A Three Worlds Theory for the 21st Century

We still use terms like "1st World" and "3rd World," referencing the so-called "Three-World Model" proposed by French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952 and the "Three Worlds Theory" developed by Mao Zedong.

We still use terms like "1st world problems" to describe the silly "struggles" of an over-privileged elite. And we use terms like "3rd world experience" to describe poor customer service or a shoddy product.

But, does the Three Worlds model work in the 21st century?

Not really.

To begin with, Sauvy's model established the 1st world as the large, post-war Capitalist nations, the 2nd world as the post-war Communist nations and the 3rd World as non-aligned, post-colonial, emerging markets. With Communism largely dead, the original schema barely works. The world has moved on.

Mao's model (the "Three Worlds Theory") was a bit different. In Mao's model the 1st World was composed of the "superpowers" - US, Soviet Union, etc. The 2nd World was composed of lesser powers. And the 3rd World was composed of post-colonial emerging markets. While Sauvy's model emphasized ideology (Capitalism vs Communism) and so-called "blocs" (NATO vs Warsaw Pact), Mao's model emphasized national power.

21st Century people reference these models frequently in their discussions without considering the underlying models or their implications.

BUT, the world has changed. And these changes have undermined the basic assumption of the Three World Model.

The basic assumption of these two models is that the Nation-State is THE unit of analysis. That assumption may have made sense in a world of national economies, but it makes much less sense in a post-globalization world in which ideas, goods, money and people circulate at a much greater rate.

It also makes much less sense in a rapidly urbanizing world in which megacities have emerged as their own force.

But, is the Nation-State the best way to view the world? Is it the right unit of analysis in the 21st Century?

The National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030 Report addressed this issue head on and found a diversity of opinion among horizon scanners. While the nation-state may be one unit of analysis, (1) civilization-culture and (2) economic regions (or megacities) may also be valid.

As the authors of the Global Trends 2030 Report noted:

"Globalization has ushered in a new phase in the history of the state. Without question, the state still exists. The continuing economic volatility in the global economy and need for government intervention shows that the state is not going away. However, it would also be wrong to say that the powers of the state have remained the same. During the past 30 years, subnational government authorities and the roles of nonstate bodies have greatly expanded. This has been especially the case in Western democracies, but the increase in subnational power has spread far and wide; the West no longer has a monopoly. The expansion has been fueled by the formation of a transnational elite who have been educated at the same universities, work in many of the same multinational corporations or NGOs, and vacation at the same resorts. They believe in globalization, but one that relies on and benefits from personal initiative and empowerment."

If the nation-state isn't the best unit of analysis, then a 21st century model is needed.

We have left the 20th Century Three World Model behind and need a new model.

That new model should, instead, analyze the world in 3 non-state NETWORKS.

These NETWORKS are composed of metropolitan regions that operate economically at a global (1st), national (2nd) or regional (3rd) level.

1st Network: The global network of megacities that drive the world's GDP, innovation and creative work. This network of megacities is linked by transportation, heavy air traffic, heavy data flows, global exchanges/bourses, media hubs, large universities and multi-national corporate headquarters. The people living in the 1st Network often have more in common with their colleagues in other megacities than in communities several hours of train travel away. The globalized economy has been remarkably good for them. They live and work, compete and collaborate in a global labor market. They may have economically de-linked from their fellow citizens in the 2nd and 3rd Networks, but they are still very much politically linked to their nation-state. They were surprised by Brexit and were surprised by Trump's election. 1st Network citizens live in a cosmopolitan, megacity bubble. They travel to other megacities for work and play. 1st Network citizens want a mix of actors (nation-states, megacity Mayors, NGOs, MNCs) to solve global problems (like climate change).

2nd Network: Large, nationally significant metropolitan regions that are critical to their nation-state, but are not megacities. The 2nd Network is linked to the national economy via abundant domestic flights, but is NOT a global hub for corporate headquarters. 2nd Network metropolitan areas are large, but not fully globalized. They are economically powerful, but lack a critical mass of large corporations, research universities, media hubs, exchanges/bourses, etc. 2nd Network citizens are tied to a national economy and compete and collaborate in a national economy. They also live in a bubble, but their bubble is their nationally significant metro area. 2nd Network citizens want nation-state action to solve national and local problems.

3rd Network: Regionally significant metropolitan areas with citizens that live and work, compete and collaborate in a regional/local economy. 3rd Network metro areas are less populous, have fewer air travel options, and have fewer linkages to global megacities. 3rd Network areas may be high growth in emerging markets or slow growth/decline in the industrialized West. Citizens in the 3rd Network disproportionately drove Brexit and Trump's surprising victory. In the 3rd Network West, globalization is NOT popular. They want nation-state action to solve local and national problems.

Applying this model to our current political environment has significant explanatory power. Moreover, it better explains the dynamic within and across nation-states.

At the moment, nationalist-populist leaders are attempting to revive the power of their nation-states in order to deliver for their supporters in the struggling 2nd and 3rd Networks. But, they still operate in a 3 network world. And the reverse is also true. 1st Network citizens and Mayors may have similar global views and priorities, but they still reside in nation-states. They may function like city states, but they need to manage across and within nations.