Between 1950 and 1989, the world was divided into clearly demarcated groups of countries. There was the “First World” of advanced industrial democracies also known as ‘the West’: western Europe; the British and European diaspora in North America, Australia and New Zealand, Japan; the “Second World” of countries under communist rule; and the “Third World” of developing countries emerging from colonial rule.
More recently, that old division has been breaking down; in the 2010s these old categories will largely disappear. The Second World, of course, has already been relegated to the junkyard of history. Some of its members have headed west — joining the EU and becoming, or at least trying to become, advanced industrial democracies. Some, like China and Vietnam, have gone east and no longer form a coherent ideological or economic bloc. Others, like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, are unhappily wondering what they can or should do.
Less dramatic, but more important, is the accelerating breakdown of what used to be the “Third World.” Latin America, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and South Asia were once very much more like each other than they are now. Many Asian countries now enjoy living standards once reserved to the ‘West’ and many others hope to do so in the near future. Latin America and Africa are following economic and political courses very different from each other and very different from what is happening in East or South Asia. The Middle East, again, is moving in a direction of its own.
In retrospect it seems clear that the very concept of the Third World was a hangover from the era of imperialism. Before European imperialism brought peoples from all over the world under the rule of a group of European powers, someone from Indonesia and someone from Mexico had very little in common. The experience of foreign domination and exploitation followed by revolt and the effort of state building (along with the linguistic and cultural consequences of the imported European educational systems) created some commonalities, but over time these are fading and the natural, historic diversity of human cultures and interests is reasserting itself. The new decade will likely see the disaggregation of the Third World; the term will sound increasingly old-fashioned and even patronizing.
Within the old Third World, countries are likely to divide issue by issue based on economic and strategic concerns. Countries that are exporters of primary commodities have a set of common interests; rapidly growing exporters of manufactured goods have another. As we saw at Copenhagen, poor countries with low lying territories do not see eye-to-eye with rapidly industrializing nations like China — much less with the oil exporting economies of the Middle East. India, China and Brazil currently believe that they have either arrived at the VIP lounge in the nightclub of world politics or are shortly about to be ushered through the velvet ropes; these countries increasingly believe they can best advance their interests on their own, rather than through large and cumbersome coalitions like the Group of 77.
The biggest surprise, however, in the 2010s may be the breakup of the West. Just as the glue that once held the Third World is dissolving over time, the forces that once brought western Europe, the United States and Japan into a single economic and political bloc are gradually losing their strength. On the one hand, the economic and even the political differences that once marked this group as unique are beginning to fade. There are non ‘western’ countries now who enjoy the kind of middle class-based affluence that once only the western countries could boast. Europe is no longer the center of gravity for American foreign policy; increasingly Americans find their most serious foreign policy concerns and their most vital interests in East and South Asia and the Middle East rather than in western and central Europe. Indeed the concept of ‘the west’ as a diplomatic and even a cultural term is probably a liability for an American foreign policy that is increasingly focused on building relations with countries for whom ‘the west’ represents the colonial past.
The quiet drift of the United States away from its European roots is one of the most important but least discussed developments of the last generation. Many factors are leading in this direction. The age of mass European immigration to the United States ended in 1924 with the passage restrictive immigration legislation. Generation by generation, memories of European roots dim among Americans and family ties to the Old World become tenuous. Meanwhile the new mass immigration, beginning with 1960s immigration liberalization, has been global: immigration from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa far outweighs immigration from Europe in the United States today. (See the numbers here.)The Civil Rights movement and the greater cultural, social and political power of African-Americans have also weakened the general American perception that the United States is an offshoot of Europe. The shift of economic power and demographic (and electoral) weight from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf and Pacific facing west and sunbelt have tilted our culture and diplomacy toward Latin America and Asia. The permanent crisis in the Middle East and the volcanic rise of Asia further concentrate American minds and interests on non-European parts of the world.
The decline in Europe’s intellectual and cultural leadership is also a factor. For fifty years after World War Two, American intellectuals were profoundly stamped by ideas that were made in Europe: Marxism, of course, but also the waves of European social and analytical thought from the Frankfurt School through the deconstructionists. European refugees from fascism and communism had an impact on American intellectual life similar to that of the waves of Byzantine refugees who brought Greek learning to western Europe after the fall of Constantinople; that generation of scholars and the generation of their closest pupils has passed from the scene and today’s strongest intellectual movements in the American academy are mostly either indigenous or imported from the developing world. American education today is not only post-classical in that Greece and Rome play a dramatically reduced role in our cultural and educational formation; it is post-European as “dead white males” drop out of the curriculum to make room for figures deemed to have more relevance to our multicultural future.
It is not just the United States that is rethinking its place in the world. Europe and Japan, while not wishing to abandon their alliances with Washington (any more than Washington wants to abandon its alliances with them), are re-balancing their foreign policy portfolios. As we saw in Copenhagen, the differences between European and American approaches to questions of global governance has outlasted the Bush administration. Europe and the United States these days are often fishing for allies in the old ‘Third World” against one another rather than, as in the past, working together to block communist advances among the non-aligned. While common values and interests will persist (and rising tensions with Islam could conceivably drive Europe and the United States closer together), the West is likely to look less united and less connected in 2020 than it is today.
Barring new surprises (and surprises after all are one of the few true constants in international relations), the outlines of the old, familiar world will continue to fade and blur during the 2010s. As the old associations and aggregations fade away, new and probably more fluid and less enduring ones will form. Effective diplomacy in the new decade will require the ability to form issue-by-issue coalitions and to identify the rise of new blocs as the old ones gradually lose their strength.
Monday, the look at global trends continues with a post on Hot Religion and the Triumph of Abraham.