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Multilateral vs bilateral diplomacy Essay

Governments need to develop international relations in different fields like security, and trade as well as to decide the option of engaging in a bilateral or multilateral basis with other countries through diplomacy. Bilateralism and multilateralism have supporters and detractors; however the multilateral approach has increased since the end of the Second World War and thanks to the globalisation that affects all the countries around the world. In this way, the international intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have become important actors in global governance, cooperating in problem-solving agreements and providing activities to face global problems. IGOs can also be independent actors. Bilateralism is considered the reflection of the distribution of powers between the parties, where the dominant country generally takes advantage, while multilateralism is viewed as relations that follow a pattern of principles.

This paper will argue why countries prefer multilateral engagement through international organisations rather than bilateral one with other states. The first part of the essay will focus on the need of states to engage with others. The second part will give a broader definition of bilateralism and multilateralism, the main strengths and weaknesses of each approach. The third part will cover the different role of multilateral organisations in diplomacy. Finally, the fourth part will explain the advantages of the multilateralism that place it as the preferred engagement among countries. Some examples and case studies will be used to remark this tendency. The essay however will finish with some challenges that the multilateralism approach face in the near future. Why countries need to engage with others

As the whole society, countries cannot be isolated from the world, this means that they need to develop a foreign policy of how to deal with others, negotiating their interests and solving problems that can arise with the neighbours. This process is named diplomacy (Wright 2011). Diplomacy can be on an individual basis (bilateralism) or in groups of three or more (multilateralism) where states follow principles in their relationship. Asian countries rely mainly in the first approach, meanwhile European countries prefer the second one (Wright 2011). According to the international relations theory, states may create international law and international institutions, and may enforce the rules they codify. Nevertheless, these rules do not determine a state to act in a defined manner, but instead the underlying material interests and power relations. Institutions also may increase information about states behaviour diminishing the significant uncertainty of cooperation.

Also, they can increase efficiency, reducing the transaction costs and providing a venue where states can meet as well as they provide norms, practices and decision making procedures to shape expectations and allow a quickly settle on a specific course of action. It is important to remember that states are configurations of individual and group interests that were constructed from mix of history, ideas, norms, and beliefs and that project those interests into the international system through a particular kind of government (Slaughter 2011).

Bilateralism and Multilateralism

‘Bilateralism is a value-free concept, and the substance and output are likely to be driven by the relative power between the two parties and, by extension, by the interests of the stronger party’ (Wright 2011). Bilateralism could be discriminatory if the powerful state tries to get the best deal according to its interests with other states on an individual and ad hoc basis as small states depend on its markets. However, this approach could also bring benefits like the risk reduction since actions are controlled and the probability for reciprocal benefits is higher (Wright 2011). ‘Multilateralism, by contrast, organises relations between three or more states along a set of basic principles that lay out certain expectations of behaviour that all parties must agree to and abide by, including the strongest party’ (Wright 2011). The different challenges that states have faced in terms of security, peacekeeping, disease control, human rights violations, and pollution in the last few decades have demonstrated that these factors are complex and cannot be managed by a country or a group, no matter how powerful or effective it can be, it is a global issue (Powell 2003). Policy prescriptions of multilateral organisations seem to be intrusive in terms of state sovereignty, becoming difficult to agree and implement in most cases (Roberts 2009).

Multilateralism background and International Organisations

Multilateral cooperation origins can be traced a long way back through congresses and conferences, such as the Congress of Westphalia from 1644 to 1648, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Congress of Paris in 1856. In terms of committees, the first ones were set up to deal with technical matters like the Commissions to regulate the Rhine, the Danube and other rivers. In 1874, the Universal Postal Union was created after the Berne Conference to allow letters stamped and posted in one country could be transported and delivered in another. In terms of Peace, the First Hague Conference of 1899 and the Concert of Europe in from 1815 to 1914 were established. In 1919, after the First World War, the League of Nations appeared ‘to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security’. Finally, the United Nations was born in 1947 after the Second World War with wider aims open to all states (Roberts 2009, Wiseman & Basu, 2013).

The international organisations can belong to universal multilateralism (United Nations – UN), regional multilateralism (European Union – EU), value-based multilateralism (North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO) or minilateralism (G20) or a mix of some approaches (Wright 2011). They have changed the representation from nation-state governments’ diplomatic to non-state diplomatic actors thank to their role of diplomacy facilitation venue (Pigman 2010). Their participation model will vary depending on their category. Universal multilateralism is open to all states without taking in account their geographic location, size or regime. The barriers of entry are relatively low but the states participation can be on one-state/one-vote basis (General Assembly of United Nations) or weighting vote in the basis of population, wealth or financial contribution (International Monetary Fund – IMF) (Wright 2011, Pigman 2010, Karns & Mingst 2013).

