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Multilateralism is an international relations term that refers to multiple countries working in concert.
Most international organizations are multilateral in nature such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. The main proponents of multilateralism have traditionally been the middle powers such as Canada and the Nordic countries. Larger states often act unilaterally, while the smaller ones have little involvement at all in international affairs.
The alternative to multilateralism is unilateralism.
The first 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 nineteenth century was one of Europe's most peaceful.
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 twentieth 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.
After the Second World War the victors, having learnt from the failure of the League of Nations, created the United Nations in 1945. 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 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. Moreover, United Nations peacekeepers stationed around the world have became one of the most visible symbols of multilateralism in recent decades. Today there are a myriad of multilateral institutions ranging from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); not all by any means 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 at the same time as it increasingly questions the relevance of multilateral processes to its interests, in some cases. Concurrently, a perception has developed among some in the broader international community that the United States is more inclined to act unilaterally in situations in which the rest of the international community has a stake, for instance in the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Under President George W. Bush the United States has rejected such multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel land mines and a draft protocol to ensure compliance by States with the Biological Weapons Convention.
Yet the situation is less simple than it first appears. Challenges of complexity are increasingly confounding the multilateral system as transnational issues - international terrorism, drugs, economic crimes such as money laundering, people and arms trafficking and a rise in the spread of infectious diseases, for instance - overtax its ability to respond effectively. This is especially so as some governments are less than committed to providing leadership or resources they have promised. This is a source of frustration for many in civil society, for instance in the humanitarian and public health fields: the UN's Millenium Goals identified global poverty and disease as major causes of misery and instability to be addressed in the first decade of the 21st century. Thus, there is a certain irony: while the post-war multilateral system has eased the way for globalization in a myriad of different ways, it has also been identified as a target for backlash. Protests against economic organizations such as the WTO and IMF by a range of protestors from developed and developing countries are examples. It can also be a source of frustation for countries such as the United States, expected to bear a significant proportion of the burdens of leadership.
Overall, the multilateral institutional framework can be viewed as a system in difficult transition, from a relatively stable bipolar order in which its functions were comparatively pre-ordained and circumscribed by opposing international blocs to a much more uncertain climate in which it must deal with a wide range of new threats and challenges reaching right down into many societies.
It is important in considering the multilateral system to recognize three things. First, the multilateral system is not a unitary actor, but instead a myriad web of different agencies and institutions. Second, globalization and multilateralism are different phenomena, although each affect the other. Third, leadership in multilateralism flows from national governments rather than the institutions themselves, which are instead tasked with implementing specific mandates to the best of their resources and ability.
John Gerard Ruggie defines the term "multilateral" as being "an adjective that modifies the noun 'institution.' What distinguishes the multilateral form from others is that it coordinates behavior among three or more states on the basis of generalized principles of conduct" (Ruggie, John Gerard (1993). Multilateralism Matters. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 14).
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