The North Goes South Or The South Comes North

by Graham E. Fuller

It does not take much imagination to see where refugees are taking the world over the longer run.

This issue currently lies at the heart of some very ugly American politics. It is also tearing apart one of the noblest political experiments in human history, the EU. It is radicalizing broad regions  of the world and fueling global violence, from Myanmar to Tunisia and South Africa.

The basic conclusion is simple: either the North goes to the South, or the South comes to the North.

The meaning of South coming North is already clear: conditions in the South are driving refugees to  flee to the North. Most refugees bring along serious political, social, economic and cultural problems of their homelands which complicate their ready integration into the North. This is especially true in smaller, and hence more culturally fragile countries in Europe—“nation-states” that possess unique cultural and social balance that anymajor influx of foreigners will disrupt. There is only one unique Netherlands or Denmark, or Estonia, or Norway. They are not classical “immigrant nations” as are the vast spaces of the US, Canada, Australia, even Russia and Latin America.

This larger long-term movement of populations is certain. Existing conditions in large numbers of countries in the “South” are becoming untenable—poverty, disease, misgovernance, conflict, environmental degradation, unemployment. Many of these blights are locally generated. But the West cannot deny its role in this as well. Western imperialism, remember, took over most of the known world for a good century or more; its sole purpose was to benefit the imperial metropole through resource extraction; the world order was designed to facilitate those gains. Its blessings to the colonized were mixed, to say the least.

But the blame game is not important here—the current reality is that we face a global problem of massive proportions however we ascribe the causes. And affixing blame does not solve the problem either. What is certain is that the problem today has now arrived on the doorstep of the affluent North.

The problem of migration of a billion people or so in decades ahead is daunting. It represents the paramount security problem for Western states. We are speaking of economic and social dislocations, a rise in unemployment and crime, the rise of nativist neo-fascism, greater Western involvement in the geopolitical crises and conflicts of the rest of the world.  All this threatens the fracturing of the painfully constructed modern European order.

When we speak of malnourishment of hundreds of millions, loss of habitat under global climate change, greenhouse gasses emerging out of the ravished Amazon rain forest, social desperation, pandemics, violent competition for scarce resources—these are surely more urgent security issues for the West than ownership rights over rocks and atolls in the South China sea. Or the balance of military power in the Black Sea Basin. Or the degree of security and insulation that Latvians can be promised from the proximity of a powerful Russian state.

Meanwhile military budgets continue to rise in the US to fight wars that do not reflect meaningful global reality of the modern interconnected age. Over the last decades the US and Europe have been fundamentally defeated in most Third World  conflicts at high cost in blood and treasure, often leaving the situation worse than it was.

More to the point  what good has come out these optional US wars of choice, either for the US or for the tortured terrains in which they were devastatingly fought?

There is little to be gained in fine debates over whether the US, or NATO, or Russia, or China bear greater blame for global competition. The true geopolitical stakes may be lower today than in anytime in the past. The real issue is whether continued massive funding for such traditional armchair balance-of-power strategies is productively spent and is addressed to the true crisis of the future: gross global inequality of life.

In the US we have (partially) come to understand that the wellbeing of the poor is not just a local problem but a national one. National dimensions require national solutions for the greater wellbeing of all society. In the end there is no security behind gated communities. Islands of wellbeing in the middle of neglect and hardship are unsustainable— and unethical. Nor can Western welfare islands long exist globally, insulated from a world of gross inequities.

They are poor and lazy one might say. But they struggle harder to live each day than the average western suburbanite. And most people in the world in any case do not really want to leave their homes for some foreign country where they don’t know the language or customs. But if things get bad enough, they will come, even at high personal risk as we witness today.

Fences, patrol boats, walls, checkpoints, buying off countries to serve as refugee half-way houses, more draconian immigration laws, feel-good invective against the immigrants lurking just outside our gates—all this is fantasy, just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

If we don’t want the South coming North, then the only other option is for the North to go South. No, not in the old punitive way. In many respects the North has already “been South” in past centuries, and it hasn’t always been a pretty sight. This is not to dismiss some fine western-sponsored technological projects and NGOs like Doctors Without Frontiers. But sadly these contributions are only a drop in the bucket. Vastly more is called for. Remember the hugely generous American Marshall Plan at the end of World War II aimed at rebuilding a devastated Europe, including Germany? It was not conceived as philanthropy but as an integral part ofAmerican security policy.

