World Blocs Research Paper

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The Cold War clearly divided the world into two blocs: the First World (the United States and Western Europe) and the Second World (the USSR and its allies). By the mid-1950s, some of the nonaligned, developing nations were classified as in yet another bloc arbitrarily named the Third World. The Fourth World has become a label for the world’s stateless and powerless indigenous peoples.

In March 1946 the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, from the Baltic to the Adriatic. The curtain had divided the former allies into two distinct blocs, Churchill said during a long speech in the United States, called the First and Second Worlds. The First World included states, notably the United States and the nations of Western Europe, that pledged themselves to some version of partly regulated market capitalism and that would, in 1949, form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military pact against the Second World.

The Second World rejected market capitalism for some version of socialist planning, and it generally worked in collusion with the largest socialist state, the Soviet Union. “Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia: all these famous cities and the populations around them,” Churchill told students at Westminster College in Missouri, “lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow” (Churchill 1945). In answer to the formation of NATO in 1949, the USSR created the Warsaw Pact in 1955, a military agreement with Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

The Cold War

The First and Second worlds openly fell out when U.S. president Harry Truman announced his support for anti-Communist forces in Turkey and Greece (1946), when the CIA helped the Conservatives defeat the popular Communists in the Italian and French elections of 1947, when the Soviet Union forced the hand of the Eastern European states into its orbit, and when the animosity attained dramatic proportions during the Second World’s blockade of Berlin beginning in June 1948. In this melee, Bernard Baruch, an adviser to Truman, used the term Cold War to describe the conflict, and the columnist Walter Lippman made the term widely known. The Cold War defines how most people see the period from 1946 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: the East-West conflict, intensified by nuclear weapons, dominated the stage for this crucial fifty-year period.

The phrase East-West conflict distorts the history of the Cold War, however, because it makes it seem as if the First and Second Worlds confronted each other in a condition of equality. In an insightful article from 1968, the Swedish sociologist Goran Therborn described the Cold War as an unequal conflict that both sides presented and experienced as being equal. The Soviet Union and the United States portrayed each other as equivalent adversaries, although the former had an economic base that was far inferior to the latter. Despite the great advances of the Soviet regime in the development of the various republics, the Soviet Union began its history with a battered feudal economy that was soon ravished by a civil war and then by the ferocious assaults of the Nazi war machine. In 1941 both the United States and the Soviet Union had populations of about 130 million, but whereas the United States lost upwards of 400,000 troops in the war, the Soviets lost between 20 and 30 million troops and civilians. World War II devastated the Soviet Union’s economy, its population, and its capacity to rebuild itself. Furthermore, the imperatives of rapid development tarnished the ideals of Soviet society, with most internal freedoms being sacrifi ced in the building of its productive base.

The dominant classes in the First World used the shortages and repression in the Soviet Union as an instructive tool to wield over the heads of their own working classes, and so on both economic and political grounds the First World had advantages over the Second. Therborn further argued that an unequal conflict that is fought as equal, such as the Cold War, only redoubles the inequality.

The Third World

But the First and Second Worlds only accounted for about a third of the planet’s people. What of the two thirds that remained outside the East-West circles? By the mid-1950s, most of the planet that had been held in one way or another by colonial powers had gained or were struggling to gain their independence. These new nations defined themselves outside the Cold War division. In 1952 a French demographer, Albert Sauvy, coined the term Third World to refer to this bloc of nations. He explicitly used the term to evoke the French Revolution, an important inspiration for the decolonization process. Prior to 1789, the French monarchy divided its counselors into the First Estate (clergy) and the Second Estate (aristocracy), with a Third Estate being for the bourgeoisie. During the tumult of the revolution, the Third Estate fashioned itself as the National Assembly and invited the totality of the population to be sovereign over it. In the same way, Sauvy was suggesting, the Third World would speak its mind, find the ground for unity, and take its place in the dynamic of world affairs. This was the enlightened promise of the Third World.

At Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, twenty-nine of these Third World nations gathered to constitute an alternative to the Cold War’s bipolar divisions. They demanded a world of peaceful coexistence, free of colonialism and injustice, in which economic cooperation and development topped the agenda, and in which political and cultural freedom had a priority over the rights of corporations. The Bandung conference, for all its divisions between pro- and anti- Communist delegates, provided a distinct voice in world affairs, one that refused to accede to the terrors of the Cold War and the demands of one or the other superpower. The Third World rejected the term neutralist because it smacked of renunciation; they favored terms such as nonaligned to indicate that they supported dialogue and debate without the threat of war as a means to enable the planet to redeem the promises of modernity.