The regional multilateralism ‘focuses on policy coordination and cooperation among states in a specific geographic region’ while the values-based multilateralism relies on their own values in terms of security, economic or human rights matters. Finally, minilateralism ‘allows a powerful state or a small group of states to convene a select group that is capable of acting in a timely manner and in a way that is proportionate to the challenge at hand’. The participation in the regional multilateralism and the minilateralism is inclusive but depending on the institution and culture of the members can be majoritarian or consensus (Wright 2011, Pigman 2010, Karns & Mingst 2013). Multilateral engagement through international organisations International institutions (IGOs) can play a complementary role with states being the universal multilateralism ones the preferred thanks to the benefits granted to the members. States, most of the time, join the IGOs pursuing their national interests or to solve problems mainly in public goods, telecommunications, transportation among others (Karns & Mingst 2013). It is also said that IGOs can build up democracy enhancing domestic constitutional mechanisms and strengthen the principle of reciprocity among countries allowing compensations or other ameliorative actions.

IGOs also concede the opportunity to diffuse general interests against special ones thanks to the public agendas, and disseminate important technical information that can be implemented and adapted according to the nations’ needs. Finally, IGOs have empowered societies protecting individual and minority rights, fostering collective deliberation or discussion and improving the participatory strands (Keohane, Macedo & Moravcsik 2009). The United Nations (UN) is the best known of the world’s universal institutions, and even when all countries are welcome, not all receive the same treatment (Wright 2011). The UN has at the moment 193 members and six principal organs: the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the Secretariat, being the most important the General Assembly and the Security Council. The General Assembly allows each member state has one vote however its resolutions are non-binding in a legal sense and only motivate governments to implement them.

By contrary, in the case of the Security Council, the five permanent member countries (China, France, United Kingdom, Russian Federation and United States) has the right to veto, and together the other eleven members (elected for two years from the rest of UN members) can authorise to sanction and use the force to preserve or restore peace between nations (Pigman 2010, Wiseman & Basu 2013). Even if this participatory approach could disappoint countries, the fact is that most of the members prefer the UN as their main form of Diplomacy thanks to the opportunity to present proposals, express discomfort or ask for help in specific issues. The UN, through its vast network composed by foundations, major university centres, key NGOs, UN associations, think tanks, institutes, and prominent individuals, can seek for solutions, programs and activities (Wiseman & Basu 2013). In terms of peace negotiation and new states democracy, the UN has some successful stories as Namibia and East Timor.

In the case of Namibia, in 1990, the African country of Namibia became the 160th member of the United Nations after a long process of patient and persistent efforts from the UN that could persuade South Africa to fulfil its colonial mandate in the territory. During Namibia transition, UNTAG (United Nations Transition Assistance Group); consisting of people of 124 nationalities, almost 8,000 troops, and a civilian support and local staff of almost 2,000; worked for around one year to ensure the electoral process and monitor the ceasefire between the South West Africa People’s Organization and South African forces, and the withdrawal and demobilization of all military forces in Namibia (Johnson 2010). In East Timor’s independence, the UN also played an important role to end Indonesia’s 24-year occupation. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established to provide an integrated, multidimensional peacekeeping operation and was fully responsible for the administration of East Timor until 2002 when its transition to independence was completed.

The entire infrastructure required to ensure the prosperity of the new democracy was established, and it is told that the UN’s involvement in this small, remote country goes back much further – to the months after the brutal Indonesian invasion of December 1975, when a young, bearded Timorese by the name of Jose Ramos Horta pleaded at the UN Security Council for international support (Head 2012). Until now, only examples of ‘high politics’ (armed conflicts) have been given, however, the UN is also well-known for its support in ‘low politics’ (socioeconomic factors as poverty and resource scarcity) to its members (Wiseman & Basu 2013). Specialised economic agencies such as the UN Council on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are in charge of much of the work (Pigman 2010). Important proposals have been raised in these topics, and countless programmes and projects have been executed in developing countries mainly.

Examples are Mongolian microfinance plans that have helped this country to pass a centrally planned to a market-driven economy and have an average annual GDP growth rate of about 5 percent. In Bulgaria, a project named ‘Beautiful Bulgaria’ focused on vocational training for the unemployed, training to small and medium enterprises, start-up financing for small businesses, renovating tourism sites, sporting facilities and playgrounds made possible in 2007 that Bulgaria was admitted to the European Union. The Danube River flows through many Eastern European countries before reaching the Black Sea. In terms of environment, the Black Sea and the Danube River Basin programme has given measurable improvement as countries collectively identified their transboundary problem and agreed to environmental solution. For decades, the discharge of polluted water into the Danube resulted in nutrient over-enrichment in the Black Sea, affecting fish stocks, beaches and the incidence of waterborne disease.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity for countries in the region to launch a collaborative effort to address this issue (UNDP 2011). The UN not only gives the opportunity to deal well-known issues like the ones mentioned before, but it also provides the chance to explore new fields in Diplomacy. An example of this is the current condemnation of United States (US) espionage by Latin America and other countries that feel their sovereignty violated even when the US defends its programme as a tool to fight against terrorism (Stea, 2013). The media has played a key role in this topic pushing the US actual administration to propose changes to the National Security Agency (NSA) program as the promise that US government will no longer store the phone call information, however these ‘changes’ are not clear enough yet for the international community (Ackerman & Roberts 2014). In 2001, United States achieved the support of the UN Security Council that required states to freeze the assets of individuals or institutions believed to be associated with terrorism (Keohne, Macedo & Moravcsik), however the panorama does not look the same for this issue.

