Euroviews. Europe needs to embrace pragmatism to remain relevant in the Global South

It’s an open secret that Western diplomacy is not having its best days in the Global South. 

When it came to the UN to condemn Russia in 2022, most countries that abstained were in the Global South — and very much in line with public opinion: polling at the time suggested only 45% of the public would have supported any overly bullish condemnation of Russia. 

Meanwhile, while only 5% of US citizens surveyed suggested that they see Russia as an ally, over 80% of Indians, 79% of Chinese and 69% of Turkish respondents described Russia either as an ally or partner.

If the unipolar moment is taken as point of reference, then some of this might very well be surprising. But the reality on the ground for most of the Global South (despite some contesting the term, will use it as the most general and inclusive for this article’s arguments) was always ambivalent. 

If this prompts a diplomatic awakening for Western diplomacy, the global commons might be better for it. Still, several aspects need to be understood first: promoting liberal democratic values is increasingly harder, money is not a dirty word and alliances based on temporary interest are to be accepted.

I want to buy the world a Coca-Cola

Since the 1970s and the midst of the Cold War, the US relied on building a public image based on a mix of social liberalism and a showcase of material prosperity: you get to have your cake and eat it too was the subtext of American diplomacy. 

To an extent, it was a master-stroke — of luck as well, as the Soviets were relying too much on ideology and having a non-competitive economic model. 

The Nixon administration positioned the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the US fully took up the mantle of the world’s trading empire from the UK. 

As trade networks spread across the world and incomes increased, that ideology became the first port of call to every person from the factory worker to the local intelligence officer everywhere, including the Soviet Union. 

As Jackson J Spielvogel said in Western Civilisation: “most Soviet citizens didn’t want democratic freedom, they wanted the freedom to shop till you drop”. 

The West/North is no longer alone in global prosperity. There is a need for economic reinvention and renewed competitiveness, while other countries’ citizens exhibit global prosperity.

A soldier gives two cans of Coca-Cola to his friend-tank driver near the Russian Federation building in Moscow, August 1991

In fact, that ideology became almost universal, to the extent that Francis Fukuyama’s proposition in the 1990s that it doesn’t have any rivals left was actually true. 

The advantage this gave Washington in foreign policy would be hard to quantify but when your product becomes the default, it’s a sign that your market position is rather strong: think Xerox or Kleenex in the 1990s.

That age is over. It didn’t end with the Twin Towers or other events when pundits felt obliged to grandiloquently declare that history is back — but with a whimper: a lot of Western citizens can’t shop till they drop, and everyone can duly see that. 

The West/North is no longer alone in global prosperity. There is a need for economic reinvention and renewed competitiveness, while other countries’ citizens exhibit global prosperity. 

In turn, that means that Western diplomats in general can no longer rely on entering each negotiating room as the default winners and need to engage with their foreign counterparts while truly accounting for their wants and needs, factional loyalties, and personal interests.

Time to change focus

The West should acknowledge what works (and what does not) in this new reality. 

Promises of golden futures in exchange for the golden strait-jackets of SWIFT, international FDI (aid to trade is more desired in the Global South, the question is how to get there faster) and IMF loans have been ringing hollow for over a decade. 

So, it should not be surprising that many abstaining countries are also those over which the US and the EU — as well as other Global North allies — have little real leverage. 

Western policymakers will have to put forward genuine economic and financial goods that can either help foreign counterparts or represent something that could be sold to the general populace as worthy of re-election.

A woman walks past a sign reading “Prosperity” in Chinese and English in Beijing, July 2015

In no small part that is because they never became as integrated in the global economy as assumed, and the world remains imbalanced while global competition increases, with Asia a bigger player at the global table, including for African and Latam futures.

As long as the promise of a nightcap was on the table, many countries in the Global South were willing to forgo other alternatives. 

Still, the reality is that Western policymakers will have to put forward genuine economic and financial goods that can either help foreign counterparts or represent something that could be sold to the general populace as worthy of re-election.

We’ll always have self-interests

Due to its cultural supremacy, the US has been able to rely on a grand strategy of soft power, beyond obvious hard power advantages. Europeans also counted on their soft power, while joining the Americans in virtue-signalling. 

But the plain reality is that we all also follow our own interests as well. And sometimes our interests include not only permanent alliances but also temporary ones. 

In fact, short-term alliances based on matching interests should no longer be dismissed, especially at a time of great power competition.

It is time to accept that issues such as fentanyl trafficking or helping Ukraine will ultimately involve working with entities one is not comfortable with. In other words, the normalcy of pragmatism is needed to succeed. 

That is valid, including for global charm offensives, and here the Europeans have the advantage, in the EU framework, by exploring in the Global South the idea of lead countries, who due to their history have more soft power and affection on the ground than the average. 

For example, in recent months, Eastern European states such as Romania have adopted Africa strategies, and they can work closely with partners to help raise Western credibility on the continent.

Taking such core considerations on board can enable the US, the EU and other like-minded allies such as Japan and Australia to fully wake up from our previous unipolar dream — and stable world — and step forward as a credible key partner for the Global South in a turbulent decade. 

Otherwise, we risk losing ground to global and regional challenges; losing face and competitiveness on a global stage; and losing, importantly, the trust of the youthful Global South whose next generation of leaders is looking actively at fast development options.  

Radu Magdin is CEO of Smartlink and former advisor to prime ministers of Romania (2014-2015) and Moldova (2016-2017).

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