The original definition of first / second / third worlds were NATO / Communist / neither. However, as the Soviet Union disintegrated this definition has become outdated.

Nonetheless, there is still visible segregation, both politically, culturally and economically, between the countries in the original first / second / third world definition. For example, western countries are politically aligned with the U.S. while Russia and China are politically anti-U.S; economically most of the western countries are developed and the ex-Soviet Union countries are still having developing economy; culturally western countries have a relatively high level of English which is preferred in international communication, while ex-Soviet Union countries have generally low command of English and use Russian in international communication.

Moreover, the fact that "Finland / Sweden / Ireland / Switzerland were all third world countries" in the original definition was a joke as all these countries are politically, culturally and economically the same as other European countries, only lacking NATO membership, which can be remedied by expanding the definition of first world countries to include the whole EU/EEA/EFTA as well, because the original definition only considered military alliance, which the absence of NATO membership does not make any country less integrated than the others.

Therefore, can we still define first / second / third-world countries, with the aim of categorise them politically, culturally and economically (all three) according to the similarities inside a certain world using a definition like below:

  1. Countries which are pro-U.S. and pro-EU, including all NATO countries, U.S. allies, EU / EEA / EFTA members, etc, with a generally developed economy, high level of democracy and freedom, etc. Examples include Japan, Australia, Turkey, Isreal, Taiwan, etc.
  2. Countries which are anti-U.S., commonly pro-China or pro-Russia, including all CIS countries, commonly with developing economy and an authoritarian regime. Examples include North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, etc.
  3. All the other countries not particular pro-U.S. / China / Russia, including most Arabic countries.

No matter what the actual definition is, I think it is inappropriate to say Lithuania / Latvia / Estonia / etc., as second world now in 2019 as they are fully integrated into EU and NATO, with developed economy like the rest of Europe, and politically anti-Russia, instead they should now be categorised as first world countries.

Do the above definitions work well if the aim is to categorise the general aspects of the countries involved, not only military but also politically and culturally. Are there any better definitions which serve the purpose better and not referencing the history?

  • 1
    Frankly it was probably foolish then and it's more foolish now to consider Russia and China so aligned. I think it's more likely to see talk of the "Pro-Russian Bloc" etc. The notion of "spheres of influence" seems to never get old: doi.org/10.1080/14650045.2018.1461335 May 15, 2019 at 8:25
  • 1
    And yeah, someone came up with en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurosphere May 15, 2019 at 9:21
  • 1
    And even if not using that precise word, the notion is getting traction e.g. theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/apr/30/… or rferl.org/a/… May 15, 2019 at 9:27
  • 4
    I'm 62 (& in the UK) and to my knowledge Finland, Ireland, and especially Sweden and Switzerland have been counted first-world countries all my life. Who counted them 3rd world and when? Your first sentence (and the whole first para) look wildly wrong to me. May 15, 2019 at 16:55
  • 2
    Well, in the original definition (military alignment) Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland were all 3rd world countries because they were neither NATO nor communist - but apart from military they were basically part of the 1st world. May 16, 2019 at 1:26

1 Answer 1


One of the main problems with the First, Second, and Third World divisions was that though they started out in the political sphere, as soon as the 'Second World' became defunct, it created an 'us vs them' rhetoric where 'First' signified the 'developed' countries of the West and everyone else was grouped into the 'developing' category of the 'Second'. Hence, an originally political grouping lost that connotation and took on a primarily economic meaning, though 'First' also signified alignment with US interests.

In the modern world, there is no bi- or trilateral axis. Perhaps one could make a case for (in no particular order) USMCAEEACISCARICOMSELA–China–ASEAN–Japan–AUGCC–India, but not all of the major players have been described with eleven countries and organizations mentioned, most of which have members that have various competing interests. It would be impossible to describe all of the above as similar economic or political behemoths.

The best categorization I've come up against was developed by Hans Rosling, and included four categories:

  • Level One: less than $2 per day. Around 1 billion people are on this level and getting food every day can be a struggle.
  • Level Two: between $2 and $8 per day. Around 3 billion people are on this level where kids can go to school instead of working.
  • Level Three: between $8 and $32 per day. Around 2 billion people are on this level that includes motorized transportation and high school.
  • Level Four: more than $32 per day. Around 1 billion people are on this level with labor-saving appliances and reliable health care.

There's a less robust description of this on GapMinder with its Dollar Street.

This is primarily an economic categorization, but it bears far more on the modern world than the political options.

  • This does not answer the question at all. The definition of 1st to 3rd world are political, rather than economic. Aug 4, 2020 at 1:12
  • @MichaelTsang: My point is that the original political definitions became defunct in 1991, and since then these definitions are economical.
    – gktscrk
    Aug 4, 2020 at 4:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .