In international relations, multilateralism is multiple countries working in concert on a given issue. Multilateralism is a form of alliance, although it may be somewhat different structure than traditional alliances. Multilateralism was defined by Miles Kahler as “international governance" or global governance of the "many," and its central principle was “opposition [of] bilateral discriminatory arrangements that were believed to enhance the leverage of the powerful over the weak and to increase international conflict.” [1] In 1990, Robert Keohane simply defined multilateralism as “the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states.[2] John Ruggie further elaborated the concept of multilateralism based on the principles of "indivisibility" and "diffuse reciprocity (international relations)" as "an institutional form which coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of 'generalized' principles of conduct . . . which specify appropriate conduct for a class of actions, without regard to particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any occurrence." [3]

(To help your understanding, refer to the Victor Cha's figure below)

Multilateralism, whether in the form of membership in an in international institutions,to bind the great power, discourage unilateralism, and give the small powers a voice and voting opportunities that they would not otherwise have. Especially, if control is sought by a small power over a great power, then the Lilliputian strategy of small countries achieving control by collectively binding the great power is likely to be most effective. Similarly, if control is sought by a great power over another great power, then multilateral controls may be most useful. The great power could seek control through bilateral ties, but this would be costly; it also would require bargaining and compromise with the other great power. Embedding the target state in a multilateral alliance reduces the costs borne by the power seeking control, but it also offers the same binding benefits of the Lilliputian strategy. Furthermore, if a small power seeks control over another small power, multilateralism may be the only choice, because small powers rarely have the resources to exert control on their own. As such, power disparities are accommodated to the weaker states by having more predictable bigger states and means to achieve control through collective action. Powerful states also buy into multilateral agreements by writing the rules and having privileges such as veto power and special status.

International organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization are multilateral in nature. The main proponents of multilateralism have traditionally been the middle powers such as Canada, Australia, Switzerland, the Benelux countries and the Nordic countries. Larger states often act unilaterally, while smaller ones may have little direct power in international affairs aside from participation in the United Nations (by consolidating their UN vote in a voting bloc with other nations, for example). Multilateralism may involve several nations acting together as in the UN or may involve regional or military alliances, pacts, or groupings such as NATO. As these multilateral institutions were not imposed on states but were created and accepted by them in order to increase their ability to seek their own interests through the coordination of their policies, while instead work as frameworks that constrain opportunistic behavior and points for coordination by facilitating the exchange of information about the actual behavior of states with reference to the standards to which they have consented.

The term "regional multilateralism" has been proposed suggesting that "contemporary problems can be better solved at the regional rather than the bilateral or global levels" and that bringing together the concept of regional integration with that of multilateralism is necessary in today’s world.[4] Regionalism dates from the time of the earliest development of political communities where economic and political relations naturally had a strong regionalist focus due to restrictions on technology, trade, and communications.[5]

The converse of multilateralism is unilateralism in terms of political philosophy.


One modern instance of multilateralism occurred in the nineteenth century in Europe after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, where the great powers met to redraw the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. The Concert of Europe, as it became known, was a group of great and lesser powers that would meet to resolve issues peacefully. Conferences such as the Conference of Berlin in 1884 helped reduce power conflicts during this period, and the 19th century was one of Europe's most peaceful.[6]

Industrial and colonial competition, combined with shifts in the balance of power after the creation - by diplomacy and conquest - of Germany by Prussia meant cracks were appearing in this system by the turn of the 20th century. The concert system was utterly destroyed by the First World War. After that conflict, world leaders created the League of Nations (which is the precedent of the United Nations) in an attempt to prevent a similar conflict.[7] A number of international arms limitation treaties were also signed such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But the League proved insufficient to prevent Japan's conquests in Eastern Asia in the 1930s, escalating German aggression and, ultimately, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

After the Second World War the victors, having drawn experience from the failure of the League of Nations, created the United Nations in 1945 with a structure intended to address the weaknesses of the previous body. Since then, the "breadth and diversity" of multilateral arrangements have escalated.[3] Unlike the League, the UN had the active participation of the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's two greatest contemporary powers. Along with the political institutions of the UN the post-war years also saw the development of other multilateral organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (now the World Trade Organization), the World Bank (so-called 'Bretton Woods' institutions) and the World Health Organization. Formation of these subsequent bodies under United Nations made it more constructive, making it more powerful than its precedent, League of Nations. The collective multilateral framework played an important role in maintaining world peace in the Cold War. Moreover, United Nations peacekeepers stationed around the world became one of the most visible symbols of multilateralism in recent decades.

Today there are several multilateral institutions of varying scope and subject matter, ranging from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Many of these institutions were founded or are supported by the UN (United Nations).


Compared to unilateralism and bilateralism where only the country itself decides on what to do or make decisions between two nations, multilateralism is much more complex and challenging. It involves a number of nations which makes reaching an agreement difficult. In multilateralism, there may be no consensus; each nation has to dedicate to some degree, to make the best outcome for all.

The multilateral system has encountered mounting challenges since the end of the Cold War. The United States has become increasingly dominant on the world stage in terms of military and economic power, which has led certain countries (such as Iran, China, and India) to question the United Nations' multilateral relevance. Concurrently, a perception developed among some internationalists, such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, that the United States is more inclined to act unilaterally in situations with international implications. This trend began[8] when the U.S. Senate, in October 1999, refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which President Bill Clinton had signed in September 1996. Under President George W. Bush the United States rejected such multilateral agreements as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel land mines and a draft protocol to ensure compliance by States with the Biological Weapons Convention. Also under the Bush administration, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the Nixon administration and the Soviet Union had negotiated and jointly signed in 1972. In a direct challenge to the actions of the Bush administration, French president Jacques Chirac directly challenged the way of unilateralism: "In an open world, no one can live in isolation, no one can act alone in the name of all, and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules." He then proceeded to tout the advantages of multilateralism.

