When referring to various parts of the world, people use terms like “third world countries” or “first world powers”. This language has generally fallen out of favour; ranking different countries based on their wealth or prosperity strikes many people as outdated, even colonial. But what is the basis for this classification in the first place? What makes one country first, and another one third? And what about the second world? Although the “three worlds” model initially comes across as a somewhat racist method for classifying wealth (and even ethnicity), the reality is a bit more complicated.
The terminology actually arose during the Cold War as a means for identifying where individual countries fell on the all-important political spectrum. In a famous speech (unintentionally ripping off Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels) about the nature of geopolitics in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill divided the world in two with his “Iron Curtain” speech. To Churchill, Europe – and the world – was split by the Berlin Wall, a concrete structure that symbolized the greater divide between East and West (or, socialism and the “Free World”). The world had been divided, and everyone had to pick a side: First, Second or Third world.
1st World: The Western Bloc
The First World comprised, naturally, the “Western Bloc”. Led by the United States and her closest allies, this group of countries all explicitly chose to oppose the Communists during the Cold War. A variety of alliances – like NATO (or, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) – emerged, and membership helped cement ones’ place in the world order. Most of the First World could be characterized by a high standard of living, relatively strong militaries (sometimes including nuclear weapons) and a high GDP. Apart from the US, the most powerful First World nations were:
- West Germany
The above countries were and are very wealthy and powerful. But recall that the “Three Worlds” model is not quite as ethno-centric as it may first appear. After all, the one membership requirement in this exclusive club was simple: the explicit opposition of Communism. Some other notable, less-powerful (but strategically important) countries that fall into this camp – the lesser First World if you will – are as follows:
- South Africa
- Iran (until 1979)
- Western Sahara
During the Cold War, alignment with the West could bring many benefits: financial aid from the World Bank, military aid from NATO, and maybe even free trade deals with the “greater” West. But, for many, explicit alignment with the Western Bloc resulted in an erosion of sovereignty, and an economic (as well as cultural and political) subservience to America and its allies. Many newly-decolonized countries chose aid from First and Second world countries as a means for rapidly building a semblance of independence. And it’s also worth noting that many small countries – Latin America ones in particular – never chose alignment with the West. Rather, they were forced into the Bloc by CIA-backed coups or other covert (but obvious) methods. As history has proven, many of the most violent regimes in the modern era emerged as a reaction to American imperialism.
2nd World: The Communist Bloc
The Second World comprised the “Eastern/Communist Bloc”. Led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or the USSR/CCCP), this group of countries chose to explicitly align against the Western Bloc and capitalism. Alliances like the Warsaw Pact – a military counterpart to NATO – helped organize and control the various Bloc countries. While the Bloc generally enjoyed strong economic performance, massive militaries and scientific achievements, it’s worth noting that state-sponsored media relentlessly exaggerated the prestige of Bloc countries (to a greater degree than in the West). Apart from the USSR, the most powerful Communist Bloc countries were:
- China (although the Sino-Soviet split of 1956 divided the Bloc)
- The German Democratic Republic (GDR)
- Vietnam (as of 1976)
- North Korea
- Cuba (as of 1961)
Just like with the First World, the Second had its share of “lesser” powers. Some of these are as follows:
- Czech Republic (now Czechia)
Alignment with the Communist Bloc was often a viable option for smaller countries during the Cold War. Some – who had had enough of American intervention in their politics – chose to solicit military aid from the Soviet Union as a means for obtaining “freedom”. Others – like much of Eastern Europe – had never actually chosen their alignment. They had been forcibly absorbed by the USSR near the end of WWII, and as such were often unwilling participants in the Second World. Just like the “puppet regimes” of the First World, the Eastern Bloc countries usually had pro-Russian governments installed by the USSR to keep them in line.
3rd World: The Non-Aligned
The Third World comprised of all neutral countries and was dominated by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), founded in 1961. Seeking a third option, some countries chose to reject alignment with the two main superpowers. Many small countries, anxious to avoid being steamrolled or dominated by the superpowers, quickly signed on with NAM. The most significant NAM powers were as follows:
- Yugoslavia (after its split from the USSR)
- United Arab Republic (now Egypt and Syria)
As we can see here, the term “Third World” has not always been used to delineate between the “haves” and the “have nots”. The countries listed above were and are wealthy, influential and ethnically diverse. Below are some of the less influential (and less “developed”) countries that chose NAM over affiliation with the Eastern or Western Blocs:
- Sri Lanka
Notably, the “Three Worlds” model is different from the “Three Worlds Theory”. The latter refers to a proposed Maoist designations: the First world was comprised of the the superpowers (the US and USSR), the Second by Japan, Britain and other “middle powers”, and the third world of Africa, Latin America and much of Asia. The theory never really caught on outside of China.
Most contemporary scholars believe the “Three Worlds” model to be outdated. With the close of the Cold War, alignment with the superpowers seemed less necessary, and so did the ranking system. Increasingly, countries of the First World are referred to as “developed countries” whereas the old Third World countries are referred to as “less-developed countries”, “developing countries” or, more recently, the Global South.
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