U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on the sideline of the G-20 foreign ministers' meeting in New Delhi on March 2. OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

MARCH 7, 2023, 9:30 AM

As 2023 began, the global south seemed to be in the spotlight. Russia’s war in Ukraine worsened the food crisis in many countries last year, revealing underlying tensions with Western powers. At the annual United Nations climate summit last November, known as COP27, smaller states such as Barbados led efforts to spur climate financing for vulnerable developing countries. And at a leaders’ summit in Washington at the end of the year, the United States courted Africa.


It’s clear there is a shift underway that pushes back against the traditional Western leadership of international global institutions. Figures within the global south are denouncing inequalities and demanding the reform of these institutions. In January, India hosted a summit that sought to amplify the perspectives and interests of the global south—part of its ambitions as this year’s G-20 president. “Most of the global challenges have not been created by the global south. But they affect us more,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “The search for solutions also does not factor in our role or our voice.”

Policymakers and researchers in Washington generally take a regional approach to foreign policy. U.S. think tanks acknowledge the benefits of better representation, and programs are increasingly led by experts from the regions they cover. However, there is an urgent need to develop policy spaces that focus on the perspectives from the global south in a systematic way—not just in response to major events. Such platforms would facilitate thinking beyond geographic borders and lead to exchanges around common interests and challenges for the global south.

As countries in the global south seek to exert their power on the world stage, U.S. policymakers must adapt their framework to better understand their concerns. That means recognizing that global south countries are valuable partners on their own; above all, the United States should avoid putting pressure on these countries while disregarding their desire for policy independence. For U.S. foreign policy to shift its course, lawmakers must be exposed to more perspectives from the global south, rather than developing policies based on misconceptions. Fostering new policy spaces dedicated to the global south’s role in the world order should be the first step.


Mainstream policy discussions in the West tend to use the term “global south” as a synonym for developing countries—or what was once called the “third world”—but the label has a broader meaning. The global south is not strictly delineated by either geography or economics, instead taking into account shared experiences and inequalities rooted in the colonial era and sustained by global capitalism. The term remains imperfect: It is not neutral, and it should not be used to homogenize different geopolitical contexts. Beyond semantics, appreciating the global south means parting ways with a hierarchy among states and approaching Western dominance of the international system more critically.

Discussion of the global south still largely occurs in academic circles; it has become an object of study, with a significant body of literature and a few specific research centers in Western universities. But scholars from global south countries remain marginalized in the field, a discrepancy that several studies have highlighted. That underrepresentation reflects inequalities in access to international academic journals—overwhelmingly based in the West—and affects many fields, including international studies, the social and medical sciences, and climate science and ecology.

Beyond academia, few if any Western think tanks have programs dedicated specifically to international politics from the global south perspective. Today more than ever, many countries in the global south share common interests and challenges. It is thus urgent to enable discussions that are relevant to global south countries across regions and that uplift experts and practitioners from these regions. Despite positive efforts to this effect, political marginalization remains a challenge and leads the world’s most influential leaders to overlook valuable experiences, knowledge, and sources of innovation.

The Global South in the World Order Project, which I recently launched at the Stimson Center, aims to bring together scholars, nongovernmental organization (NGO) experts, and champions of change from across the global south to exchange perspectives and create connections with U.S. political leaders and policymakers to better inform U.S. foreign policy. Such an effort can help push back against political marginalization in the pursuit of common agendas.

Currently, the United States tends to treat its partners in the global south as pawns in great-power politics and exerts pressure to follow U.S. leadership, a strategy based on outdated assumptions—such as the idea that the United States is the only relevant partner for countries in the global south. These approaches impede cooperation and discount solutions that better align with the interests of these countries. Without incorporating new perspectives, the policies most in need of revision will remain the same—risking inefficiency and even running counter to U.S. values and interests.



Creating platforms that take the global south as a starting point could instead further amplify perspectives from the global south, explore gaps in current debates, and build bridges among global south experts and activists—and between them and Western policymakers. To start this shift, U.S. policymakers should first acknowledge unequal access to international decision-making processes, as well as the challenges that disproportionately affect the global south. Because the global south itself is flexible and dynamic, policy spaces that take it as a starting point must account for the possibility of shifting geopolitics, too.


Although strengthening regional forums is valuable, more must be done to address the shortcomings of the international institutions that are the site of global governance, from the U.N. Security Council to the International Monetary Fund. It is neither viable nor acceptable that a minority of powerful states use their dominance within the global order to advance their interests and set the agenda for economic rules or security solutions—with negative repercussions falling largely onto the global south.


Russia’s war in Ukraine and the differing responses to the crisis have shown that this status quo has reached its limits. The lack of representation for the global south in decision-making leads to ineffective policies toward vulnerable states and a lack of ownership among local actors, from national leaders to grassroots NGOs. For reform to happen, the world’s countries must decide on a common agenda—as difficult as that may be. The Biden administration has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to such reform and put actions behind its promises to advance this agenda.


An alternative to reform is, of course, to create new institutions, but that poses its own complex challenge, given the need to find consensus on principles, representation, and working methods. The unresolved issue of U.N. Security Council reform shows just how complicated such a process can become, with no less than five proposals for reform. Non-Western multilateral institutions, such as China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank established by the BRICS states, have recently flourished, but their reach remains limited compared with traditional international organizations.


The first step toward better integrating perspectives from the global south into international politics is to create spaces that elevate voices from these countries on issues including development, governance, security, trade, and climate change. Such spaces will increase awareness among policymakers in the United States and beyond about the values of the countries that comprise the global south. Ideally, they could shape a U.S. foreign policy geared toward achieving mutual benefits in terms of peace, security, and human prosperity.


Aude Darnal is a nonresident fellow in the Stimson Center’s Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program. She leads the Global South in the World Order Project, which brings together scholars with non-Western perspectives to examine prevailing assumptions about the role of the global south in international politics. Twitter: @AudeDarnal


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