Representatives of the G20, the world’s largest economies, have convened for their annual summit this week in Bali, Indonesia. The Ukraine crisis hangs heavily over the gathering, with participants deciding to forgo a group photo due to discomfort with Russia’s presence. While they might not approve of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine, leaders of several of the G20 countries from the Global South — notably India and China — have declined to join the United States in levying punitive economic sanctions on Russia.
The Ukraine crisis has exposed the waning global influence of the United States. When it was the only superpower in the post-Soviet world, Washington could usually count on the Global South to support its international policies. But the world order has since shifted: Most of the leaders of that vast expanse once referred to collectively as the Third World are increasingly assertive and independent. They have learned the art of realpolitik and ad hoc coalition-building to secure their interests.
A pragmatic nonalignment is emerging in the Global South. Because it is based less on ideology, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, and more on self-interest, the new nonalignment is more durable. But the United States needs to make a greater effort in regaining and even expanding its influence in the region, as it contains sensitive geographies such as Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf and is increasingly a site of markets, supply chains and innovation.
The United States is still a global economic player, but now it has competition. Other major powers, like China, offer products and services that are increasingly a better value for money. The Global South sees no reason to hitch its wagons entirely to Washington when it could benefit by leveraging all major powers. An excellent example is Southeast Asia, whose stellar economic rise owes to a clever strategy of building deep economic ties with both China and the United States.
Nor is the United States well-positioned to appeal for support with a “democracy versus autocracy” argument, not only because it is marginal to the interests of most states in the Global South, but also because President Joe Biden’s fist-bumps with authoritarians undermines its credibility.
The states of the Global South see no benefit in choosing sides in what Washington calls the “strategic competition” between the United States, China and Russia. From this perspective, the Ukraine conflict is a proxy war between the United States and Russia. “In Europe, they have their own story, in Russia they have their own story,” said the UAE’s minister of energy and infrastructure, Suhail Al Mazrouei, adding: “We can’t be siding with this country or that country.”
But while the Global South has changed, the United States has so far failed to adjust. Without a retooled strategy for a multipolar world, Washington will find itself isolated from much of the world.
Most of the world’s population, multiple supply chains, natural resources and growing markets are all located in the Global South. For the sake of its own national interests, the United States must have strong ties in the region. That requires accepting the emerging multipolar world order as a vital precondition for fashioning a new bargain that takes into account the real needs – and advantages — of the majority of the world’s population.
The United States continues to hold advantages that few other societies possess. It is a primary destination for international students and for immigrants. It dominates the international financial system and still leads the world in high-tech innovation. This is why the United States should reorient its strategy now, while it still has leverage — and before it is too late, as some of these gaps with the rest of the world are closing. Washington can take specific measures that would simultaneously enhance its own interests and elicit a positive response from the Global South.
The first step is to accept the reality of the Global South’s new nonalignment, resist the temptation to view the region primarily through the lens of the “strategic competition,” and recognize that the expulsion or containment of Russia and China is unrealistic. The corollary to this is to pull back from a strategy centered on secondary sanctions, which could counterproductively push states closer to Beijing or Moscow. Such sanctions are a staple part of Washington’s policy, and they penalize Global South countries for their ties to U.S. rivals. The “democracy vs. autocracy” framing should be discarded — it has been thoroughly undermined by glaring double standards in policy.
Instead, the United States should position itself as a two-way partner with the region, rather than as a patron. States in the Global South are not looking for handouts but win-win collaborations and a place at the table. They are also beginning to forge institutions of their own, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank. The United States should seek to join or collaborate with them.
To be an effective partner, the United States must also pursue a policy of inclusion. Taking on massive systemic tasks like adapting to climate change and ensuring global food security requires working in partnership with Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa, among others. It also means proposing fairer solutions to the challenge of carbon emissions to solve the true existential crisis of our times. Innovation runs both ways; the United States should leverage this fact.
A degree of competition with Russia and China, as well as larger states in the Global South, is inevitable. The challenge is to pursue that competition with longer-term goals in mind and without provoking destabilizing outcomes, further erosion of influence or a great power war.
The future world order is likely to be more fragmented with multiple centers of power. It is in the interests of the United States to have a voice and a vote in as many of them as feasible, so that its influence lasts well beyond its relative decline.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sarang Shidore is director of studies and senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute and a senior non-resident fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks