What Is the First World?

As defined during the Cold War, the term "first world" referred to a country that was aligned with the United States and other western nations in opposition to the former-Soviet Union and its allies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this use of the term has largely evolved.

More recently, the term has been used to describe a developed and industrialized country characterized by political stability, democracy, the rule of law, a capitalist economy, economic stability, and a high standard of living.

Various metrics have been used to define first-world nations, including gross domestic product (GDP), gross national product (GNP), and literacy rates. The Human Development Index is also a good indicator of determining first-world countries.

Key Takeaways

  • First-world countries have stable democracies and are characterized by the rule of law, a capitalist economy, and a high standard of living.
  • It was earlier used to refer to countries that were aligned with the United States and other western nations in opposition to the former Soviet Union.
  • Some argue that the concept of dividing nations into three worlds represents an antiquated perspective.
  • Many first-world countries have certain demographics that are in extreme poverty, which is more representative of developing countries.

Understanding the First World

First-world countries tend to have stable currencies and robust financial markets, making them attractive to investors from all over the Earth. Examples of first-world countries include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and some Western European countries.

The ways that first-world nations are defined can vary by perspective. For example, a first-world nation might be described as aligned or amicable with western countries, highly industrialized, with comparatively low poverty, and high accessibility to modern resources and infrastructure.

Use of the First World Designation

There is some controversy regarding the use of the term "first world" to describe modernized, democratic countries in comparison with developing nations and those with political regimes that do not align with western nations. There can be a tendency toward using the phrase as a way to rank some nations above others in terms of geopolitical significance. Such references can lead to divisive tension in international relations, especially as developing nations seek to negotiate with so-called first-world countries or appeal to the international community for support of their causes.

It is not uncommon for first-world nations to press for international policies, especially from an economic perspective, that will favor their industries and trade to protect or enhance their wealth and stability. This can include efforts to influence decisions made in such forums as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Designation as a first-world nation does not necessarily mean a country has local access to certain luxuries or resources that are in demand. For example, oil production is a staple industry in many countries that historically have not been regarded as first-world nations. Brazil, for instance, contributes substantial amounts of oil to the overall world supply, along with other forms of production; however, the country is recognized as a developing, industrialized state more than as a first-world nation.

An Antiquated Model

There is an argument to be made that the model of dividing up nations on Earth into three worlds represents an archaic and antiquated perspective.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has become the world's only superpower and an increasing number of countries have embraced or are in the process of adopting American-style democracy and capitalism. These countries are neither abysmally poor nor rich. Rule of law and democracy are their defining features. As such, it would be counterintuitive to describe them with the pejorative term of "third world" countries. Examples of these types of countries include Brazil and India.

Several first-world countries also have poverty-stricken regions, areas with conditions comparable to those used to describe third-world or developing countries. For example, residents of rural United States live in deep poverty. Even certain blocks in large cities, such as the South Side in Chicago, are home to extremely poor people.

The former definition of first world as a country not aligned with the United States has also led to some rich countries being shunted as developing countries. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which has a higher per capita income than first-world country Turkey, is slotted as a developing country.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the first world?

While highly subjective, first world is a term that consists of countries that may have the following characteristics: stable democracies, high standards of living, capitalist economies, and economic stability. Other measures that may be used to indicate first world countries include gross domestic product or literacy rates. Broadly speaking, countries that may be considered first world include the United States, Japan, Canada, and Australia, among others.

What defines a first world country?

While there is no universal way to define a first world country, often they are characterized as industrialized and democratic countries. This is typically accompanied by stable currencies, sound financial markets, and modern infrastructure. Due to these factors, first world countries often attract foreign direct investment and capital inflows.

Why is the term first world contentious?

First world is a problematic term because it is outdated. First coined in 1991 during the Cold War, it consisted of countries that were aligned with the United States, and other westernized countries as opposed to countries that aligned with the former-Soviet Union. Because the economic indicators used to define the first world vary by their perspective, first world can represent an opaque concept of a country's economic stature. For instance, despite Saudi Arabia having per capita income that is nearly equal to Portugal, it is often considered a second world nation.