From climate negotiations to sports to diplomacy, the global south is becoming more powerful.
The most meaningful trend in global politics for 2023 is one that isn’t getting enough attention. The global south is becoming more visible—and influential—in every arena.
COP27, last year’s big climate summit, will be remembered for the breakthrough agreement of a “loss and damage” fund earmarked to help developing countries deal with the ravages of climate change. 2022’s biggest sporting event, the men’s soccer World Cup held in Qatar, marked the first time an Arab country played host and the first at which an African team, Morocco, advanced to the semifinals. (The tournament will also remain special for attendees from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, for whom it’s challenging to travel to sporting events in Europe and North America.) Or consider how, as Russia waged war in Ukraine, many countries in the developing world declined to participate in U.S.-led sanctions against Russia. The moral merits of such a decision can and should be debated. But leaving aside the thorny issue of ethics in foreign policy, leaders from New Delhi to Nairobi exhibited a growing confidence in asserting their own strategic interests instead of the West’s.
The non-Western world—the long-ignored global south, or the “Rest,” as it’s often called—is making its voice heard. These parts of the planet, younger and faster-growing than the West but also more vulnerable to climate change, are becoming increasingly powerful and more assertive stakeholders in global politics. Policymakers and businesses in the West will need to adapt.
When global delegates flew into the Egyptian seaside resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh last November, they were attending the first U.N. climate summit on African soil since 2016. The location added some urgency to proceedings: The United Nations considers Africa the continent most vulnerable to climate change and the least equipped to handle it.
For decades, climate negotiations have followed a well-worn path. Rich countries would declare the need to cut global emissions. Developing nations would point out that they needed assistance to shift toward cleaner sources of energy. Small amounts of funding would be announced, but very little of the money promised would ultimately get delivered. Year after year, the cycle continued.
In 2022, something seemed to change. Perhaps it was the fact that all over the world, but especially in the global south, climate change was violently rocking systems off balance. More than 1,700 people died in Pakistan after a toxic mix of drought, overcharged monsoon rain, and melting Himalayan snow led to a third of the country being submerged in floodwater. East Africa, meanwhile, was going through its worst drought in decades, caused by yet another year of inadequate rainfall. Perhaps the COVID pandemic taught Western leaders that problems in one part of the planet could quickly impact their own constituencies. More cynically, maybe it had finally become politically feasible, especially in Europe, for leaders to back progressive policies on climate change. Or perhaps it took the arrival of a leader like Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, whose Bridgetown Initiative lays out with sharp moral clarity a plan for the world to finance the climate needs of developing countries.
Whatever it was, a realization coalesced among leaders: You can’t stop something that is already here. Climate change is occurring. And so, the theory went, the world needed to continue to work on reducing emissions and putting in place strategies of mitigation and adaptation—as before—but it now also needed to address a clear and present issue. That is, helping developing countries fix the damage being inflicted on their people.
As COP27 ran well into overtime, rich Western countries that had for years held out on considering the idea of so-called loss and damage payments relented. Scotland, the host country of the previous climate summit, stood alone among Western countries in 2021 when it promised $2.2 million toward loss and damage payments. At Egypt’s COP, it upped its commitment by $5.7 million. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany joined in with similar sums of money relative to their size. Even the United States, which long feared that such a fund would get in the way of efforts to reduce carbon emissions, signed off on an international loss and damage fund.
Yes, details remain fuzzy. Climate negotiators will spend much of 2023 debating how much money each country should put in and where the funds should be allocated. It’s certain the piggy bank will be inadequate: Research indicates that by 2030, developing countries could suffer up to $580 billion in annual climate change-related damages. Poor nations do not have the funds to fix the inevitable wounds our climate lottery will inflict. But perhaps they’ll now have some insurance. A major global debate now seems settled: A small group of rich nations, responsible for half of all carbon emissions since 1850, is finally admitting that it has to do more to protect African and Asian countries that have historically contributed very little to climate change. This acknowledgment alone could change the tone and nature of all global negotiations to follow.
