Multilateral Diplomacy: The Preferred Path?

When states are confronted with diplomatic challenges or in the conduct of their foreign policy, international actors make use of several types of foreign policy strategy: multilateral, bilateral and unilateral. For the purpose of this essay, this paper will focus only on multilateral and bilateral diplomacy. Multilateral and bilateral diplomacy are sometimes seen as twines from the same destiny, for example the European Union constitutes an emerging diplomatic order in which multilateralism and bilateralism are intertwined and bilateralism, whilst constituting a significant component of this multilateral order, is at the same time being re-situated within it and policy areas re-located from predominantly bilateral to the multilateral framework or a mixed bi-multilateral set of processes (Keukeleire,2000: 4-5 cited in Batora and Hocking, 2008:14). The rise of multilateral diplomacy can be traced back to the nineteenth century when the concert of Europe sat around the table together at the congress of Vienna. Yet this diplomacy, developed in its full form in the twentieth century with the creation of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War and with the United Nations, embodiment of multilateral diplomacy, born after the Second World War (Moore, 2012:1). Today, the UN has a worldwide membership and the global landscape is peppered with economic and regional institutions that are multilateral in nature, such as World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the G20 (Moore, 2012:1).

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For the purpose of this essay, this paper, first and foremost seeks to define the terms bilateral and multilateral diplomacy respectively. The paper will examine whether multilateral diplomacy is the preferred path for larger states. It will then proceed to examine if bilateral diplomacy still have a role to play. Multilateralism will be discussed from a realist and neoliberal’s perspective. The paper will also look at bilateral diplomacy in a multilateral context using North Korea as an example. This paper will finally draw a conclusion, by arguing that both multilateral and bilateral diplomacy have various roles to play, multilateral diplomacy is the preferred path for larger states.


On one hand bilateral diplomacy is characterised by a-sometimes asymmetric-focus on the goal of two actors. It usually means the consensual handling of bilateral relations between two sovereign states. Equal sovereign states are the central actors in the relationship, and any conduct of the relationship needs consensual will from both sides (Klein, Reiners, Zhimin, Junbo, and Slosarcik, 2010:6-20). On the other hand, multilateral diplomacy is defined as a situation where three or more actors are engaged in voluntary and (more or less) institutionalised co-operation governed by norms and principles, with rules that apply (more or less) equally to all (Klein, Reiners, Zhimin, Junbo, and Slosarcik, 2010:7).

Furthermore, multilateral diplomacy is viewed as a process linked with norms and ideals about greater international justice, legal equality (or at least non-discrimination) and legitimacy. It is not solely about the number of participating states (Johnson, 2009:56). Moreover, it is defined as the management of international relations among three or more states through diplomatic or representatives without the services of a specialised secretariat (Diplomats, 2009:1). According to Moore, multilateral diplomacy is academically defined as diplomacy conducted via conferences attended by three or more states on the basis of generalised rules of conduct, while a UN envoy has defined it in simpler terms, depicting the diplomatic form as a bunch of countries pushing their own barrows but in the one room (Moore, 2012:1).

For the purpose of this essay, this paper defines multilateral diplomacy as a collective, cooperative action by states when necessary in concert with non- state actors-to deal with common challenges and problems when these are best managed collectively at the internal level. In other words, it is the negotiations and discussions which allow these collective and cooperative actions between states and non-states (Cockburn, 2012:1).


The growing importance of multilateral diplomacy is a phenomenon of the 21st century, partly because the 21st century has thrown up problems which are universal in nature such as human rights, the international control of disease, the international flow of capital and information, humanitarian assistance, labour rights, trade, natural environmental issues with transnational fall-out and environmental issues of an international nature (Cockburn, 2012:1). The above mentioned problems supersede national sovereignty and this have required some form other and above bilateral diplomacy in order to address them (Cockburn, 2012:1).

However, a mounting backlash against globalisation is mingling with widespread loss of faith in the multilateral system- with the conspicuous gap between expectations and outcomes in Copenhagen being merely the latest example. This matters a great deal, because if publics believe that cooperation doesn’t work, governments will have greater difficulty marshalling the political will or financial resources to carry out multilateral solutions (Jones, 2010:4). Critiques of multilateral diplomacy argued that multilateral agreements will have to target ambiguous and sometimes elusive common denomination of the many national interests involved and this tends to the lowest common denominator of all the countries involved as a result of the need to reach a political consensus among the participants (Reich, 2009:13).The negotiation and drafting process is usually decided by the large and powerful countries, whereas the small countries have almost no ability to influence the outcome of multilateral negotiation (Reich, 2009:13). Again in a multilateral agreement, it is extremely difficult to reach the necessary consensus in order to conclude such an agreement and therefore in many cases it remains a desirable, but unattainable goal (Reich, 2009:17). Additionally, the US, Russia and China all fail to recognise the international criminal court, thus this drastically reducing its power. Also the most published fight against global warming appears to have been brought to a halt by the failure of the major powers to sign up to the Kyoto protocol (Cockburn, 2012:4).

