The First, Second, And Third World Countries: Origin Of Concept And Present Beliefs

The terms "first world", "second world" and "third world" countries all came from the United Nations.
The terms "first world", "second world" and "third world" countries all came from the United Nations.

First World, Second World and Third World countries are products of the Three-World model, a concept that grouped all of the world’s countries into the three groups. This stratification of the countries was initially based on the basis of political ideology affiliation where First World countries were identified as the countries which were allied with the United States while Second World countries were countries which were allied with the Soviet Union. Third World countries were countries which supported neither the Soviet Union nor the United States.

The First World Countries

The First World concept was first fronted in the 20th century when the world was immersed in the Cold War and was the collective term for the countries which were under the capitalistic umbrella. The term was introduced by the United Nations in the 1940s and was used through the Cold War period where it was propagated by the then global superpowers; the United States and the Soviet Union which had divided the world into blocs in their respective quests to become the most powerful country in the world. During this period, First World countries were identified as countries which were allies of the United States which were economically stable and shared common socio-political beliefs with the United States. First World countries were characterized by relative political and economic stability and also had a capitalistic economic system. These first world countries were initially majority of the countries in Western Europe as well as the United States and Canada. During the peak of the Cold War, relations between First World Countries and Second World Countries were frosty with the Soviet Union and the United States being the core of the two factions.

The First World Concept After The Cold War

The concept of the First World enjoyed much traction during the Cold War, with the United States wielding much influence in the international affairs among First World countries. The United States even took far-reaching measures to ensure that neighboring countries which were allied to the Second World such as Cuba were repressed through heavy economic sanctions. However, the Eastern Bloc collapse witnessed in 1991 signified the end of the Cold War and with it, the traditional definition of First World countries. The term “First World” is rarely used in recent years as a dichotomy of countries of the world based on their affiliation to the United States but is often used to describe countries with economic and political stability regardless of affiliation.

The Second World

The Second World was a term used to describe several industrial countries which were affiliated to the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War period. According to the definition, the majority of these countries either practiced a socialistic system of government or a communist system of government. These countries included; all countries under the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos. Germany was particularly notable as the country that was divided into two with the East Germany being established as a Second World Country while West Germany was a First World Country. The division was manifested in the nation’s capital, Berlin which had a fortified wall built through it to separate the two countries. The Soviet Union was at the heart of the Second World and influenced the international affairs among the member countries. The Soviet Union assisted other Second World Countries as seen in the Molotov Plan in the 1940s when the Soviet Union provided aid to its allied countries as an alternative to American aid.

The Second World Concept After The Cold War

However, after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 20th century, this definition was deemed to be obsolete as the collapse also signaled the end of the Cold War. While the Second World Concept is still currently used (albeit rarely), the term is used to define former communist countries with developing economies and is only used from an economic perspective and not as a political ideology.

Third World

The Third World was originally the term used to define the countries that were neither First World countries nor Second World countries which were also members of the non-aligned movement. The term “Third World” was first penned in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French economist and historian who defined Third World countries as countries that were neither Western Countries nor members of the Soviet Federation. These Third World countries were predominantly found in South America, Africa, Oceania, and Asia. However, some countries seemed to be classified as both Second World countries as well as Third World countries, for instance Cuba. Due to the impoverished economic situation in these countries, the term “Third World” increasingly became associated with the countries with low GDP and where the majority of citizens lived in abject poverty. There were European countries which were neither capitalistic-inclined nor soviet-affiliated such as Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, and Austria had prosperous economies and were all-around developed and were commonly known as neutral countries.

Third World: Modern Use

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 20th century which also signaled the end of the Cold War meant that the definition of Third World countries had to change as the global political landscape had suddenly changed. During this period, the countries under the “Third World” umbrella were primarily defined by their economic status instead of their political ideology affiliations. Due to the original stereotype associated with Third World countries, these countries were identified as the countries with poor but developing economies. The majority of Third World countries in Asia, Oceania, South America and Africa were originally colonies of European colonial authorities which had gained independence in the 20th century. Due to increased criticism against the use of the term “Third World countries,” economists instead refer these countries either as developing countries or least developed countries.

Modern Relations In First, Second And Third World Countries

The stratification of the world’s countries into the three categories; First World, Second World, and Third World has received much criticism in the 21st century. The majority of the countries which were originally First World countries established NATO, an intergovernmental military alliance. In recent years, globalization and increased technological advancements have seen the decreased alienation of countries in the world. Many countries which were initially seen as Third World Countries have also in recent years experienced increased growth in their respective economies and have ceased being identified as developing countries.


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