friends in the Global South. To make a real play for the Global South, western policymakers will need to do something much more difficult – stop acting like they are afraid of goods, services and migrants crossing their borders.

The Global South has embraced globalization at the moment industrialized democracies are having second thoughts. To win the hearts and minds of its members, policymakers need to fatten their wallets.