How to improve conditions across the developing world? US foreign aid in this capacity has been miniscule—less than 1% of the annual US budget. Yet wasteful and unproductive Pentagon budgets run to some 54% of US annual discretionary spending. (More if we consider bloated security and intelligence institutions.) Are we more secure today? From ISIS? From refugees? From terrorism? From Russia and Chinese border politics on their peripheries?  Where are our security priorities?

A Marshall Plan for the South—wouldn’t it be a gross waste, money down foreign ratholes, propping up corrupt elites siphoning off the monies? Partially true, but might not all these terms similarly apply to many US defence expenditures and the vast hangers-on of the military industrial complex with its corruptions, overruns and pork barrel?  So to divert some 50% (for starters) of this security budget to Investment in a more stable South might be money well spent. And who loses from a redirection of security spending—other than the huge arms industry, and the think tank acolytes and consultants that feed off them?

There is no easy blueprint on how to render the South more liveable so that larger percentages of its populations will not feel compelled to flee to our shores. From Mexico and Central America, from the Middle East and Africa.

The problem is self-evident and multi-faceted, and no, money won’t do it all. But a couple of hundred billion “wasted” in Africa and Latin America on infrastructure projects, schools, clinics, roads might actually improve things a lot more than our non-stop wars.  How have the trillions we  have wasted in worsening lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, served our security needs? Or stopped the refugee flow North? Washington security experts need to develop some real world thinking about the implications of how peoples’ lives around the world will impact the rest of us.

Photo of Syrian refugees by Bernadett Szabo via Freedom House/Flickr

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Reprinted, with permission, from

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  1. That pretty much says it all. However, as The Donald might say:

    Are you saying that embracing losers who can’t make it in their own countries is more important than supporting our military-industrial complex by breathing new life into the old Cold War while starting another one with Evil Empire II on the other side of the Pacific? That’s not just outrageous, it’s un-American!

  2. I too partly agree with this analysis.
    I also partly agree with David Cameron’s stance that countries like the UK should be helping refugees in camps located near to where refugees have recently fled from conflict, instead of trying to deal with the problem after they arrive on the shores of Europe.
    But there is also another dimension which is barely touched upon in the article and that is the extent to which northern/western powers encourage local and regional actors in the areas involved in contributing towards forcing local residents to flee the area.
    In the case of the huge numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, the US has principal responsibility but it also shares this responsibility with local actors like Turkey’s Erdogan mafia family, the Saud family mafia, Qatar and Kuwait family mafias, extremist Tel Aviv zionists and others.
    The US must simply put its foot down and tell these other actors to stop making things worse.
    It is not so much the north which is causing most of the problems but the US and their allies.
    The EU countries are mainly the unwitting dupes in this unfolding and sorry saga.

  3. Graham Fuller for some reason does not want to state the most fundamental fact about “conditions in rhe South,” which is the explosion of human populations in recent decades.

    In some countries this explosion has abated, e.g. Mexico, where the CIA World Factbook estimates annual population growth to be only 1.18% and the fertility rate, i.e. the number of children born to an average woman, at 2.27. But it was of course much higher; the population of Mexico is more than seven times what it was in 1930; and even when the explosion abates there is a carryover for many years, as we have seen in the case of Mexican migration to the United States.

    But populations continue to boom in many parts. In Somalia, for example, in spite of many years of strife and famine the average woman still bears six children. Similar rates are found elesewhere; in a total of 40 countries the average woman bears more than four children, with Niger heading the list (6.76 children per woman).

    Unfortunately many leaders, both generals wanting young men for cannon fodder and world leaders citing scriptures, have outlawed birth-control measures in many countries; and even where this has not happened, too many people have not had access to contraceptives.

    I agree with Mr. Fuller that the North needs to go South, but if there is to be a “Marshall Plan for the South” let it focus initially on education and modest projects, not development projects that will function only as long as experts and technicians from the industrialized world are there to run them. Somalia furnishes a prime example of the latter, beginning long before that country’s horrendous civil war.

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