International Relations and the Global South

In the realm of International Relations, the issues related to the Global South are perhaps within the sphere of the Liberalism theory.  Economic interdependence and collaboration, international cooperation, institutions, and regimes are the key features of this theory. Juxtaposed with the Realist line of thought, in which states are seen as self-interested and that state (or national, for that matter) interests are always of primary importance, liberal theory in relation to the Global South focuses on how both industrialized but particularly developing states can work together towards achieving common goals and aspirations as far as interstate interests are considered. Hence, regionalism, collective decision and participation, and collaboration within and among organizations are of chief significance in the critical analysis and discussion on the Global South.

            According to Morphet, the global south per se is crucial to world politics and global governance, both associated with the discourse on international relations. This group contains rising great powers and major centers of economic growth; many urgent security issues facing both developed and developing states; population problems and solutions; significant threats to global health; and development approaches that will profoundly affect the global environment. The developing countries constitute a clear majority in global institutions. Therefore, developments on the Global South as these relate to the norms and trends in international relations have evolved over time and are seen very relevant in current patterns of actions and transactions of international actors: states and organizations.[i]

            Centuries ago, the people of these very countries now included in the relatively more recent term Global South, crossed borders, navigated oceans, and traversed seemingly unlimited coasts and inlands in search of untapped riches but primarily to trade with peoples of various races. Nevertheless, in the latter half of the 20th century, these new states emerging from their colonial past, aiming to rise from stagnation and from being objects of imperialist greed for centuries, worked their way forward in their pursuit of finding their place in the international arena, paving the way for the apparent “rise” of the Global South.[ii]

            Although narratives of international relations span centuries, it was not until the 20th century when the study of international relations was used as a venue to critically analyze how states interact, respond, and work (for their own interests and/or against rival states) on various challenges as far as individual state interests, regional agenda, or international matters are concerned. As briefly elaborated by Braveboy, the theory of functionalism emerged in the 1930s to capture practical and rational dimensions, while also adhering to a liberal ideal in expecting technical cooperation to spill over into the political realm.[iii]  However, during the war years, functionalism faded away but paved the way for neofunctionalism in the 1960s. Neofunctionalism recognizes both the trend toward regionalism that had emerged first in Europe in the late 1950s, and the inseparability of politics and economics. It was only during the post-1945 world, with the establishment of the UN, IMF-World Bank, GATT, and other international institutions, when countries of developing status began to play important functions/ roles (although initially less-prioritized ones) and assimilate into the domain once extensively controlled by dominant powers (the West). In time, a few of these developing states rose to newly industrializing status (Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia) eventually sought major roles in the international arena. Those left on the peripheral strived to fortify their interests via coalitions and regional organizations. Such actions can be expounded through the lens of neoliberals (1980s) who proposed the potential for cooperation among states, and that institutions are important to serve as forum and to some extent, policy-making bodies. This is commonly known today as regionalism, or the trend towards regionalization.

            Braveboy-Wagner mentioned a three-level analysis in order to understand how institutionalism in the Global South works: tri-continental, regional, and the sub-regional. From a chronological viewpoint, there has been an evolution of southern institutionalism from the all-regional and multifunctional approach (dating back to the 1940s), through the tricontinental (established to gain global political influence) as well as the regional (formed for narrow technical reasons) in the 1960s, and then to today’s enhanced subregional initiatives that aim not only at deepening economic integration but at policy and political spillover. What is noticeable is the persistence of old institutions and the growth of many new ones.[iv] From the 1940s to the 1990s, both industrialized and developing states saw the formation of the ACP, ASEAN, MERCOSUR, G20, G77, AU and various others from the Global South, with active participation from Western states and their offshoots (Australia, New Zealand, Canada). These organizations, oftentimes-supported-sometimes-bullied by Western clubs serve as forum and discussion venues in order to address the developing states’ concerns via exchange of ideas and suggestions and present these to larger regional organizations, and in turn, to international bodies that may and are expected to respond to concerns of primary significance and relevance.


[i] Morphet, Sally. Multilateralism and Non-Aligned Movement: What is the Global South doing and where is it going? Review essay. Global Governance. 2004

[ii] Moving towards the age of early globalization (1500s to 1700s), Europeans dominated the Asian seas and eventually got into their sphere these ancient peoples, manipulated the economies of their colonies in favor of their own interests (realist). Moving further to modern times (18th to 20th century), new powers emerged from the European-dominated trading system, and in time, the United States became the major player practically controlling world trade. Simultaneous with the evolution of world trade, peoples of the colonial world seemed to slowly progress (although some practically stagnated) while the West (Europe and North America) rose to global dominance. References for details are from the various books but mainly from International Political Economy (Frieden and Lake) 1988; The New Asian Hemisphere by Mahbubani, 2008; and Day of Empire by Amy Chua 2007.

[iii] Braveboy-Wagner, Jacqueline. Institutions of the Global South. London. 2009

[iv] Ibid, 210.

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