Unlike related terms such as multilateralism, internationalism, or unilateralism, the term trilateralism carries with it little connotation of an underlying methodological or ideological approach to managing international disputes or negotiations, though this was not always the case. At its most basic level, trilateralism is simply a way to describe more specifically international interaction among three entities (usually nation-states) so as to differentiate between bilateral or multilateral formats when discussing trade, security, or other international policy issues. There are several examples of such arrangements, including the trilateral negotiation in the early 1990s over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and a formal series of meetings by South Korea, Japan, and the United States over four years ending in 2003 regarding foreign policy coordination vis-à-vis North Korea (known as the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, or TCOG).
The use of the term trilateral to describe a specific subset of multilateral events essentially began in the 1970s, due primarily to the establishment of the Trilateral Commission by citizens of North America (United States and Canada), Western Europe, and Japan. At this time, trilateralism did have an ideological connotation, as it became closely associated with the commission’s core emphasis on reaching beyond the established trans-Atlantic relationships to draw Japan into a three-region coalition of so-called industrial democracies whose political and corporate elite would work together to promote liberalism, open markets, and economic interdependence. To critics, these trilateralists were trying to dominate the global economy and to exploit weaker nations, whereas proponents viewed this as a well-intentioned effort to develop a broader coalition of leaders focused on mitigating international conflict and isolationism by promoting common interests and values.
As economic interdependence accelerated and blossomed into globalization throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, many new potential coalition partners emerged, such as South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Taiwan, thereby introducing greater complexity and diluting the broader triangular image. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 accelerated this trend. Trilateralism lost its ideological flavor, but it endured as a convenient way to describe a variety of new three-way interactions. An early post-Soviet example is the so-called Weimar Triangle, launched in Weimar, Germany, in 1991 by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Poland as a loose alliance to promote Poland’s emergence from Communist rule.
Trilateralism coexists with other dialogue formats because it offers some advantages in certain situations. For international trade negotiations, such as NAFTA, threeway agreements can be easier for governments to navigate compared to broader multilateral initiatives that must reconcile the nations’ conflicting interests and proposals; yet they can offer greater benefits or efficiency than a collective set of three bilateral agreements. In addition to formal negotiating forums, trilateralism can describe less structured gatherings of national representatives dedicated to issues of common concern. The Weimar Triangle is one example, but there are many other groups of countries that promote trilateral dialogue about such issues as trade, investment, immigration, transportation, environment, and security, including the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation group involving the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark (starting in 1978), as well as tripartite cooperation by Japan, South Korea, and China, starting around 1999, which promotes a broad agenda of regional economic, social, and political initiatives. Small multilateral gatherings of more than three entities (but usually not more than five or six) can be considered minilateral meetings and offer some of the same advantages as trilateral forums.
Occasionally these trilateral meetings become institutionalized and self-sustaining; other trilateral experiments are more beholden to particular founding individuals or diplomatic moods and consequently their relevance fluctuates over time (or they disappear altogether). The TCOG, for example, was an active forum for policy coordination vis-à-vis North Korea for almost four years, but it essentially dissolved when the policy approaches of three countries diverged too widely following leadership changes.
Another use of trilateralism is as an attempt by three states or other entities to present a united front on a given issue of collective concern or to otherwise form a de facto caucus within a larger multilateral organization. Macedonia, Croatia, and Albania, for example, began formal collaboration in 2003 to promote their collective entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Finally, trilateral meetings are also sometimes arranged as a means of formal dispute resolution, whereby one participant acts as a mediator or facilitator between two conflicting parties. A well-known example is the negotiation of the Camp David Accords in 1978 by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
SEE ALSO Alliances; Bilateralism; Coalition; Internationalism; Multilateralism; Trilateral Commission; Unilateralism
Owada, Hisashi. 1980–1981. Trilateralism: A Japanese Perspective. International Security 5 (3): 14–24.
Ullman, Richard H. 1976. Trilateralism: “Partnership” for What? Foreign Affairs 55 (1): 1–19.
James L. Schoff