We often hear about the plights of the Third World, and most of us have our share of First World problems. But is there something in between—a Second World?
There sure is: the Commies (and now former Commies).
Today, people use the terms First or Third World to rank the development of countries or the strength of their economy. This is a pretty recent development, and veers away from the original usage of the terms, which were coined during the Cold War as part of a rough—and now outdated—model of geopolitical alliances.
The Cold War and the creation of NATO (a military and collective defense alliance formed by the U.S. and its western allies) and the Warsaw Pact (a defense treaty between several communist states in Eastern Europe) roughly divided the major world powers into two spheres with differing political and economic structures—east versus west, communist versus capitalist, the U.S. versus the USSR—with the Iron Curtain in between them.
In 1952, the French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World” to refer to everyone else, the countries unaligned and uninvolved with either side of the Cold War division. With the naming of the Third World, it followed that the Cold War blocs should get numbered, too. The democratic, capitalist countries within the Western sphere of influence became the “First World." The communist-socialist states that were part of or allied with the USSR became the "Second World."
Later, the term "Fourth World" was coined to refer to ethnically or religiously defined populations living within or across national boundaries, nations without a sovereign state, and indigenous groups that are nomadic, uncontacted or living outside of global society.
The Worlds Today
At the end of the Cold War, the three worlds model (not to be confused with Mao Zedong’s differently structured Three Worlds Theory) took on more of an economic context, rather than a geopolitical one. The First World now usually refers to Western, industrialized states, while the Second World consists of the communist and former communist states. The Third World still encompasses “everybody else,” mostly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and tends to be a catchall for “developing nations” that are poor, less technologically advanced, dependent on the “developed countries,” or have unstable governments, high rates of population growth, illiteracy and disease, a lack of a middle class, a lot of foreign debt, or some combination thereof.