“I am struck by how much we are losing the trust of the Global South.”
–French President Emmanuel Macron during the Munich Security Conference 2023
The 59th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held from 17 to 19 February, was attended by over 150 senior officials, including more than 40 heads of state and international organizations. The conference focused on three main topics: the war in Ukraine, the need to confront China and Russia, and the importance of the Global South in the struggle between the great powers.
As in the previous year, Russia was not present at the Munich conference. However, this year marked the first time in twenty years that Moscow was not even invited to participate. With both Russia and Iran absent, the conference became a platform for attacking opponents of western policies.
The Great Game for the Global South
The conference took place against a backdrop of international turmoil and competition among great powers for influence in the emerging multipolar order. Several western countries expressed their dissatisfaction with the positions of Global South countries in relation to the conflicts involving China and Russia.
During her speech, US Vice President Kamala Harris stated that:
“We have invited a record number of representatives from the so-called “Global South,” because while we have this unity between us, when you talk to representatives of the Global South – and we had them on the podium this morning – you see that many countries sit on the fence.”
Accordingly, Christoph Heusgen, chairman of the MSC, announced at the opening ceremony that this year’s conference would “put a spotlight on the Global South” and “listen to their concerns.”
France’s Macron pointed out that efforts in reshaping the global order should be more inclusive: “The west has been losing the Global South and hasn’t done enough to respond to the charge of double standards, including by not helping poor countries fast enough with Covid vaccines,” he said. “One way to address the concerns of the Global South is to bring about reforms in the United Nations.”
A wake-up call for the west
While the discussions and outcomes of the conference suggest that western powers have come to recognize the significance of nations in the Global South, this appears to be mainly because of the necessity in rallying their support in major conflicts against Russia and China.
The conflict in Ukraine fully demonstrated that the refusal of many Latin American, African, and Asian countries to support western sanctions was a significant factor in the failure of the west’s attempts to isolate Russia.
The MSC’s final report states: “The wake-up call provided by Russia’s war and the diffidence of many countries in the ‘Global South’ has roused liberal democracies from their complacency, reminding them that the international order, just like democracy itself, is in constant need of renewal.”
The report added that “countries in the Global South can become crucial ‘swing states.’ They can tip the balance between systemic competitors and therefore determine the fate of the international rules-based order.” It also recognized that:
“Influential states such as India, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia are quite actively hedging their bets in the current geopolitical standoff – both when it comes to Ukraine but also on many other policy issues. Rather than being guided by deep feelings about the international order, their responses to the war in Ukraine and their stances in the broader international contest over the international order seem to be guided by much more pragmatic reasoning.”
The report also found that:
“Many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of an international system which has neither granted them an appropriate voice in global affairs, nor sufficiently addressed their core concerns. To many states, these failures are deeply tied to the west. They find that the western-led order has been characterized by post-colonial domination, double standards, and neglect for developing countries’ concerns.”
Legacy of colonialism
It is clear from the statements made at the Munich Security Conference that the west recognizes the need to change its approach to development cooperation with the countries of the Global South, in order to counter the increasing influence of Beijing and Moscow.
However, this will require a fundamental shift in attitudes and policies towards these countries, which have historically been viewed as objects of aid and development rather than equal partners in a mutually beneficial relationship. This too is pointed out in the MSC report:
“The United States and Europe will have to rethink their approaches to development cooperation with countries in the Global South. They need to make their development models more attractive, as China offers an alternative model based on a narrative of solidarity and mutual benefits. To compete with China, the approach must focus on the novelty on short-term emergency relief as well as long-term financing enables sustainable and resilient systems in partner countries.”
The colonialist legacy of the west continues to cast a long shadow over its relations with the Global South, and it will take sustained effort and genuine commitment to overcome this legacy and build a more equitable and productive relationship.
This will require a shift away from the donor-recipient model towards one based on partnership and mutual benefit, and a recognition that the interests and aspirations of the countries of the Global South must be taken seriously and respected.
Looting wealth, interfering in the policies of states, and waging wars are hallmarks of western policies in the developing world. Those states who do not adhere to western diktats are regularly subjected to ominous sanctions or extreme economic pressures.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the support for authoritarian regimes and coups, the economic vise on countries like Lebanon and Venezuela, and the unequal distribution of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic are just a few examples of the ways in which western powers have acted against the interests and well-being of Global South countries.
In 2019, when former US President Donald Trump triumphantly claimed ownership of Syrian oil, it marked a clear example of the problematic and exploitative attitudes that continue to plague western policies toward the Global South. The fact that western leaders did not anticipate the rise of the developing countries to become decisive “swing states” – as noted in the final report of the Munich conference – is a reflection of the west’s ongoing ignorance and neglect of the interests and aspirations of these vital states.
West Asia at the MSC
The MSC also highlighted the increasing importance of West Asia in global energy politics and the west’s alarm about China’s growing influence in this region. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) projection that West Asian countries will meet a large share of China and India’s growing oil needs has raised the region’s strategic value for these influential emerging powers.
Washington’s frustration with Saudi Arabia’s standing in the Ukrainian conflict was also evident at the conference, as the west seeks to prevent a repeat of such behavior in the more important conflict with China. Per the conference report:
“Amid the decline of the American presence in the Middle East [West Asia], liberal democracies are increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence. Deeper relations between China and the Middle East [West Asia] may evolve to include a stronger Chinese military and security footprint, which could undermine the west’s security partnerships with countries in the region.”
In essence, the Munich meeting provided a platform for declining western powers to express their concerns about the growing influence of China in West Asia, as well as their frustration with Saudi Arabia’s perceived lack of loyalty. It highlighted the need for the west to adapt its strategies in dealing with the developing world and to foster new forms of international solidarity and cooperation.
However, it is important to acknowledge that the term “Global South” itself reflects a colonial mindset that continues to shape the west’s perception of developing nations, and that such imperial policies will continue as long as such attitudes persist.