We are currently living through a “global energy crisis of unprecedented depth and complexity,” according to this year’s annual energy outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which warns that “there is no going back to the way things were” before Covid-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine rocked the globe. Together, these events have already reconfigured energy trade worldwide, but the shockwaves to the global economy and geopolitics in general are just getting started.
Everyoe seems to agree that we’re living through a large-scale reconfiguration of global geopolitics, but there is less consensus as to what is in store for world trade once the dust has settled. Some experts are saying that the global south is increasingly gaining influence in geopolitics on the world stage as climate change is rewriting the rules of trade and consumption, while others argue that reactionary protectionist practices in the developed world will only further marginalize and alienate less developed nations.
A recent opinion piece by Ravi Agrawal, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy, claims that “the most meaningful trend in global politics for 2023” is that “the global south is becoming more visible—and influential—in every arena.” As evidence, Agrawal cites that the most developed countries made major concessions to historically silenced and sidelined poorer countries a few months ago at COP27, including the landmark “loss and damage” fund to help the developing world contend with climate-related crises – a major turnaround from COP26.
Agrawal also points to the fact that the balance of power has clearly shifted away from the United States, which was unable to convince many countries in the developing world to mirror U.S. sanctions against Russia. “Leaving aside the thorny issue of ethics in foreign policy,” Agrawal writes of the failed attempt to foster solidarity against the Kremlin, “leaders from New Delhi to Nairobi exhibited a growing confidence in asserting their own strategic interests instead of the West’s.”
While Agrawal may be right that these “younger and faster-growing” parts of the planet are becoming more assertive on the global stage, it’s less clear if he is correct in his assertion that “policymakers and businesses in the West will need to adapt.” Certainly he is correct to some extent, but the shift may not be as seismic as his op-ed would lead readers to believe. In fact, at the same time that these oft forgotten nations are gaining recognition and influence in some key geopolitical debates, their invisibility and outsider status is also being shored up in other arenas.
The unprecedented energy crisis was kicked into overdrive by the West’s misguided reliance on a volatile and despotic regime, and now the United States, Europe, and its key allies are responding to that critical error by circling the wagons. Instead of following the ideals of free trade and the mandates of the World Trade Organization, protectionist policies are taking over which are sure to shut out poorer nations.
While the lesson to be learned from the European energy crisis should be to diversify, diversify, diversify both trade partners and forms of energy, nations in the global north are instead opting to narrow their trading options even further. “Staking out spheres of influence and assessing the reliability and trustworthiness of suppliers and countries is the order of the day,” read a recent analysis from Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute of International and Security Affairs.
Indeed, Western leaders such as US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are openly calling for a shift of strategy, away from free market trading to the concept of “friend-shoring”, in which countries shift supply chains to “trusted countries” with similar values and political allegiances. The European Commission’s Strategic Foresight Report 2022, too, has called for a similar shift in trade networks.
This does not bode well for the global south. As the richest nations in the world increasingly trade only with each other, any viable pathway to economic development becomes much, much harder to navigate for the least developed countries. While it’s all well and good that wealthy nations have agreed to create a disaster fund for the nations that will be hit hardest by climate change, that measure is a drop in the bucket compared to what these nations actually need in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation. More to the point, these nations don’t need endless charity – they need their own robust economies and growth trajectories. That’s what really gives a nation any kind of voice or influence on the global stage, not a check cut by emissions guilt.