Multilateralism is a term in international relations that refers to multiple countries working in concert on a given issue.

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 the smaller ones may have little direct power at all 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 multiple nations acting together as in the UN or may involve regional or military alliances, pacts, or groupings such as NATO.

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


The first[citation needed] modern instances 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 great 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 order to try to prevent another conflict of similar scale. 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 fascist aggression and, ultimately, the outbreak of the Second World War from 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 a wide array 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 develop. 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 myriad 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); although many such organizations were founded or are supported by the UN, by no means are all of them maintained within the UN system.


The multilateral system has encountered mounting challenges in the period 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 Nation's multilateral relevance. Concurrently, a perception has developed among some internationalists, such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, that the United States is more inclined to act unilaterally in situations with international implications. This trend began[citation needed] 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 has 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 administration of George W. Bush, 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.

See Also

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  • multilateralism — MULTILATERALÍSM s.n. Politică comercială constând în aceea că fiecare ţară trebuie să şi asigure o echilibrare globală a balanţei dintre ea şi ţările cu care întreţine relaţii comerciale. [cf. fr. multilatéralisme]. Trimis de LauraGellner,… …   Dicționar Român

  • multilateralism — (n.) 1928, from MULTILATERAL (Cf. multilateral) + ISM (Cf. ism) …   Etymology dictionary

  • multilateralism — multilateral ► ADJECTIVE ▪ involving three or more participants. DERIVATIVES multilateralism noun multilaterally adverb …   English terms dictionary

  • multilateralism — noun see multilateral …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • multilateralism — See multilateral. * * * …   Universalium

  • multilateralism — noun a) Unbiased trade between nations, in contrast to bilateralism. b) A system by which nations consult others in matters of foreign policy, by way of organisations such as the United Nations …   Wiktionary

  • multilateralism — mul·ti·lat·er·al·ism …   English syllables

  • multilateralism — ˌməltə̇ˈlad.ərəˌlizəm noun ( s) : freedom of international trade and currency transfers so as to achieve for each country a trading balance with the total trading area but not necessarily with any one particular country contrasted with… …   Useful english dictionary

  • multilateral — multilateralism, n. multilateralist, adj., n. multilaterally, adv. /mul ti lat euhr euhl/, adj. 1. having several or many sides; many sided. 2. participated in by more than two nations, parties, etc.; multipartite: multilateral agreements on… …   Universalium

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