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Stop Taking the Global South for Granted

The Right Honourable Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland

America and Europe must respect the growing status of individual states, invest in long-term relationships and consider Security Council reform, writes Catherine Ashton.

This article originally appeared in The World Today, the international affairs magazine from Chatham House.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, I received a message from an African leader. ‘There you go again – another conflict. You will expect us to support you regardless of the costs. But when is the West going to pay attention to what is happening on my continent?’

He had a point. The 17 coups in Africa during the past six years and the armed conflicts in 18 countries in 2021 alone have been largely ignored. How many people could name even a few of them?

Mistaken Assumptions

Expectations that non-European countries would simply move Russia’s invasion to the top of their agenda assumed a solid relationship between the West and what is known as the Global South, based on the same values, ideas and priorities. The Ukraine war reminds us that these assumptions are often wrong.

This came as a surprise and arguably a shock to the United States and Europe. It was compounded by the extraordinary unity within the European Union, whose member states believed the clear nature of Russian aggression could not stand unchallenged.

In 2014, when I chaired the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council, there were differing views on how best to deal with Russia, even after the annexation of Crimea. In the ensuing years, the efforts of the EU were largely focused elsewhere; only a few – Poland, Lithuania – pointed out repeatedly that this conflict would not remain static.

We must rethink relationships that the West has largely taken for granted.

There was nothing ambiguous about Russia’s actions as far as Europe was concerned: it demanded a clear-cut response from the members of the United Nations. While many voted for UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia, more than 40 countries regularly opposed them. These included many African, Asian and Latin American countries who form the nations of the Global South.

This warns us that we must rethink relationships that the West has largely taken for granted and to set a new course for engagement. It is not the case that those who failed to support the UN Resolutions are all anti-democratic or fail to see the nature of Russia’s actions.

Something more interesting is going on that the West needs to understand. 

It begins with our inability to distinguish between different nations, their histories, economies and politics. Old relationships do not always translate into strong links, especially as economies grow and political alliances shift and develop.

For many, the reliance on a colonial past based on aid and trade is insufficient to meet the demands of developing countries. Their present and future growth depends on diversifying their relationships or dumping old ones in favour of new. These countries are no longer prepared to fall into line with western views simply because it is expected, even if the principle in question is one they recognize.

New Allies and Opportunities

As the Global South looks to its own for new opportunities, so expectations from new allies play a part in how individual countries react to events and issues.

The decision by the small island state of Nauru to diplomatically defect from Taiwan to Beijing on January 15 is a case in point. Beijing has made a decades-long effort to try and reverse any diplomatic relations Taiwan has in place.

This has happened despite a two-year campaign by the Biden administration to offset Beijing’s growing economic, diplomatic and military footprint in the Indo-Pacific. The fallout from this decision has longer term regional implications, too, as the former president of Nauru became the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum in November. We may well find the influence of China growing.

The tendency to lump countries together has undermined bespoke connections based on knowledge and relationships. Historical links between European countries and parts of Africa, South America and Asia have largely unravelled as independent nations no longer defer to those who once colonized them.

Development aid, which used to be vital to the economic growth of many, plays a smaller role than it did. For some, Chinese support is more attractive: it comes with fewer immediate conditions. For others, the growth they have achieved makes it less important.

In any event, development support has fallen, in some cases dramatically. UK overseas aid fell from £15.1 billion in 2019 to £12.8 billion in 2022, with 29 per cent of the 2022 figure being spent on the costs of hosting refugees in Britain. Aid to Yemen, much in the news due to the Houthi attacks, dropped from £260 million to £77 million; Somalia from £232 million to £100 million.

Relations with Russia and China grow stronger as engagement with Europe and the US gets scaled back. Many countries of the Global South have established strong economic links with Russia. Some of these go back to the days of the Soviet Union where support for decolonization enabled the Soviet leadership to gain influence. China has increased its engagement, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative which includes around 150 countries, 44 of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa and 22 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Listening to a senior minister from Asia, I was struck by his suggestion that ‘the overlay to our world was the US, and as this gets thinner, we see the diversity in the world much more clearly’. He was suggesting a decline not in American economic power but in its ability to command leadership of the global order.

The Nature of Non-alignment

At the heart of the debate lies the nature of non-alignment. The largest democracy, India, is arguably becoming the United States’ most important bilateral relationship, but New Delhi was not prepared to actively support Ukraine.

Senior advisers in India point to the importance of Russia in supplying weapons, never allying itself with Pakistan and not criticizing the government. While the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is known to have criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin privately and to have spoken with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, India’s position is to stick within their own form of non-alignment.

As one Indian minister told me: ‘India will have many different identities in the future.’ How that manifests itself remains to be seen. But for now, it will not condemn Russia publicly, arguing that while sovereignty and integrity of any country should be respected, security issues are important for Russia.

The countries of the new BRICS+ will represent nearly 30 per cent of the world’s economy.

