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Business News/ Politics / Can the West win over the rest?
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In a more transactional world the price of influence is going up

Even as most countries wish to avoid being forced to join one geopolitical bloc or the other, the superpowers are nonetheless competing to win them over. (Image: Pixabay)Premium
Even as most countries wish to avoid being forced to join one geopolitical bloc or the other, the superpowers are nonetheless competing to win them over. (Image: Pixabay)

It has become common to describe the world as divided between a reinvigorated Western bloc and an autocratic alliance of China and Russia. Yet this way of thinking has its limitations. For a start, the West is not always united, as Emmanuel Macron’s botched vanity trip to China demonstrates. And, more strikingly for the great geopolitical contest of the 21st century, at least 4bn people, or more than half of the world’s population, live in over 100 countries that do not want to pick sides.

As we explain, these “non-aligned" countries are collectively becoming more important as the global order fragments. States such as India and Saudi Arabia are making deals across the divide, and want to have more say in world affairs. Make no mistake: this half of the world is so sprawling that it will never act as a bloc. But if you want to understand why the oil price has spiked back over $80, or how supply chains are being remade, or the prospects for peace in Ukraine, non-aligned countries are a growing part of the equation. Their ascent also raises a big question: as China and the West vie for influence over these countries, who will prevail?

Non-alignment has a dubious record. It began in the 1950s as an alliance of developing states that were eager to exert their new-found sovereignty amid rising tensions between America and the Soviet Union. Over the decades the movement degenerated into grandstanding and anti-Americanism. Lacking cohesion, military clout, permanent membership of the UN security council, economic heft or a presence on the frontiers of tech and finance, it had little power. In 1956 John Foster Dulles, America’s secretary of state, called non-alignment “immoral". By the cold war’s end, it was irrelevant.

At first glance, today’s 100-plus ostensibly neutral countries still face many of the same problems as the non-aligned movement did in the 20th century. They have too little in common to be as cohesive as the West, or even the Sino-Russian alliance of convenience: huge democracies such as Brazil and India have few shared interests, let alone a common agenda with a cash-rich monarchy like Qatar. They still rely on the West, China and Russia for technologies, from semiconductors to weapons, and invoice much of their trade in greenbacks.

Yet it is a mistake to underestimate their role, for two reasons. First, their economic clout is rising. Consider the 25 largest non-aligned economies, or the “transactional-25" (defined as those which have not imposed sanctions on Russia, or have said they wish to be neutral in the Sino-American contest). Together they account for 45% of the world’s population and their share of global GDP has risen from 11% when the Berlin Wall fell to 18% today, more than the EU. After decades of free-wheeling globalisation, their combined trade pattern is multipolar, with a three-way split between the West, China and other non-aligned states.

Second, their approach to the world, shaped by their desire for national development, has become ruthlessly pragmatic. They have turned into globalisation’s most unlikely defenders: from Mexico to Indonesia, they want to trade freely with both sides of the geopolitical divide, while also seizing on the opportunities to profit as supply chains are restructured away from an excessive reliance on China. Pragmatism also means they have limited confidence in the institutions of the post-1945 American-led order such as the UN or IMF, which they see as being in a state of disorder and decay. Western appeals to defend the liberal order or human rights are often seen as being self-serving, inconsistent and hypocritical.

The result is a fluid, transactional approach to the world, as countries wheel and deal in an attempt to gain advantage. The non-aligned often act alone, but sometimes work in concert. opec, the oil cartel, is being more assertive; this month it cut production by 4% despite Western complaints. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, is promoting a “peace club" to end the Ukraine war. And India wants to use its presidency of the G20 this year to lobby for the global south.

You can expect these experiments at projecting power to be hit-and-miss—but to grow more ambitious. In tech, India wants to export its “stack" of digital services. In defence, Turkey is selling more arms, including drones and India is expanding its navy. In finance, the system for reinvesting trillions of petrodollars is becoming less centred on the West. Given their limited responsibility for historic carbon emissions and their vulnerability to changing weather, non-aligned countries will understandably seek more say over climate policy.

Even as most countries wish to avoid being forced to join one geopolitical bloc or the other, the superpowers are nonetheless competing to win them over. China sees non-aligned countries as biddable, much as the Soviet Union did. It offers dictators and democrats infrastructure, tech and arms with few strings attached. Yet over time, vulnerable non-aligned countries will surely come to realise that a world in which might is right suits bullies more than anyone else. Authoritarian China’s soft power has limits. The citizens of countries that take China’s money are hardly queuing to emigrate to Beijing.

When the price is right

Nonetheless, the West needs to gear up to compete for influence. America and its allies must resist the temptation to stoop to tactics that end up turning them into their autocratic opponents. Yet appeals to the liberal order that was set up after the second world war will not be enough to win the argument. Instead, the West must also engage with non-aligned countries in their own transactional terms, with a mix of carrots and sticks.

Some of the West’s strengths are enduring: market access, technology and the free flow of information. Other parts of its proposition can be improved, including by offering a more flexible network of security relationships, like the one America already has with India; and other hard benefits, from debt relief to climate finance. The emerging world order is a long way from America’s unipolar moment in the 1990s. But in the marketplace for influence, the West can compete. Over 4bn people are keen to see what it has to offer.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. 

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 31 Jan 2024, 06:30 PM IST
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