South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (front, centre) is flanked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (front, left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (front, right) at the 15th Brics Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 24, where Global South countries pushed for “true multilateralism”. Photo: EPA-EFE
Hafijur Rahman
Hafijur Rahman

Anxiety, not ambition, behind rise of the Global South against US-led world order

  • Historical and postcolonial grievances play a part but a greater driver is the worry caused by US behaviour – from the weaponisation of sanctions to the undermining of the WTO

The world is at a pivotal moment as the unipolar international order under US hegemony shows signs of giving way to an evolving multilateralism.

This groundbreaking change was evident at the recently concluded 15th Brics summit, as Global South countries thronged Johannesburg to show their determination to support what Chinese President Xi Jinping described as a “true multilateralism”, as he called for a “democratisation” of international relations.
Around 40 countries were in the queue for Brics membership before the summit, and six were officially endorsed. There has been a remarkable display of solidarity, with countries uniting around goals and concerns about the economic, geopolitical and financial world order dominated by the West.

This has sparked debate over the reasons behind this shift. Many experts point to the long history of colonial exploitation by the West and accumulated grievances over the decades as adhesive forces behind the rise in the unity of the Global South.

While postcolonial grievances have had an influential role in hardening shared perspectives and encouraging Global South nations to flock around common causes, when one considers the contemporary behaviour of Western powers, specifically the United States, it becomes clear that anxiety is a bigger reason behind the pursuit of a fairer global governance system.
Over the past few decades, countries across the Global South have seen an escalation of the US tendency to weaponise its financial and institutional positions of strength against the national interests of others, and in violation of international rules.

Consider the unilateral application of sanctions by Washington. Many nations are today subject to US economic sanctions, with a large majority being developing nations – essentially those in the Global South. A US Treasury Department report from October 2021 revealed a staggering 933 per cent increase in the use of sanctions by Washington over the past 20 years. This has no doubt jumped further with the Ukraine war.

Such heavy-handed action, basically amounting to economic coercion, undermines the sovereignty of other nations and interferes in their internal affairs. US sanctions have caused severe harm to states’ economic well-being and left affected populations as collateral damage.

The International Crisis Group warns that US economic sanctions can sometimes “inhibit peace processes and post-conflict recovery, constrain peace organisations, undercut negotiations and entrench divisions between conflict parties”.

Aside from such US economic coercion, there are other sources of resentment against the West in the Global South.

These include a sense of undeserved hardship as a result of the US banking collapse in 2008, the hoarding of Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic, rich nations’ obstruction of a patent-waiver proposal to free up vaccine production and, most recently, the imposing of ill-conceived sanctions against Russia with little concern for the resulting hardships across the Global South.


China announces bumper wheat harvest amid looming global food crisis caused by Ukraine war

China announces bumper wheat harvest amid looming global food crisis caused by Ukraine war
Additionally, the advanced economies in the West – even though they are mainly responsible for historical carbon emissions and the resulting climate crisis – have failed to honour their financial promises to the developing world, which is bearing the brunt of climate change and global warming.
The list of grievances is undoubtedly long. But, for many countries, anxiety about US dominance is far more potent. This is especially the case as America increasingly looks to settle international disputes unilaterally and resort to force to resolve complex geopolitical problems, even as it exhibits an aversion to adapting to the emerging multipolar world order.

The sources of such anxiety also make for a long list. But one prominent example should suffice to make the case: the dismantling of the World Trade Organization’s ability to settle trade disputes.

Since 1995, the WTO has been recognised as a crucial international pillar in promoting trade governance and dispute settlement. In recent years, however, the US – inspired by its fluid concept of national security – has gone from being a leading advocate for free trade to the breaker of the WTO’s dispute settlement system, undermining the overall function of the multilateral trade mechanism.

A recent report by China’s commerce ministry on US compliance with its WTO obligations makes this clear. Since 2017, the US has blocked appointments to the WTO Appellate Court, which hears trade disputes. As court members’ terms expire and vacancies open up, making it impossible for the court to operate, the US block has resulted in a “paralysis” of the Appellate Body.

Despite overwhelming support from other WTO members to launch the selection process for new Appellate Body members, the US has rejected proposals 60 times in a row as of last December. This behaviour shows a disregard for the opinions of other WTO members and for the importance of resolving disputes within the organisation.

Further, to the dismay of developing countries, the US has reportedly submitted nine proposals to the WTO General Council since 2019 to remove special and differential treatment for specific developing countries.

As the Sino-US rivalry intensifies and Washington continues its relentless efforts to hobble China’s technological and economic advancement, developing countries have more reason to be anxious. With growing protectionism, and amid the hail of trade and tech wars, the risk of collateral damage is rising. And, ultimately, the countries across the Global South know they will be the ones most severely affected.

Hafijur Rahman is an independent researcher and freelance journalist with expertise in Sino-US relations, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific affairs. He holds bachelor and master’s degrees in social sciences from the Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh