The simplest definition of multilateralism focuses on numbers: that is, an agreement or alliance among three or more members. Yet multilateralism also has a qualitative dimension. In this sense, it refers to rule-governed behavior in which states restrain their pursuit of immediate goals, presumably in order to achieve long-run interests through cooperation. As John Ruggie writes, “multilateralism is an institutional form which coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of ‘generalized’ principles of conduct … without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence” (1992, p. 571).
In particular, three normative principles constitute the institution of multilateralism. First, indivisibility refers to the notion that all actors are equal participants in the cooperative endeavor. It is illustrated by the concept of collective security, where an attack on any state is seen as an attack on everyone. Second, nondiscrimination implies that any benefit received by one state must be available to all, as exemplified in the most-favored-nation principle of the World Trade Organization. Finally, diffuse reciprocity refers to the idea that concessions and rewards balance out over the long run and states do not need to insist upon a strict tit-for-tat exchange (specific reciprocity).
While multilateral cooperation often occurs through formal organizations, it need not. Kenneth Abbot and Duncan Snidal (1998) have pointed out the efficiency and legitimacy that such organizations can bestow, though Charles Lipson (1991) has argued that the flexibility and low political profile of informal cooperation may sometimes make this a preferable means of acting multilaterally.
The concept of multilateralism is not new. An early example was the Concert of Europe, in which the great powers of nineteenth-century Europe coordinated their management of the international system by moderating their own behavior and consulting with one another over any territorial changes. Alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and collective security organizations such as the United Nations represent other examples of multilateral cooperation designed to protect security.
Multilateralism is also prominent in economic relations. Much of the controversy over regional trade agreements stems from the conflict between the principle of multilateralism (and especially its nondiscrimination norm) and the preferential treatment that members of regional trade blocs receive from one another. In this context, multilateralism is seen as valuable not only because it facilitates liberalization, but also because it prevents political rivalries and alignments from interfering with economic exchange and thus diminishing both the economic effects and the political benefits of interdependence.
While multilateralism provides states with many advantages, it raises challenges as well. This is particularly true when states with differing levels of power coordinate their behavior. Large states often accuse small states of free-riding, while the latter see powerful states as undermining the principles of multilateralism by seeking to further narrow interests. Yet, states still see multilateralism as an effective way to achieve their interests. Very often, it is simply too costly or even impossible for states to go it alone.
This is true even for a hegemon like the United States, which rediscovered the value of multilateral institutions during the second term of President George W. Bush when Washington sought the legitimacy provided by UN approval in order to advance its goals in such places as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
Abbot, Kenneth W., and Duncan Snidal. 1998. Why States Act Through Formal Organizations. Journal of Conflict Resolution 42 (1): 3–32.
Frankel, Jeffrey A. 1997. Regional Trading Blocs in the World Economic System. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.
Jervis, Robert. 1985. From Balance to Concert: A Study of International Security Cooperation. World Politics 38 (1): 58–79.
Lipson, Charles. 1991. Why Are Some International Agreements Informal? International Organization 45 (4): 495–538.
Ruggie, John Gerard. 1992. Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution. International Organization 46 (3): 561–598.