Europe needs to embrace pragmatism to not lose the Global South

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The EU and other like-minded allies must fully wake up from our previous unipolar dream — and stable world — and step forward as a credible key partner for the Global South in this turbulent decade, Radu Magdin writes.


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”. 

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. 


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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We can tackle climate change, jobs, growth and global trade. Here’s what’s stopping us

We must leave behind established modes of thinking and seek creative workable solutions.

Another tumultuous year has confirmed that the global economy is at a turning point. We face four big challenges: the climate transition; the good-jobs problem; an economic-development crisis, and the search for a newer, healthier form of globalization.

To address each, we must leave behind established modes of thinking and seek creative workable solutions, while recognizing that these efforts will be necessarily uncoordinated and experimental.

Climate change is the most daunting challenge, and the one that has been overlooked the longest — at great cost. If we are to avoid condemning humanity to a dystopian future, we must act fast to decarbonize the global economy. We have long known that we must wean ourselves from fossil fuels, develop green alternatives and shore up our defenses against the lasting environmental damage that past inaction has already caused. However, it has become clear that little of this is likely to be achieved through global cooperation or economists’ favored policies.

Instead, individual countries will forge ahead with their own green agendas, implementing policies that best account for their specific political constraints, as the United States, China and the European Union have been doing. The result will be a hodge-podge of emission caps, tax incentives, research and development support, and green industrial policies with little global coherence and occasional costs for other countries. Messy though it may be, an uncoordinated push for climate action may be the best we can realistically hope for.

Inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and labor-market polarization have caused significant damage to our social environment.

But our physical environment is not the only threat we face. Inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and labor-market polarization have caused equally significant damage to our social environment. The consequences are now widely evident. Economic, regional, and cultural gaps within countries are widening, and liberal democracy (and the values that support it) appears to be in decline, reflecting rising support for xenophobic, authoritarian populists and the growing backlash against scientific and technical expertise.

Social transfers and the welfare state can help, but what is most needed is an increase in the supply of good jobs for the less-educated workers who have lost access to them. We need more productive, well-remunerated employment opportunities that can provide dignity and social recognition for those without a college degree. Expanding the supply of such jobs will require not only more investment in education and more robust defense of workers’ rights, but also a new brand of industrial policies for services, where the bulk of future employment will be created.

The disappearance of manufacturing jobs over time reflects both greater automation and stronger global competition. Developing countries have not been immune to either factor. Many have experienced “premature de-industrialization”: their absorption of workers into formal, productive manufacturing firms is now very limited, which means they are precluded from pursuing the kind of export-oriented development strategy that has been so effective in East Asia and a few other countries. Together with the climate challenge, this crisis of growth strategies in low-income countries calls for an entirely new development model.

Governments will have to experiment, combining investment in the green transition with productivity enhancements in labor-absorbing services.

As in the advanced economies, services will be low- and middle-income countries’ main source of employment creation. But most services in these economies are dominated by very small, informal enterprises — often sole proprietorships — and there are essentially no ready-made models of service-led development to emulate. Governments will have to experiment, combining investment in the green transition with productivity enhancements in labor-absorbing services.

Finally, globalization itself must be reinvented. The post-1990 hyper-globalization model has been overtaken by the rise of U.S.-China geopolitical competition, and by the higher priority placed on domestic social, economic, public-health, and environmental concerns. No longer fit for purpose, globalization as we know it will have to be replaced by a new understanding that rebalances national needs and the requirements of a healthy global economy that facilitates international trade and long-term foreign investment.

Most likely, the new globalization model will be less intrusive, acknowledging the needs of all countries (not just major powers) that want greater policy flexibility to address domestic challenges and national-security imperatives. One possibility is that the U.S. or China will take an overly expansive view of its security needs, seeking global primacy (in the U.S. case) or regional domination (China). The result would be a “weaponization” of economic interdependence and significant economic decoupling, with trade and investment treated as a zero-sum game.

The biggest gift major powers can give to the world economy is to manage their own domestic economies well.

But there could also be a more favorable scenario in which both powers keep their geopolitical ambitions in check, recognizing that their competing economic goals are better served through accommodation and cooperation. This scenario might serve the global economy well, even if — or perhaps because — it falls short of hyper-globalization. As the Bretton Woods era showed, a significant expansion of global trade and investment is compatible with a thin model of globalization, wherein countries retain considerable policy autonomy with which to foster social cohesion and economic growth at home. The biggest gift major powers can give to the world economy is to manage their own domestic economies well.

All these challenges call for new ideas and frameworks. We do not need to throw conventional economics out the window. But to remain relevant, economists must learn to apply the tools of their trade to the objectives and constraints of the day. They will have to be open to experimentation, and sympathetic if governments engage in actions that do not conform to the playbooks of the past.

Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard Kennedy School, is president of the International Economic Association and the author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017).

This commentary was published with the permission of Project Syndicate — Confronting Our Four Biggest Economic Challenges

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