Return of the “Third World”?

Are we seeing a return to the old notion of a “third world”?

Originating in the 1950s, the term “third world” was used to refer to those nations not aligned to either the bloc of Western democracies or the Eastern bloc of communist states.  Over time, and particularly since the end of the Warsaw Pact and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the term has fallen from use.

Recent events, though, may point to a revival in two senses.  First, politically.  Compare the two maps below: of first, second and third worlds in the 1970s[1]; and of reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022[2].  Yes, there are plenty of differences but the neutral countries are almost all third world; and very few third world countries have taken a strongly-supporting or strongly-condemnatory stance.

Second, economically.  Resource procurement and global supply chains are being rethought.  Western democracies are seeking to delink from Russian energy[3], and Russia is turning East to find new sales outlets[4].  Russia and China are collaborating more closely on financial and other systems[5].  Western firms are considering moving supply chains closer to home, into domains that are both more secure and less abusive of human rights[6].  China’s “dual circulation” strategy presages less economic interaction with the West[7].  Overall, “democracies are banding together, as are autocracies”[8].

If there is some greater economic and political coalescence into a Western democratic bloc and an Eastern autocratic bloc, what are the implications for the “third world” of those countries outside those blocs?

Some will benefit as the blocs seek economic collaboration and political alliance.  Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and others are already benefitting, for example, from US firms’ search for non-Chinese production bases[9].  China’s Belt & Road Initiative and Western responses such as the US Build Back Better World initiative are competitively channelling infrastructure funding to lower-income countries[10].

Some states may be adept enough to play off the two blocs, squeezing concessions and enabling greater attention to local development goals and interests[11].  But many will come under pressure to pick a side, as seems particularly to be happening with Western pressure on states to turn away from Russia and China[12].  Third world history suggests, if they do this, then such states may then face attempts at destabilisation from the other bloc.

The world is different, more complex and more connected than it was during the era in which “Third World” arose as a concept.  The realities of first and second world bloc formation will likely be less than they might be.  Just as in the 1970s, and as the 2022 diagram above illustrates, many countries outside those blocs may be more aligned with one than the other.  But, nonetheless, echoes of the Third World are sufficiently strong to be taken seriously.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:World_map_worlds_first_second_third.gif https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tran.12480

[2] https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2022/04/04/who-are-russias-supporters

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/04/pressure-mounts-germany-embargo-russian-energy-imports

[4] https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/research/qa/qa-china-russia-energy-relations-will-new-oil-and-natural-gas-deals-help-russia-weather-economic

[5] https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/03/12/will-china-offer-russia-financial-help

[6] https://www.economist.com/business/2022/04/02/is-cancel-culture-coming-to-free-trade; https://economistchina.com/wp-content/uploads/North-American-supply-chains-Will-reshoring-actually-happen.pdf

[7] https://www.economist.com/china/2021/03/11/a-confident-china-seeks-to-insulate-itself-from-the-world

[8] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/03/19/globalisation-and-autocracy-are-locked-together-for-how-much-longer

[9] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/01/01/new-research-counts-the-costs-of-the-sino-american-trade-war; https://economistchina.com/wp-content/uploads/North-American-supply-chains-Will-reshoring-actually-happen.pdf

[10] https://www.firstpost.com/world/explained-as-g7-plans-build-back-better-world-heres-how-much-china-has-spent-on-belt-and-road-initiative-9732641.html

[11] https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tran.12480

[12] https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/07/17/bidens-new-china-doctrine; https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/pressure-building-on-india-to-condemn-russian-invasion-of-ukraine/; https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/pakistan-under-western-pressure-to-condemn-russia-s-invasion-in-ukraine-122030700563_1.html

One thought on “Return of the “Third World”?

  1. Funny enough, the term “third world” have a very different meaning in the countries that usually belong to that category that has no relationship with its original intent. Or at least that is my experience from Colombia.

    Take a look at this social media coment https://www.reddit.com/r/Colombia/comments/txoof7/comment/i3n0vch/? in response to a video showing a group of school kids beating up a thief (!). When the commenter says “welcome to the third world” the meaning becomes apparent; the third world are the violent, poor, and rather uncivilized countries in the world. A quick search of the term “tercer mundo” or “tercermundista” in reddit communities of South American countries will show more examples of how we use that term.

    Perhaps by design, the categories of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd created a hierarchy in which the first world is at the top of the food chain, second is the only rival, and third comes last (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South-up_map_orientation). It isn’t surprising, then, that the geopolitical meaning got lost in translation and it has now become (at least in South America) a sort of civilized-uncivilized scale.

    Incidently, growing up I always wondered who were the “second world” countries, but now I know.

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