The term “global South” refers to developing countries as a whole, but recently, numerous developing countries – Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Thailand, South Africa, and others – simultaneously grew wealthier while many other countries remain poor. This prompts a fundamental question: does the global South demonstrate unity in international politics, with developing countries at various wealth levels behaving like one another, and in ways unlike the industrialized “North”? Or is the global South fractured, too economically and politically diverse to operate in tandem? Theoretical expectations are mixed, and the empirical record is inconclusive. To adjudicate, we pinpoint a stringent set of observable implications that should hold if the developing world is to be considered at all unified vis-a-vis the industrialized world. Then we probe those implications with statistical analyses of over 3,600 paragraphs of text from governments’ negotiations concerning trade and environmental policy, a policy space that facilitates generalizability by representing fundamental sovereignty and wealth issues underlying traditional North-South frictions. Our finding – that overall, developing countries exhibit surprising unity – weighs in on central theoretical and policy debates in international relations, comparative politics, and political economy.
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A Southern identity could stem from various factors, including charismatic leaders, shared history, socialization, or ideology (Schirm 2013; Mahrenbach 2016; Miller 2016; Muhr 2016). Pinpointing the origins of such an identity is left for other work, however. After all, before asking why developing countries would operate in tandem, it is necessary to investigate whether they actually do move in tandem.
When poorer states do become preoccupied with the natural environment, they often focus on localized “brown” issues (e.g., the reversal of land degradation), rather than the global “green” issues (e.g., ozone depletion) that regularly arise in international fora (Johnson and Urpelainen 2012, 657).
This is not to say that developing countries never work to protect the environment (e.g., Jeuland and Pattanayak 2012; Pfaff et al. 2017; Pizer and Zhang 2018). Indeed, many have submitted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. However, it remains plausible that developing countries, even if they are working on environmental protection, will want to do so on their own terms and will be unlikely to prioritize environmental protection over further trade liberalization. Their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement illustrate that developing countries may be quite comfortable with environmental targets – so long as those targets are voluntary, self-determined, non-binding, and calibrated to avoid jeopardizing economic growth (Dubash 2017).
Comparing CTE behavior with behavior in a similar pre-1995 forum is impossible because no such forum was active before the WTO. Nevertheless, much work indicates that the “Third World coalition” had a relatively high degree of unity during the Cold War (Krasner 1985; Thomas 1987; David 1991) and shared skepticism of environmentalism (Rowland 1973; Williams 1993; Miller 1995).
Note that this is not a probe of when states reach consensus: in the consensus-based context in which much global governance takes place, focusing only on “successful” decisions would be misleading, because much of the action of international politics occurs where people do not reach agreement.
This does not include separate “special sessions” (CTESS) requested in the 2001 Doha Ministerial Declaration.
Due to the work that goes into transcription, approval, and translation of meeting minutes into the WTO’s official languages, there is a lag between when meetings occur and when the transcript is made public. Our data goes through 2012 because that is the latest year that was available when we began the manual coding. Subsequent years have been released more recently and remain for future extensions; our coding approach provides the basis for such extensions.
The within-speech standard deviations exceed 0.20 for most of the outcome variables.
For 2017, for instance, the World Bank Atlas method uses per capita Gross National Income (GNI) and U.S. dollars and sets the thresholds as: High-Income at 12,476 or more; Upper Middle-Income between 4,036 and 12,475; Lower Middle-Income between 1,026 and 4,035; and Low-Income at 1,025 or less. As a country’s per capita GNI changes, its classification can change. In our time period there were seven instances of graduation into a higher income level. In these cases, the country’s development level coding changes.
We do not claim that the lending categories themselves shape coalition formation. They are, rather, natural measures of different development levels.
The World Bank adjusts the category cutoffs for inflation. However, we use constant dollars and criteria based on the year 2000, and therefore the cutoffs remain unchanged throughout our study period. Countries may shift between categories over time, but the categories themselves are fixed.
The European Commission collectively represents European Union members, which are high-income.
Russia was not a WTO member until August 2012.
All categories contribute sufficient statements for statistical analyses: even low-income countries, which speak least, account for 378 observations.
This dilution may be because environmental protection is very important to many industrialized countries, but not all of them. Moreover, even the industrialized countries that advocate environmental protection may be wary about economic disjunctures accompanying it. For instance, although EU countries are credited with “greening trade” through preferential trade agreements (PTAs), such agreements often feature asymmetries, with Northern countries agreeing to liberalize their markets only if Southern countries adopt particular environmental standards (Bechtel and Tosun 2009). This PTAs pattern – with poorer countries having environmentalism foisted from outside, and richer countries trying to mitigate the erosion of their economic competitiveness – suggests that even industrialized countries championing environmental protection often find ways to avoid prioritizing it, if it means absorbing all of the associated costs themselves.
The EPI is not available at the supranational level, and therefore the European Union is not included.
Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TM.TAX.MRCH.WM.AR.ZS. Average import tariffs are for all products, weighted by volume, as of 2016.
If Southern countries support one another, that does not automatically indicate that they oppose Northern countries. However, in diplomatic contexts, governments regularly vent their opposition to X by speaking about their support for Y, and therefore overt patterns of support provide clues about implicit patterns of opposition too.
This helps to capture the possibility that countries would behave similarly, whether from the North or the South, if they are similarly reliant on agriculture, mining, drilling, or logging.
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For research assistance, we thank Duke students Irina Danescu, Sanjeev Dasgupta, and Shanelle Van. For useful comments, we thank audiences at the annual conferences of the International Studies Association (ISA) and the International Political Economy Society (IPES), as well as audiences at seminars at Princeton and the University of Michigan. We are particularly grateful to Margaret Foster, Robert Franzese, Andrew Hurrell, Sikina Jinnah, Marc Jeuland, Miles Kahler, Eddy Malesky, Ronald Mitchell, Bora Park, and William Pizer for their feedback on previous drafts. A supplementary appendix is available at the Review of International Organization’s website.
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Johnson, T., Urpelainen, J. The more things change, the more they stay the same: Developing countries’ unity at the nexus of trade and environmental policy. Rev Int Organ 15, 445–473 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-018-9336-1
- North-south relations
- Global environmental politics
- International trade
- International political economy
- Developing countries