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North-South Relations

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From the angle of political science, north-south relations begin with decolonialization after World War II. The states which had just become independent considered themselves massively disadvantaged within the international system. Their organized efforts to minimize the independence from the north count as milestones in north-south relations and at the same time form the central object of inquiry: the attempts of developing countries (also electively called the Third World or the south) to push through a new global trade regime within the UNCTAD, the formation of OPEC and the efforts for cartels for raw materials as well as the Non-Aligned Movement and the demand for a New International Economic Order (Oxford 2000). North-south relations are from this point of view the subject of a sub-discipline or a branch of political science: that of international relations (IR). IR was expanding its traditional area of research onto the north-south axis and working on the chance in the international balance of power, together with questions of foreign policy, security policy and foreign trade policy (cf. the "realists" Hart 1983, Krasner 1985).

Regarding the inter-American relations, realists tell us that the strategic interests of the U.S. governments were focused on the neighbours and near-neighbours (Mexico, the Central American and Caribbean states) – mainly for security political reasons. But the protection of economic interests and ideological considerations always played a prominent role. Whenever the U.S. administration felt threatened by the prospects of communism, the U.S. deployed military force. If not, the government was prepared to negotiate compensation for expropriated U.S. firms (Domínguez 1999).

In development studies, the term was defined more broadly as the relation between the North and the South which can benefit or hinder the development of former colonies. The central foci were trade relations, foreign direct investment, development aid, capital flows or economic integration (Elsenhans 1984). The two prominent schools of thought dealing with this period of north-south relations were the modernization theory and the dependency theory. While the former regarded the USA as a role model for a successful take-off, the latter blamed the international system and hegemonic powers for „underdeveloping“ the rest of the world. In the postwar period, dependency (or dependent development) was based on multinational, above all U.S. corporations which began to invest in industries geared to the internal market of underdeveloped countries (cf. Rostow 1960, dos Santos 1970).

A New Quality or The End of North-South Relations?

The end of the competing systems resulted, against premature expectations, neither in satisfaction for the global society nor in a harmonization of international relations; in fact, quite the opposite occurred. Ideologically driven foreign policy towards Latin America remained on the U.S. agenda, not only in the case of Cuba. U.S. military interventions and counter-insurgency operations 'to enlarge the areas of democracy worldwide', as the Clinton administration proclaimed, still occured (e.g. in Panama, Haiti and Venezuela), although a militarized policy towards drug-trafficking became a priority. Apart from that, the USA pursued the strategy of free trade agreements. Separate bilateral negotiations turned out to be more successful than the effort to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA). The term 'north-south relations' faded into the background, as it seemed inappropriate for the analysis of a new world (dis)order marked by war and instability. Instead it was discussed whether the new international constellation can be best described as a polyarchy, a neo-imperialism or a world empire (Robinson 1996, Biel 2000, Arrighi 2003). Even the expectations of economic integration connected with the new spread of globalization were disappointed. Instead, economic competition and the formation of core blocs (Western Europe, North America and Japan), each with its own centers and peripheries, became more intensive. Researchers in development studies found it difficult to talk about 'north-south relations' during the 1980s. The neutral term seemed inpropriate to characterize the Reagan Doctrine or the rigid structural adjustment programs imposed by the Washington-based international financial institutions, the Worldbank and the IMF.

Another reasoned objection came from scholars who spoke of the increasing differences between the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, drawing the conclusion that the concept of north-south relations had become obsolete in the international system. If political and economic heterogeneity had increased, they argued, the number and significance of common problems and interests of the nations of the 'South' compared to those of the 'North' would be reduced ( cf. Menzel 1992). Others pointed to the new global manufacturing system that had emerged since the 1970s. Highly fragmented and geographically dispersed production networks cut through the north-south divide making the notion of 'North” and 'South” obsolete (cf. Harris 1986). In addition, the effects of globally effective phenomena such as climate change and migration could not be considered along the north-south axis.

The criticism is joined by authors who prefer to speak about 'uneven development' when approaching the international. They plead for an understanding of the term 'north-south' not as a fixed spatial unit, but as a relationship of dominance and dependency based on inequality and always yielding new inequality. Such a relationship is not only found between (former) colonial powers and the south, but also in the relationship between the centers to their inner colonies. 'North-south relations' exist as such globally and on every spatial level from local to global (cf. Austrian Journal of Development Studies 2008).

Nevertheless, the rise of the BRIC states and the shift of power in the international system could lead to the term being used more frequently again. As an analytical category to capture phenomena outside the OECD world and differences at multiple levels (i.e. material differences, economic regimes, power differentials and differences in perceptions), it has, according to Burchardt (2009) never forfeited its significance.

Karin Fischer

Please cite as:
Fischer, Karin. 2012. “North-South Relations.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/n_North-South_Relations.html.


Arrrighi, Giovanni. 2003. "The Social and Political Economy of Global Turbulence." In New Left Review 20, 5-70.

Austrian Journal of Development Studies. 2008. Uneven global development. Origins and current developments. Volume XXIV, Number 4. Vienna: Mandelbaum/Suedwind.

Biel, Robert. 2000. The New Imperialism: Crisis and Confrontation in North-South Relations. London/New York: Zed Books. Spanish Edition: El nuevo imperialismo. Crisis y contradicciones en las relaciones in Norte-Sur. Siglo Xxi Ediciones (2007).

Burchardt, Hans-Jürgen, (Ed.) 2009. Nord-Süd-Beziehungen im Umbruch. Neue Perspektiven auf Staat und Demokratie in der Weltpolitik.

dos Santos, Theotonio. 1970. “The Structure of Dependence.” In The American Economic Review 60 (2), May 1970, 231-236.

Domínguez, Jorge I. 1999. “U.S.-Latin American Relations During the Cold War and its Aftermath." In The United States and Latin America: The New Agenda, edited by Victor Bulmer- Thomas and James Dunkerly, 33-50. London: Institute of Latin American Studies.

Elsenhans, Hartmut. 1984. Nord-Süd-Beziehungen. Geschichte – Politik – Wirtschaft. Stuttgart / Berlin / Cologne / Mainz: Kohlhammer.

Harris, Nigel. 1986. The End of the Third World: Newly Industrializing Countries and the Decline of an Ideology. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Hart, Jeffrey A. 1983. The New International Economic Order: Cooperation and Conflict in North-South Economic Relations, 1974-1977. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Krasner, Stephen D. 1985. Structural Conflict: The Third World Against Global Liberalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Menzel, Ulrich. 1992. Das Ende der Dritten Welt und das Scheitern der großen Theorie. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Oxford. 2000. A Dictionary of World History: North-south relations. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O48-NorthSouthrelations.html (November 26, 2011).

Robinson, William I. 1996. Promoting Polyarchy. Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rostow, Walt W. 1960. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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