Shortly after COP27, public attention shifted to Qatar, the first Arab country to host a soccer World Cup. Media organizations, including this one, rightly pointed out the human rights and labor violations prevalent in a state that has risen within a generation to become a global gas powerhouse. Criticisms were also leveled at Doha—rightly, again—for retaining regressive laws on same-sex relationships and press freedom. But observed from the vantage point of the global south—countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that may have more in common with Qatar than the West on human rights—this latest World Cup represented a rare moment of access and parity. Finally, people from cities such as Mombasa and Mumbai could afford to fly to a place like Doha and enjoy the spectacle of Argentina’s Lionel Messi taking on France’s Kylian Mbappé. Morocco’s fairytale journey to the semifinals was witnessed in person by thousands of Moroccan fans, many of whom would have struggled to attend a tournament held in New York or London. (It’s not just the money; thanks to passport inequity, getting a U.S. or U.K. visa would have been challenging for the majority of would-be attendees from the global south.)
Sportswashing—a new word that describes how countries buy sporting influence to mask their problems and burnish their soft power—became a popular term in 2022. Qatar serves up an obvious example of the practice. Not only did it host the World Cup, but it also owns the top French soccer club, Paris Saint-Germain, which boasts a forward line including Messi, Mbappé, and Brazil’s Neymar. As the world watched one of the most compelling World Cup finals in memory and wondered which of France or Argentina would win, one thing was clear: Qatar couldn’t lose. It had on its payroll the best two horses in the race.
Qatar isn’t alone in flexing its new financial muscle in sports. Until Western sanctions on Russia last year, the oligarch Roman Abramovich owned English soccer club Chelsea. The reigning English Premier League champions, Manchester City, play at Etihad Stadium, named after Abu Dhabi’s flagship airline. Arsenal’s stadium is named after Emirates, Dubai’s flagship carrier. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is a majority shareholder in Newcastle United. Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese superstar, signed a deal last month reportedly worth an annual $200 million to play for a little-known Saudi club.
The global south’s growing influence spans several other sports. Saudi Arabia is also a new force in golf, backing a breakaway league that has attracted several of the world’s top players. China, of course, has long invested in sporting success, culminating in its coming-out party at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
It would be incorrect, however, to think that the global south’s growing influence in sport comes purely from petrodollars or single-minded authoritarian purpose. India, with the promise of a billion pairs of eyeballs, has attracted record broadcast deals for the Indian Premier League (IPL), a domestic cricket tournament created in 2008. The IPL is now among the most lucrative annual events in the sporting world, rivaling the English Premier League and the United States’ NFL.
The question is what these emerging sporting powers will do with their newfound influence. In the case of cricket, a sport mostly played in former British colonies, India has essentially restructured the global calendar of games to accommodate its league. Major cricketing nations now avoid scheduling important national matches during the IPL so their top players won’t have to choose between their country or a big payday in India. Public complaints are rare. Every other cricketing nation wants to stay on India’s good side, schedule more national matches against it, and share in the large TV deals and media attention that come with courting its large audience.
Like sports, entertainment is also a leading indicator of the growing clout of the global south. Consider how Hollywood movies have changed over the last three decades. In 1995, for example, the world’s two top-grossing movies, Toy Story and Apollo 13, generated more than three-fourths of their global ticket sales in the United States. But 2022’s Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick both made more money overseas than in the United States. This shift in where the revenue comes from has steadily impacted the nature of the content that gets created. The Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, for example, has detailed how U.S. studios greenlight deals for blockbusters that are likelier to perform well in large overseas markets such as China and India. (This also explains why sequels and prequels have become so popular: brands and franchises require less global marketing.)
Ultimately, size matters. This is where the global south’s promise as a rising force seems like an unstoppable trend.
On Feb. 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, world leaders faced the equivalent of a Rorschach test. European leaders saw an existential crisis on their borders. U.S. leaders saw a world divided into camps of democracies and autocracies. More nuanced scholars of geopolitics saw a choice between sovereignty and anarchy. But leaders in the global south were looking at a blurry picture; they simply didn’t have a clear black-or-white take.
