It came as an unpleasant surprise to many in Europe and North America that so many countries – many more than the 30 or so that abstained in UN votes condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine – refused to go along with sanctions on Putin’s Russia. Forty countries sanction Russia, but two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that do not.
The geopolitical split over Russia’s war on Ukraine emerged starkly again at the recent G20 summit in India in early September. A consensus could only be reached on a watered-down statement that referred to the “war in Ukraine” without mentioning Russia’s aggression.
This is not to say that countries who sat on the sidelines all back Russia’s invasion and don’t subscribe to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The G20 statement, in fact, explicitly rejected the use of force in violation of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, it does mean that they consider this to be a European war in which they have no stake, while still suffering its consequences in terms of food and energy security. It means they would prefer the war to end quickly, even if not necessarily justly; and it means they are unwilling to pay a price to ensure the respect for international law.
It was eye-opening then to take part, during a recent trip to Indonesia, in a global “town hall” debate in Jakarta on the theme of rebuilding bridges between the global north and south.
As a global north voice on the panel, alongside Indian and South African colleagues and after China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, delivered a blistering attack on Europe and the US, I was asked “Why does the west now take a greater interest in the global south?” The bluntness of the question got me thinking.
The questioner was right. The term “global south” is suddenly cropping up at almost every gathering in the west. But it is also increasingly used in the south too. Loosely, it includes what used to be called developing countries, and many formerly colonised nations. It includes economic powerhouses such as China and India, mid-sized powers such as Turkey, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, and poor countries that struggle to make their voices heard. The group is so heterogeneous that it begs the question of whether it makes sense to consider it as such at all. Yet these countries share a sense that their independent voices should be heard rather than being shaped or determined by the west.
To be heard, they are building and expanding organisations, such as the recent Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit enlarging the grouping to admit Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
They are taking stronger positions, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) going as far as suggesting a military intervention in response to the coup in Niger (although little action has followed). They want to be seen as international peace-builders: African leaders, including those from South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, the Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Uganda, travelled to Kyiv and Moscow to press for peace and continued grain exports; while Saudi Arabia hosted representatives of more than 40 countries in Jeddah to discuss the principles for ending Russia’s invasion.
The west pays greater heed than it used to also because the global south matters more in international relations. As the Indian scholar Amitav Acharya points out, there is a distinction between the “power south”, which represents the engine of global growth, and the “poor south”. The crucial question is how to ensure that the latter also has a voice. The International Monetary Fund has forecast that Asia is poised to drive 70% of global growth this year, with India and China alone covering about half of the total.
Countries in the “power south” are carving out a role in the world through diplomacy, transactional relationships and “multi-alignment” in different organisations. India, for example, is a member of the China-led Brics, but also of the Quad (with Japan, the US and Australia). Aspiring to be a leader of the global south, it steered the G20 towards greater inclusivity by inviting the African Union into the group. Saudi Arabia has just signed up to the Brics, and despite its atrocious human rights record is in talks with Washington over a strengthened security partnership and normalised ties with Israel. Turkey is a Nato ally but has maintained strong relations with Russia, and seeks to revive the grain deal from which Moscow pulled out.
Countries in the global south will play increasingly crucial roles in decarbonising the global economy, given their share of critical natural resources. Europe imports much of its lithium and cobalt from Chile and the Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively, while China has a near monopoly on the extraction, processing and production of many more critical minerals.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has forced the west to stop ignoring the global south. Russia’s invasion has brought to the surface accumulated global anger and resentment towards European countries and the US, whether for centuries of colonialism and neocolonial practices, or for the double standards western countries have so often displayed towards the violations of rights and law in different parts of the world.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will at some point end. But the north’s awakening to the geopolitical power of the southern hemisphere is not – as some of those with me in Jakarta said they feared – a fleeting moment. Some believe the war has made international relationships more fraught and conflicted. I disagree: the war has allowed fossilised resentments to surface. This may not necessarily lead to easier relationships in the future, but perhaps to more honest ones.
Nathalie Tocci is the director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and a Guardian columnist