“The West Should Not Be the Sole Leader in This Endeavour”: Global South Perspectives on Reforming Multilateralism

Aude Darnal
“The West Should Not Be the Sole Leader in This Endeavour”: Global South Perspectives on Reforming Multilateralism
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Worsening crises call for a radical rethink of global governance – which means centering the Global South, writes expert Aude Darnal.

What are perspectives from the Global South on the state of the multilateral system – and on what needs to change?

Recent global crises have spotlighted the deeply entrenched inequities of the international order, which mostly disadvantage countries from the Majority World (aka the Global South) – countries that have long been marginalised in multilateral decision-making processes. The international system was established by colonial powers following World War II, so at a time when most of the Global South had not even begun decolonisation. From the vantage point of these countries, the current models of global governance are outdated. They were defined by and are still centred around a minority: Western states.

Political leaders and thinkers across the Majority World have long pressed the most powerful states to support an overhaul of the global system. But by and large, they have met with a refusal by Western powers to facilitate meaningful reforms that would truly level the playing field for all. Global South countries are still underrepresented in multilateral bodies such as the UN Security Council or the International Monetary Fund. These influential institutions frequently adopt policies that disregard the interests and needs of Global South countries, including those that urgently need resources to address climate change and foster development.

This resistance on the part of the West has led to severe grievances in the Global South. This sense of double standards is only exacerbated by the fact that current US and European debates about reforming multilateralism are mostly framed through the prism of great-power competition between the US, China, and Russia. So it is no surprise that Global South countries have developed their own strategic pragmatism and sought out new regional or bilateral partnerships that may better serve them.

The effort to reform the international system is not simply an advancement of human-centred development – it is a matter of global security, stability, and sustainability.

That does not mean, however, that they have lost interest in creating a more equitable international system. Worsening global crises call for a radical rethinking of global governance. But this endeavour should not focus on the Global South alone. Prominent narratives presuppose that reforming the international system would entail undermining rules and order: an assumption that hinges on the idea that these rules and norms — human rights, territorial integrity and sovereignty, and the rule of law — are inherently Western. Such a perspective dismisses the Global South’s historical contributions to these norms and values. And it is also in the West’s interest to challenge the structures of power and domination that foster inequities between and within countries. The effort to reform the international system is not simply an advancement of human-centred development – it is a matter of global security, stability, and sustainability.

How do Global South countries see multilateral efforts on issues like conflict prevention or economic development?

Although some governments in the Global South may be pursuing national security strategies that pose a threat to regional and global security, most are committed to making the global order more peaceful, durable, and equitable. Their advocacy for change does not contradict international rules but rather strengthens the principle of universality. Their vision of reform is thus primarily about fostering a more stable and secure world that serves everyone and is based on a more legitimate institutional architecture.

But the dominant experience for Global South countries in international peacebuilding and development programmes – not to mention in other economic reform processes – has been that international actors like powerful donor countries, international organisations, or international NGOs systemically marginalise local actors such as academic and civil society organisations or other economic stakeholders. According to a 2022 CSIS report, in 2020 “the percentage of [humanitarian] funding to local and national actors sat at a mere 3.1 percent,” leaving most of that funding in the hands of international NGOs and other stakeholders. This grave imbalance remains the case despite the best efforts of certain initiatives, like the growing localisation movement in the development sector, that have tried to effect a reckoning with these harmful, counterproductive, and often predatory dynamics.

What can the EU learn from Global South perspectives as it seeks to advance reforms of multilateralism?

The transformation to achieve a global order that is not centred on or dominated by the West – and consequently more equitable and fit to address common challenges – is well underway. And though there is no consensus on the parameters of change, even in the Global South, what is clear is that the West should not define these by themselves and be the sole leader in this endeavour. In fact, Western powers’ self-importance, and their obsession with performing as the international system’s sole architect, leader, and police force, are increasingly both problematic and divorced from reality.

If Western states remain unable to change their worldview, adapt it to new realities, and support positive change through concrete actions, they will feed into further fragmenting and polarising the world. In such a scenario, this fragmentation will ultimately impede collective action and stymie opportunities for addressing global crises through cooperation – including on pandemics, the climate emergency, political and economic refugee and migrant flows, and drug and weapons trafficking, which have a destabilising impact in both the West and the Global South.

Against the backdrop of great-power competition, Western powers often dismiss the shortcomings of the international system – and, therefore, Global South demands for more equity – as well as their own role in orchestrating its failure. By viewing Global South countries as passive agents that are tacitly content with the global system as is and have no interests, agency, or capacity to assert their own sovereignty, Western powers are reducing states in the Global South to pawns of either the West or the East – meaning China and Russia. If the EU really wants to advance reforms of multilateralism, this dynamic is something it must grapple with – and then set out to change through its own foreign policy and approach in global institutions.

This blog post was adapted from a longer policy paper published by Security in Context as part of an edited collection titled “Global South in an Era of Great Power Competition.” You can access the full article and other papers in the collection here.

Aude Darnal is a Research Analyst and Project Manager in the Stimson Center's Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Program. She also leads the centre‘s "Global South in the World Order" project.

Photo: Davi Mendes / Unsplash
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