UK-Global South Relations: A Time for Engagement

The rise of the Global South can be seen within the context of a shifting, diffuse and uncertain global order. The Italian philosopher Antonio Francesco Gramsci, identified a transition phase between the old which is dying and the new that has not been born yet, which he labelled “the interregnum”. It is observed that the world order which is in a state of flux mirrors this description. 

In an era characterised by the absence of a hegemonic power, major, traditional and emerging powers jostle for influence and relevance. The importance of building alliances with individual countries and regions, is therefore becoming more critical. It is within this context that the Global South will play an important role in the evolving world order.

It should be emphasised that the Global South as a description does not presuppose a homogenous group, but a complex and diverse set of countries and regional configurations, each with their own ideologies, history, domestic and foreign interests, as well as different strengths and developmental challenges. 

Therefore, it has become a national and international imperative for the UK, as a traditional middle power and former superpower, to build alliances with the Global South. 

The UK is an influential global player with a formidable soft power arsenal. In this regard, it is in a unique position to leverage its relations and support the domestic and international priorities of the Global South. In turn, it can also benefit by achieving its own domestic and international objectives of enhancing the sovereignty, security and prosperity of the UK’.

Critically, moving forwards, the UK has recognised three important principles which are integral for rengagement with the Global South. The first being the importance of building alliances in the present world order, the second acknowledging the newfound power to pursue a national interest-based non-alignment policy, and the third being an understanding that diplomatic engagements be for the mutual benefit of all parties.

This approach was emphasised by the Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, when he said at the House of Lords debate on 5 March 2024, that the UK has sought “to strengthen our network of alliances and partnerships around the world”. The Foreign Secretary in the International Development White Paper also said, “We need to work together as partners, shaping narratives which developing countries own and deliver”.

Similarly, the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy, in a foreign policy speech which importantly makes specific reference to the Global South said, “What is needed instead is a new effort to understand and listen to the concerns of countries in the Global South as the basis for long-term partnerships”. 

There is widespread acknowledgment then that the UK’s comparative advantages and the efficacy of its supportive institutions can be used to develop closer bilateral relations with countries and regions in the Global South. 

However, in recent UK policy towards the Global South, including the Integrated Review Refresh, references made are more implicit than explicit and are being subsumed by other foreign policy precepts. The consequence of this is that the quality of analysis and type of foreign policy interventions required to strengthen relations have been inadequately explored..

A specific focus is therefore required, due to the complexity of the Global South. Covering Africa, Asia, Middle East, Latin America/Caribbean and Oceania, the Global South is vast and diverse and the UK’s engagement should reflect this. This is compounded by the fact that the Global South also includes major powers like China, adversaries like Russia, and emerging powers like India, South Africa, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil amongst others.

In this mix are the various important regional organisations that speak on behalf of the Global South such as the BRICS plus, the Commonwealth, G77 plus China, IBSA, NAM and the G20, which also includes prominent Global South countries and the African Union.

Through an informed engagement with the Global South, at a time of global uncertainty, the UK can contribute to a more peaceful, fairer, equitable and rules-based international order and, importantly, contribute to advancing its domestic and international priorities.

Mohamed Cassimjee

Mohamed Cassimjee is an Associate Fellow at BFPG