The Third World’s efforts nurtured and one might even say produced the United Nations. At the U.N.’s founding conference in San Francisco (1945), the Latin American delegates insisted upon a comprehensive section on human rights for the charter. They fought hard to get statements on education, work, health care, and social security. In London, some months later, at the founding conference of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Third World delegates, led by India and the Arab nations, successfully fought to have the organization forge a strong social-justice agenda. Within the U.N., the Afro-Asian-Arab (and later Latin American) group offered an important measure of balance in the General Assembly in debates on international security and the crises of the Cold War. In forums such as the U.N., at Bandung, and in the nonaligned conferences (from 1961 onward), the Third World constantly stressed the importance of nuclear disarmament. The Third World nations understood that the nuclear bias within the Security Council meant that the U.N. had an institutional bias against nuclear disarmament, which is why they fought to revise the membership rules for the Security Council (and its veto system). Finally, it was pressure from the Third World through its Group of 77 that provided the United Nations with an agenda for social and economic development (the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development), for a critique of transnational corporations (the U.N. Center for Transnational Corporations), for international policy on food insecurity (the Food and Agricultural Organization), and for other such matters. The Third World pushed on these lines and helped to forge the multilateral institutions that are so much a part of our modern world.

Like the First and Second Worlds, the Third World was not so much a geographical entity as a political one. To use the term Third World to refer to poverty and corruption is a distortion of the emergence of the term among the anticolonial and anti-imperialist forces of the 1950s and the 1960s. That the Third World agenda did not succeed has as much to do with the recalcitrance of the first two worlds and the unequal international finance system that favored the former colonial powers (mainly in the First World) as it does with the various internal problems of the countries that saw themselves as part of the Third World. A lack of investment funds, a lack of land reform, a lack of institutional probity, a failure to deal with internal power dynamics—all these were factors in the demise of the political project of the Third World. As the Third World began to founder in the 1970s, many of its countries welcomed investment funds from international lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These changes led to the end of the state-centered development and rights agenda of the Third World.

The Fourth World

In the 1950s, before the Third World ideals collapsed, partisans of those who did not stand to benefit from its agenda had already begun to speak of a Fourth World. In 1957 a Catholic priest, Joseph Wrensinksi, convened a gathering in Paris entitled Aide a Toute Detresse (Aid to All Distress), or ATD. Like Sauvy, Wrensinksi drew from the French Revolution, whose Fourth Estate, outside the government system, represented all those who languished in poverty. For Wrensinski and the ATD Fourth World movement that he created, the Fourth World represented those without power and means who lived in all parts of the planet. In 1974 Chief George Manuel of the Shuswap peoples in British Columbia, Canada, wrote an important book entitled The Fourth World, in which he defined the Fourth World as the indigenous peoples of the world, who no longer had the rights to their own lands and those lands’ riches. Manuel’s 12 million indigenous people around the world overlapped with, but were not identical to, Wrensinksi’s international impoverished. Manuel added the crucial dynamic of aboriginality to the discussion to ensure that the millions who had been overrun by colonialism and by nationalism would not be lost in the planning process for modernity.

Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), active in the impoverished state of Chiapas in Mexico, uses the term “Fourth World War” to describe the condition of the Fourth World. The Third World War was the Cold War, which lasted from 1946 to 1990. After that, Marcos argues, there were no checks on neoliberalism’s appropriation of all the resources around the planet that had been held in trust as public goods or else by indigenous peoples in reserved areas. With the fall of Communism, neoliberal forces want to open up every resource to profit. This Fourth World War is not a war between nations, but a war of corporations against people. “For neoliberalism,” Marcos said in a 1999 speech, “everything is merchandise, it is sold, it is exploited. And these indigenous come along and say no, that the land is mother, it is the repository of the culture, and that history lives there, and the dead live there. Absolutely absurd things that cannot be entered on any computer and which are not listed on a stock exchange. And there is no way to convince them to go back to being good, to learn to think properly. They just don’t want to. They even rose up in arms” (Marcos 2003). The EZLN uprising in Chiapas in 1994, as the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect, provided the first major salvo against the suppression of the Fourth World. But it is not alone. North of Chiapas, at Cancun, when the international community met in 2003 to define the international trade rules, they had to deal with twelve former Third World nations (the G-12) led by Egypt, India, Brazil, and South Africa, who wanted a more equitable system, one that would be favorable not only to the former Third World, but also to the Fourth World within.

Since the Four Worlds’ framework is a political theory, the definitions are political and contested, and its future cannot be left to the cold calculations of analysis. We shall have to see if the Fourth World develops any traction, if the Third World reemerges, if the First World is able to hold its fragile alliance together. The Second World has disappeared, but it too may reappear in another guise.


  1. Churchill, W. (1945). Sinews of peace address. Retrieved July 31, 2015, from
  2. Hadjor, K. B. (1992). Dictionary of Third World terms. New York: I. B. Tauris.
  3. Hall, A. (2003). The American empire and the Fourth World: The bowl with one spoon (McGill-Queen’s Native and Northern Series No. 34). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  4. Kurian, G. T. (1992). Encyclopedia of the Fourth World (4th ed.). New York: Facts on File.
  5. Manuel, G. (1974). The Fourth World: An Indian reality. Don Mills, Canada: Collier-Macmillan Canada.
  6. (2003). What are the fundamental characteristics of the fourth world war? (Irlandesa, Trans.). Retrieved July 7, 2014, from
  7. Prashad, V. (2005). The rise and fall of the Third World. New York: New Press.
  8. Ryrie, W. (1999). First World, Third World. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan.

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