Furthermore, these challenges presented by U.S could be explained more with the strong belief on bilateral alliances as instruments of control. Liberal institutionalists would argue, though, that great powers might still opt for a multilateral alliance. But great powers can amplify their capabilities to control small powers and maximize their leverage by forging a series of bilateral arrangements with allies, rather than see that leverage diluted in a multilateral forum. Arguably, the George W. Bush administration favored intense bilateralism over multilateralism, or even unilateralism, for similar reasons. Rather than going it alone or going it with others, the administration opted for intensive one-on-one relationships with handpicked countries that maximized the U.S. capacity to achieve its objectives.[9]

Another challenge in global governance through multilateralism includes national sovereignty. Regardless the erosion of nation-states' legal and operational sovereignty in the international society, "nation-states remain the ultimate locus of authoritative decision making regarding most facets of public and private life".[10] Especially in the current state of world politics where power distribution is greatly asymmetrical, an agreement on the respective weight of states numerous countries in the institutions of global governance is ambiguous.Hoffman asserts that nation-states are "unlikely to embrace abstract obligations that clash with concrete calculations of national interest." [10]

Global multilateralism is being challenged, particularly with respect to trade, by emerging regional arrangements such as the European Union or NAFTA, not in themselves incompatible with larger multilateral accords. More seriously, the original sponsor of post-war multilateralism in economic regimes, the United States, has turned to unilateral action and bilateral confrontation in trade and other negotiations as a result of frustration with the intricacies of consensus-building in a multilateral forum. As the most powerful member of the international community, the United States has the least to lose from abandoning multilateralism; the weakest nations have the most to lose, but the cost for all would be high.[11]

Comparison with bilateralism

When enacting foreign policies, governments will face the choice of selecting multilateralism or bilateralism.

Choosing multilateralism means there is a coordinated approach in foreign policies with several countries rather than a single one. To Choose bilateralism means that foreign policies of a country are not coordinated with other countries and/or that engage with another single country. Multilateralism, by contrast, involves both the coordination of policy among three or more states and coordination around a series of generalized principles of conduct. Victor Cha argues that: power asymmetries "select" for the type of structures, bilateral or multilateral, that offer the most control. If small powers try to control a larger one, then multilateralism is effective. But if great powers seek control over smaller ones, bilateral alliances are more effective.[13]

Victor Cha's Powerplay: Bilateral versus Multilateral Control.[13]

Thus, this decision to select bilateralism or multilateralism when enacting foreign policies would be greatly affected by its size of power and the power of the country which it seeks to have control over. Take the example of Foreign Policy of the United States, there are a large number of references discussing how the United States chose to interact with its alliances. Among them in particular, the United States chose multilateralism in Europe and decided form NATO, while it formed bilateral alliances, or the Hub and spokes architecture in East Asia. Although there are many arguments about the reason why the United States decided to do so, Victor Cha's "Powerplay (theory)" theory provides a possible reason.

Victor Cha argues that:

...postwar U.S planners had to contend with a region uniquely constituted of potential rogue allies, through their aggressive behavior, could potentially entrap the United States in an unwanted wider war in Asia. ... To avoid this outcome, the United States created a series of tight, deep bilateral alliances with Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan through which it could exercise maximum control and prevent unilateral aggression. Furthermore, it did not seek to make these bilateral alliances multilateral, because it wanted to amplify U.S. control and minimize any collusion among its partners.[13]

See also

Useful Articles


  1. Kahler,Miles. “Multilateralism with Small and Large Numbers.” International Organization, 46, 3 (Summer 1992),681.
  2. Keohane, Robert O. “Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research.” International Journal, 45 (Autumn 19901), 731.; see for a definition of the special features of "regional multilateralism" Michael, Arndt (2013). India's Foreign Policy and Regional Multilateralism (Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 12-16.
  3. 1 2 John Ruggie, “Multilateralism: the anatomy of an institution,”International Organization, 46:3, summer 1992, pp 561-598.
  4. Harris Mylonas and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, "Regional multilateralism: The next paradigm in global affairs", CNN, January 14, 2012.
  5. Andrew Hurrell, “One world, many worlds: the place of regions in the study of international society,” International Affairs, 83:1, 2007, pp 127-146.
  6. Adogame, Afe (2004). "The Berlin-Congo Conference 1884: The Partition of Africa and Implications for Christian Mission Today". Journal of Religion in Africa. 34 (1/2): 188.
  7. "The United Nations: An Introduction for Students." UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2013. <>.
  8. Hook, Steven & Spanier, John (2007). "Chapter 12: America Under Fire". American Foreign Policy Since World War II. CQ Press. p. 305. ISBN 1933116714.
  9. Cha, Victor D. "Powerplay: Origins of the US alliance system in Asia." International Security 34.3 (2010):166-167
  10. 1 2 Stanley Hoffmann, “World governance: beyond utopia,” Daedalus, 132:1, pp 27-35.
  11. Iain McLean; Alistair McMillan (26 February 2009). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. OUP Oxford. p. 519. ISBN 978-0-19-101827-5.
  12. Unilateralism or Multilateralism: U.N. Reform and the Future of the World, Wednesday, 1 October 2003
  13. 1 2 3 Cha, Victor D. "Powerplay: Origins of the US alliance system in Asia." International Security 34.3 (2010): 165-166
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