Diplomacy through UN has mainly been successful in regulating the international travel through the certification of airports by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the establishment of safety standards; ensuring that products for export meet international standards (e.g. milk, bananas, coffee, tea); ensuring that international agreements are implemented by the member states, for example, agreements relating to shared resources (i.e. animals, rivers/lakes, logging, etc.); promoting cooperation among various countries, especially within the south (East Asia), resulting in exchange of information, scholarships, businesses, etc.; raising public awareness through international conferences, e.g. Environment (Rio), Human Settlement (Istanbul), Gender (Beijing), the plight of children (New York); promoting technical assistance in various fields to its member states in the third world; and providing shelter and relief to millions of refugees from war and persecution, as well as supporting the repatriation and resettlement of refugees and displaced persons (UNDP 2011).

Finally, the UN as venue has also allowed the increase of ‘public diplomacy’ (since conferences are open to the media, therefore to an international audience), the ‘behind-the-scenes bilateral diplomacy’ (because in many cases the UN resolution approaches the parties who after bilateral negotiations solve common issues), and the ‘polylateral diplomacy’ (the relationship between the state and non-state representatives composed by NGOs working with the UN) that could be seen as a network diplomacy (Wiseman & Basu, 2013). Multilateralism Challenges

Most of IGOs are labelled as ‘western’, with a strong influence of some members like United States which have unresolved historical grievances. Countries like China, that in the 2000s played a leading role in the construction of multilateral structures in Asia, concerns Washington since it considers that Beijing is using soft power to marginalise the United States. Climate change also poses a threat to all states because the major carbon emitters cannot agree to find a solution as it affects their interests. Compromise not always produces the level of cooperation required to solve a problem (Wright 2011). Nowadays, some of the challenges are referred to asymmetries in the evolving process of multiple channels and levels of diplomatic representation and interaction with the rise of such new powers as Brazil, Germany, India and South Africa. Also, the UN diplomacy is now tied to a larger and more complex diplomatic community of diplomats and non-state actors (Pigman 2010, Wiseman & Basu 2013).

Another issue is related to structures. ‘The UN’s basic structure has not evolved with the changing international political climate and configurations. Most obviously, the P5 member states’ privileged status has skewed the relations between government representatives who otherwise hold equal legal status in the international state system’ (Kerr & Wiseman 2013). To maintain the institution’s legitimacy, efficiency and its role of global governance, deep changes need to be done. Sensitive topics and decisions should be addressed in a correct way. For example, nowadays, the Syria crisis has provoked a wave of critics against the UN that have qualified the organisation as incompetent to find effective solutions to this kind of situations that harms innocent people.

Another difficult topic is in terms of the nuclear weapon testing even when the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was signed by 190 nations, including five nations that admitted to owning nuclear weapons: France, England, Russia, China, and the US. The nuclear stockpiles remain high, and numerous nations continue to develop these devastating weapons, including North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India. These failures of compliance of the non-proliferation treaty and the inability to enforce crucial rules and regulations on offending nations have increased the criticism towards the UN effectiveness. Finally, resolutions related to sensitive topics as the human rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people may provoke the refusal of member countries that do not share this idea, and that could interpret this as an imposition from Western countries (Crary 2011)


Diplomacy through multilateral engagement represents the favourite channel of most of the countries thanks to the benefits it represents. States can get active participation in forums and raise petitions as well as to sign agreements that not only involve another state-party but even non-state actors. Technical assistance, humanitarian aid, democracy enhancement, complaints are some of the advantages of the IGO’s as venue, being the United Nations the most well-known thanks to its structure. Other IGO’s like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO are also important as venue to deal with common issues in a universal or regional basis. However, these IGO’s, mainly the UN, also face challenges that need to be solved to continue the model in the future. The current structure of the Security Council with 5 privileged members has been pushed in the last years to change and enlarge if the UN pretends to continue be considered as ‘the centrepiece of global governance’, effective and legitimate. The rise of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have made the decision making process more carefully as the shift of power in the system is undeniable.


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Wiseman, G & Basu, S 2013, ‘The United Nations’, in P Kerr & G Wiseman (eds), Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories & Practices, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, pp. 319-335. Wright, T 2013, ‘Bilateral and Multilateral Diplomacy in Normal Times and in Crises’, in P Kerr & G Wiseman (eds), Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories & Practices, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, pp. 175-191.

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