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In international relations, multilateralism is multiple countries working in concert on a given issue. Multilateralism was defined by Miles Kahler as “international 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 defined multilateralism as “the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states.[2]

Multilateralism, whether in the form of membership in an alliance or in international institutions, is necessary 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.[3]

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, much of these international institutions lack tools of enforcement while instead work as frameworks that constrain opportunistic behaviour and points for coordination by facilitating exchange of information about the actual behaviour of states with reference to the standards to which they have consented.[4]

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.[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.[citation needed]

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 in an attempt to prevent a similar conflict.[6] 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.[citation needed]

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. 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. The collective multilateral framework played an important role in maintaining world peace in the Cold War.[citation needed] 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 nations have 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[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

  • Multilateralism is the key, for it ensures the participation of all in the management of world affairs. It is a guarantee of legitimacy and democracy, especially in matters regarding the use of force or laying down universal norms.
  • Multilateralism works: in Monterrey and Johannesburg it has allowed us to overcome the clash of North and South and to set the scene for partnerships—with Africa notably—bearing promise for the future.
  • Multilateralism is a concept for our time: for it alone allows us to apprehend contemporary problems globally and in all their complexity.[10]

Comparison with bilateralism

When enacting foreign policies, governments will face the choice whether to utilize multilateralism or bilateralism. Choosing multilateralism means there is a coordinated approach with several countries rather than a single one.

Bilateralism refers to policies that are not coordinated with other countries and/or that engage with another country singly. Multilateralism, by contrast, involves both the coordination of policy among three or more states, and coordination around a series of generalized principles of conduct. Multilateralism involves "principles which specify appropriate conduct for a class of actions without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence" (Ruggie 1993, pg. 11).[11] Take the example of Foreign Policy of the United States, there are a large number of references discussing how US choose to interact its alliances. Also, Victor Cha's "powerplay" theory shows a concrete matrix on whether to choose multilateralism or bilateralism.

File:Bilateral versus Multilateral Control.png
Victor Cha's Powerplay: Bilateral versus Multilateral Control.[12]

Victor Cha argued that:

Multilateralism is the preferred strategy for exercising control over another country ... 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 ... Multilateral constraints, whether in the form of membership in an alliance or in international institutions, are necessary to bind the great power, discourage unilateralism, and give the small powers a voice and voting opportunities that they would not otherwise have. Similarly, if control is sought by a great power over another great power ... then multilateral controls may be most useful.[12]

See also


  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. Cha, Victor D. "Powerplay: Origins of the US alliance system in Asia." International Security 34.3 (2010): 165-166
  4. Keohane, Robert O., Joseph S. Nye, and Stanley Hoffmann. "The End of the Cold War in Europe." Introduction. After the Cold War / International Institutions and State Strategies in Europe, 1989-1991. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. 1-20. Print.
  5. Harris Mylonas and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, "Regional multilateralism: The next paradigm in global affairs", CNN, January 14, 2012.
  6. "The United Nations: An Introduction for Students." UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2013. <>.
  7. Hook, Steven & Spanier, John (2007). "Chapter 12: America Under Fire". American Foreign Policy Since World War II. CQ Press. p. 305. ISBN 1933116714.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Cha, Victor D. "Powerplay: Origins of the US alliance system in Asia." International Security 34.3 (2010):166-167
  9. Iain McLean; Alistair McMillan (26 February 2009). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. OUP Oxford. p. 519. ISBN 978-0-19-101827-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Unilateralism or Multilateralism: U.N. Reform and the Future of the World, Wednesday, 1 October 2003
  11. The choice for multilateralism: Foreign aid and American foreign policy: Review of International Organizations, , 8(3), 313-341.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cha, Victor D. "Powerplay: Origins of the US alliance system in Asia." International Security 34.3 (2010): 165-166