The position of Brazilian President Lula da Silva has been more clearly stated. Visiting Beijing he made it clear that he would not be told by Washington what to do when it came to China: ‘Nobody can stop Brazil from continuing to develop its relationship with China,’ he said. China, meantime, has increased its trade links in the region, from 2 per cent of Brazilian exports to 32 per cent over the past 20 years.

Lula reflects an independence of foreign policy thinking that has long been his and the country’s approach. In 2011, the foreign minister at the time, Antonio Patriota, explained that Brazil would not support the UN Security Council resolution on a no-fly zone in Libya, though it was necessary to protect the people of Benghazi from Muammar Gaddafi. This was the height of what was known as the Arab Spring. Brazilian abstention was not so much anti-western but a considered judgment that the West should be cautious about military actions overseas.

‘So far,’ Patriota said, ‘not one European or American flag has been burnt during the demonstrations. It matters that we keep it that way.’

Some argue that the loss of American influence in Latin America is due to Washington’s focus on Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever the reality, new leaders have questioned the traditional links with the US without getting a resounding response over recent years.

While there are huge differences in geography, economies and politics among the 75 plus countries of the Global South, there is an attempt to bring some of the major economies together in what has become known as the BRICS. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have little in common except they represent a major part of the global economy. China and India don’t even lie in the South, being entirely based in the northern hemisphere.

Russia played a key role in establishing the BRICS and undoubtedly pushed for the last meeting to offer an invitation to Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates to join them. Only Argentina has declined. Together the new BRICS+ will represent nearly 30 per cent of the world’s economy.

The Push for a New Global Order

Russia continues to push for a new global order, most famously outlined in the speech given by President Putin to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. Since then, he has consistently attacked the West in his speeches, arguing there is a crisis in the global order so a new system must be put in place. Russia continues to work for this outcome – witness the flight path of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Yet links have been developing with the countries of the Global South for many years. Travelling a decade ago to the small island of Palau for a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, I was struck by how much effort Russia was putting into being there in significant numbers, entertaining leaders and offering economic partnerships. The same was true in parts across many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

However, Russia is discovering, as the US and European countries have done, that Global South countries are more interested in how they adopt a non-aligned stance in the 21st century. The ability to stay away from choosing sides, while being prepared to condemn actions or admonish the perpetrators, is an attractive position. It suggests independence and invites everyone involved to pay attention to them, while not jeopardizing important economic or political links. 

What the West Must Do

So, what to do?

First and foremost, European countries together with the US need to understand and accept that the relationships have changed. A more individual approach to each country needs to be put in place, with a strengthening of diplomatic efforts to talk about issues of concern. That means placing high quality diplomats in key countries with a mission to find ways to deepen and strengthen ties and to understand what governments are looking for.

It will not be easy. Some countries want difficult, arguably impossible, outcomes. Easier migration flows to Europe is a common request, often linked to tariff-free trade. As President Jacob Zuma told me shortly after his inauguration as President of South Africa: ‘You have a choice – you can take our goods, or you can take our people. Which do you want?’

Long-term engagement will be worth the effort when it comes to the big crises the world faces.

As Ukraine has discovered in its dispute with Polish farmers, even the most sympathetic countries struggle with allowing trade that directly affects their own agriculture or industry. New markets opening up in growing economies across the Global South are much more attractive to many developing economies than battling with the regulations and quotas of the West.

Diplomacy is a ‘drip, drip’ effort sometimes taking decades to show real results. But long-term engagement will be worth the effort when it comes to the big crises the world faces. Too often foreign ministers and leaders appear only when there is a crisis to discuss.

That long-term engagement needs to be two-way. The concerns and priorities of other countries must be taken into account. That is particularly true on the effects of climate change; diplomacy post COP28 can make a real difference.

Cutting development budgets has an impact on projects and can leave countries scrambling for alternative support. Where that support is on offer, then that relationship will matter. Where cuts are necessary, tapering rather than cliff edges is better and helping to source new funds will be appreciated.

The bigger question of whether this is a false economy applies more generally. Letting problems get worse costs more in the longer term. Setting development aid in a geopolitical context that includes improved security might help reluctant politicians recognize its value.

Some countries want a greater role in institutions like the UN. For decades arguments have been made that the permanent membership of the UN Security Council needs to go beyond the current five – UK, US, China, Russia and France. Most often mentioned are India, Japan, Germany with Brazil as the front-runner among Latin American countries. 

But while the idea of increasing the numbers meets general approval there has been little progress to turn this into reality. For many this is not a priority, but in a long-term fight for a global order that works better, it is an issue than should not be ignored.

Fundamentally, there is a need to build new long-term relationships: engaging with the countries of the Global South on a range of issues long before there is an expectation of support. Finding the formal and informal mechanisms to do so is important.

In a world and at a time of growing conflict and challenge there is room for as many different groupings as there is space in the calendar to hold them. Treating the Global South countries as distinct nations is both vital and urgent. Increasing the diplomatic engagement with these countries now will bear fruit in the future. 

About the Author

The Right Honourable Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland

Baroness Catherine Ashton

Slater Family Distinguished Fellow;
Former Vice President of the European Commission and former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
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