Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders suddenly see eye to eye. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

There was a time in the 1980s before the end of the Cold War and the ensuing era of globalization when discussing the economic-political divide between the Global “South” and “North” was in vogue in intellectual circles as well as at the United Nations and other international organizations. 

As part of the trendy jargon of the time, the terms “the South” and “the North” were used in the global context as alternative designations for “developed” rich nations (defined as Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia) and “developed” or “less developed” or “poor” countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America. 

Working on my PhD in political science at that time, I had no choice but to study the growing literature on the topic, authored by neo-Marxist scholars whose “dependency theory” proposed that the global capitalist system encouraged resources to flow from the “periphery” of poor states to the “core” of wealthy nations, enriching the latter at the expense of the former.

In order to correct that injustice there needed to be a major transfer of wealth from the North to the South that would then be able to develop by adopting centralized economic systems. 

Issues of race and culture as well as geopolitics also entered the discussion, the North being dominated by “white” nations, Europe and its offshoots, while the South consisted of non-Western and people of color. Many governments there tended to pursue a “non-aligned” foreign policy or to embrace an uncompromising anti-American orientation.

Even then that designation didn’t make a lot of sense, especially since the Soviet Union and its European allies (including “the Ukraine”) were leading the attacks against the North. That required changing the terms by referring to the bloc consisting of the poor non-white people of the South as the “Third World” while the West and the Communist groupings were classified respectively as the “First” and “Second” worlds.

Moreover, the economies of countries in the South, starting earlier with Japan, and later followed by Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina and Brazil, were being industrialized, while the oil-producing countries in the Middle East were attaining vast wealth. 

And globalization seemed to have made all the talk about a South-North divide sound anachronistic, as major nations of the Third World led by China and India abandoned their centralized economic systems and were integrated into the capitalist global economy and on their way to becoming members of the club of the wealthy nations as they ceased waving the anti-American flag.

It was a new world where Singapore and Saudi Arabia had higher GDPs per capita than Britain, whose empire once dominated them.

But then to paraphrase General Douglas McArthur, old paradigms don’t die, they just fade away for a while, and in some cases they come back in new covers.

Hence the recent attempt to revive the old intellectual fashion of the 1980s by suggesting that the old divide between the South and the North, between white nations and the people of color in the Third World, explains why some nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America are not joining the United States and its allies in their campaign against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

From that perspective, the US and its Western partners are seen as the resurrection of the old North while those countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that have refused to jump on the anti-Russia bandwagon supposedly represent a resurgent South or Third World raising expectations of the rebirth of a non-aligned bloc of nations.

Hence the fact that not only China, but India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil or South Africa, have refused to join the US-led economic sanctions against Russia demonstrates the American and European “disconnect with much of the Global South,” according to Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute.

In the 1980s it was the global capitalist system that was the target of the critique of anti-American neo-Marxist intellectuals. Now it’s the US-led “rules-based order” that has “begotten allergic reaction” by nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to Parsi.

“That order hasn’t been rules-based,” Parsi states, speaking supposedly on behalf of “diplomats and analysts from across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America” who told him that that order “allowed the US to violate international law with impunity.”

And now Washington “is demanding that the countries of the Global South make massive and costly sacrifices – with little regard for their vulnerabilities and security needs – to save the order the US itself has been on the forefront of eroding,” insists Parsi, a former president of the National Iranian American Council. 

This is an exercise in retro global political theorizing, which ironically in the case of the Ukraine war has nothing to do with an injustice committed by white countries against the South but involves one European nation attacking another European country.

In a way, what Parsi and other left-leaning and anti-American intellectuals are doing is to turn on its head the grand theory promoted by US President Joe Biden, who has marketed the resistance to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the representation of a global struggle between a coalition of democratic nations led by Washington and an axis of authoritarian regimes headed by Russia and China. 

National interests the true motive

In reality, both attempts to “globalize” the war between Russia and Ukraine are contrived and ignore a simple truth: The war and the responses to it reflect the national interests and the geo-strategic considerations of all the players involved directly or indirectly in the conflict and have nothing to do with culture, race, or a sense of economic marginalization that characterized the North-South divide.

That governments in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, including democracies like India and Israel and American clients like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have rebuffed Washington’s requests to impose sanctions on Russia doesn’t represent a strategic backlash against the US-led rules-based order aka the post-1945 liberal international order under which many of countries in the so-called Third World gained their political independence.

China’s decision to reject American entreaties to join it in containing Russia isn’t the reaction of an alienated and poor nation of the South to pressure from the wealthy and white North, or for that matter an authoritarian regime defying an alliance of democracies, most of which are China’s leading trade partners. It’s part of a strategy by a major global superpower to counterbalance another global superpower that has made it clear that it will resist China’s military and economic surge.

One could debate whether India with its caste system and mistreatment of religious minorities is indeed the “largest democracy in the world,” but its response to the Ukraine war was not driven by ideological considerations but reflects, among other things, its dependence on Russian military equipment that supports its strategy backed by Washington to confront China that is accused by the Americans of partnering with Russia.

The Saudi cold shoulder to the Biden administration that has pleaded with it to increase its oil supplies reflects the interests of the Arab oil-producing Gulf states not to antagonize Russia, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that has backed raising energy prices.

With Syria transformed into a Russian protectorate, Israel counts on a green light from Moscow to respond to security threats from its northern neighbor, while Turkey gets much of its gas from Russia. And the list goes on.

To put it in simple terms, most of the countries that have refused to join the sanctions against Russia aren’t motivated by a supposed antagonism toward the US and the West but believe that taking that step would damage their economy and international standing. 

And they would note that Washington has demonstrated many times in the past that it would place the consideration of its national interest over theirs, for example in its dealing with Pakistan in the case of India, and with Iran when it comes to Israel. 

The US and its trans-Atlantic allies in Europe have a clear common geo-strategic interest in countering the expansionist drive of an aggressive Russia in Europe.

It’s true that Ukraine may be more democratic and less corrupt than Russia, but the narrative of a bloc of liberal democracies fighting an authoritarian alliance is misplaced, when one considers that Poland, for years bashed by the European Union as an illiberal democracy, is one of the staunchest adversaries of Russia. 

But Western leaders have a point when they argue that Russia’s aggression is more than just a threat to the balance of power in Europe but also challenges the interests of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

To employ terms familiar to nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Ukraine war can be seen as an attempt by an old imperial power, Russia, to subordinate its former colony, Ukraine, which is not very different from way that Great Britain and France attacked Egypt in order to regain control of the Suez Canal in 1956.

As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out during a meeting with the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal last month, by invading Ukraine Russia violated the principles of sovereignty and territorial independence, which makes it an existential issue to a small country like Singapore, and from that perspective to so many other nations in Asia and in other parts of the South.

Leon Hadar

Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst. He is currently a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm. He authored Quagmire: America in the Middle East​ (Cato Institute, 1992) and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). He has a PhD in international relations from American University in Washington, DC, and master's degrees from the schools of journalism and international affairs at Columbia University.