These are broad generalizations, of course. But in the weeks and months that followed, while Washington rallied London, Berlin, Paris, and other Western capitals to join tough sanctions on Moscow, many other parts of the world chose to sit on the sidelines. Not only that, some cashed in. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, India was importing just 0.2 percent of its total crude from Russia. By the end of 2022, Russian oil—purchased at a sharp discount of between $20 and $30 a barrel—accounted for about 23 percent of its total purchases.
New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow has existed since the Soviet era, but its leaders have made clear they weren’t importing from Russia to help a friend—it was just business. “I am entitled to weigh my own interest,” said Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar last June, speaking at a forum in Slovakia. He advised his Western critics to “grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems—and the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
Diplomats from Thailand to Kenya have told me a variant of the same theme: The West seemingly expects countries to join the initiatives it wants to invest in, but it rarely shows up for everyone else’s problems. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, may have served U.S. interests, but it dashed the hopes of pro-democracy forces in the region. Conflicts and crises in the developing world tend to get less global attention than ones in the West, they said.
The global south’s response to the war in Ukraine represents “a much bigger shift in the global order than most American and European analysts give credit for,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America and a former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department in an FP Live conversation with me. “This is not the nonaligned movement of the 20th century. This is a bunch of important powers—India, Brazil, South Africa, the Association of Southeast Asian countries—who are saying, ‘This is no longer our war, and what we’re really worried about is our own regional conflicts.’”
There is, of course, the matter of whether U.S.-led sanctions have the backing of the United Nations. In the case of sanctioning Moscow, this is impossible because of Russia’s seat on the Security Council. And many countries, such as India, have a policy of only joining sanctions that have the legitimacy of a U.N. resolution.
New Delhi’s foreign-policy stance is particularly interesting because it could serve as a preview for how other rising powers may view the world. In 1946, India was the first country to call for sanctions against South Africa over apartheid. From the time of India’s independence in 1947, its foreign policy was crafted in large part by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who applied a sense of morality to diplomacy. Under Nehru, India championed nonalignment, pledging to steer clear of great-power competition. In recent years, however, and especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has become more transactional in its foreign policy. It has focused on bilateral relations instead of diplomacy through unwieldy groupings such as the United Nations or regional ones such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In some cases, as Husain Haqqani and Narayanappa Janardhan recently described in FP, New Delhi has leaned into so-called minilateral groups: The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Australia, Japan, and the United States, or the I2U2 Group, named for India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
Remarkably, India’s business-first approach is hardly creating a ripple in the West—perhaps because the United States and other Western countries realize the importance of domestic imperatives for developing nations. As India grows as an economic power—and potential bulwark against China—it becomes increasingly important to the West as a potential ally. Realizing this, New Delhi may continue to seek out the best deals for itself on the global market, whether it’s for oil, arms, minerals, labor, or technology. As it took on the G-20 presidency in December, it promised to export its foreign-policy vision to other developing countries. “Our intention is to be a champion of the global south,” said Jaishankar, speaking at an event in New Delhi last month. “A country like India, which is independent minded … has a kind of a middle ground to bring differing parties to the table.”
In the last year, in travels from Davos to Doha and Nairobi to New Delhi, I have heard a recurring chorus from political and business leaders of the developing world. They feel that the West has dominated the global economic and geopolitical narrative for too long. They sense that an era of U.S. dominance is gradually ending. And in a world in which the United States increasingly tussles with China, they don’t want to have to pick sides. After all, why do business with only one big partner? And why let the West shape global politics on its own when the rising incomes of your middle classes allow you to have a louder voice?
Whether it’s sports, business, or diplomacy, we’re no longer in a clear unipolar or bipolar world. It’s a multipolar one, where an increasing number of countries are jostling to be part of the picture.
(c) 2023, Foreign Policy