Three Worlds: the West, East and South and the competition to shape global order

By John Ikenberry, International Affairs, Volume 100, Issue 1, January 2024


Among the many impacts of Russia's war on Ukraine, the most consequential may be in pushing the world in the direction of Three Worlds—the global West, the global East and the global South. One is led by the United States and Europe, the second by China and Russia, and the third by an amorphous grouping of non-western developing nations. These Three Worlds are not blocs or coherent negotiating groups, but loose, constructed and evolving global factions.

This article makes four arguments.

First, the Three Worlds system has the makings of a fairly durable pattern of global order, shaping struggles over rules and institutions.

Second, the Three Worlds system will encourage a ‘creative’ politics of global order-building. The global West and global East will have incentives to compete for the support and cooperation of the global South.

Third, there are deep principles of world order that provide a foundation for the Three Worlds competition.

Finally, if the global West is to remain at the center of world order in the decades ahead, it will need to accommodate both the global East and the global South, and adapt itself to a more pluralistic world. But in the competition with the global East for the support of the global South, it has the advantage.

The global South's critique of the global West is not that it offers the wrong pathway to modernity, but that it has not lived up to its principles or shared sufficiently the material fruits of liberal modernity.

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