Cockburn again argued that multitude of multilateral treaties concerning weapons of war have ended up very little of what they promised because of major powers refusing to sign them. These are black marks against the name multilateral diplomacy and there are cases where rather than recognising a common good and making concessions on all sides, national interest have triumphed (Cockburn, 2012:4).

Although achieving broadly multilateral efforts admittedly has its own set of obstacles and pitfalls, but it also has benefits that are inherently is not possible for any nation, even the United States to, achieve when it acts without others or even with a select few (Jentleson, 2003-4:9). For the purpose of this essay, this paper argues that multilateral diplomacy is the preferred path for larger states. The global war against terrorism has only proven the importance of multilateral cooperation. Much of the successes that have been achieved thus far in the war on terrorism has been through broad multilateral cooperation on a number of lower-profile fronts such as intelligence sharing, border security, economic sanctions and law enforcement (Jentleson,2003-4:9; Rademaker, 2006:1). Multilateral diplomacy, has a comparative advantage, by which different nations, relevant international institutions, and nongovernmental organisations (NGO’s) all bring to bear their complementary expertise based on their own historical experience, traditional relationships, and policy emphasis (Jentleson, 2003-4:9). The redistribution of power on a global scale pushed by the emergence of new centres of power and the urgency of global challenges (the financial crisis, climate change, maritime security, to name a few) highlights the need for a multilateral diplomacy that deliver global public goods and contain emerging rivalries (Policy brief, 2011:2). As stated by Jones, the 9/11 attacks on the United States intensified multilateral cooperation both through formal and informal institutions, to tackle a range of transnational threats (Jones, 2012:2). Furthermore, there are a category of circumstances which may require only multilateral action through multilateral diplomacy. One example of such is the fight against international money laundry. This fight cannot be handle by a single state due to its nature. However, it has been successfully carried out by a multilateral strategy aimed at all countries with no exceptions. It is done through a multilateral body named the Financial Action Tax Force (FATF) (Reich, 2009:22)

Moreover, multilateral agreements, through multilateral diplomacy offer of course the advantage of lower transaction costs in one central negotiation and drafting process that results in the binding of all the parties to mutual obligation to one another (Reich, 2009:25). And other reason to prefer multilateral action is in circumstances where bilateral action will give unique advantages to the stronger party to the negotiation, and lead to suboptimal outcomes either from a distributive justice or efficiency perspective. In such situations multilateral negotiations that allow weaker countries-such as developing and least developed countries- the possibility to coordinate their positions and bargain collectively with the stronger countries may lead to better results (Reich, 2009:26).

This paper argues that in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world, multilateral diplomacy is of value more so ever before in its history. The UN, if reformed accordingly, will continue to be used as a viable multilateral channel to counter fresh global challenges which confront not just a few states but all states (Moore, 2012:1).

To further demonstrate how important multilateral diplomacy is to larger states, in his 2010 national security strategy, President Obama acknowledged the fact that the US had been successful after the second world war by pursuing their interest within multilateral forums such as the United Nations and not outside of them( Moore, 2012:2). The global financial crisis of 2008 and the European Union’s sovereign debt crisis have demonstrated just how interdependent the economies of the western world are and this crisis has created an age of austerity in which multilateralism is needed ever than before (Moore, 2012:2).

With the United States now working multilaterally through the UN and with the onset of a multipolar world, it appears that multilateral diplomacy will continue to be relevant in the 21st century, with the United Nations as the foremost institution for international cooperation. This position has restored UN credibility and revitalised multilateral diplomacy (Moore, 2012:3). The increasingly global nature of the threats that the world faces and the interdependency that is present amongst states shows that multilateral diplomacy remains and will continue to remain, relevant in the 21st century (Moore, 2012:3).The Libya campaign and the efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear threat are perfect examples of multilateral diplomacy being used effectively in a post 9/11 world. By taking all of these factors into account, it is therefore logical to concur with G.R. Berridge that multilateral diplomacy is here to stay (Moore, 2012:3).


The past few years have witnessed an outburst of bilateral diplomacy and treaties signed in the field of international law, in general, and in international trade in particular (Reich, 2009:1). Even the United States of America a former champion of multilateralism, which only in 1985 signed its first bilateral free trade agreement (with Israel), has been in a “signing spree” of such bilateral agreements, with the count now standing on no less than 37 countries with which the US has signed or is in the process of negotiating an (FTA) (Reich, 2009:1). Accordingly, in the field of international investment protection, the attempt by the OECD to create a multilateral investment agreement (MAI) failed in 1998, instead around 2009 we had some 2,750 bilateral investment treaties (BITs), with the number constantly on the rise (Reich, 2009:2). In certain instances, bilateral relations, including the formation of free trade zones, were described as a supplement to the multilateral negotiations on the liberalisation of the trade and the programme explicitly referred to trade relations with the US, Canada and Korea (Czech Republic, 2009:28). Bilateral arrangements also free states from multilateral rules and the demands of diffuse reciprocity; it allows states to obtain benefits from their relationships with weaker states (Klein, Reiners, Zhimin, Junbo and Slosarcik, 2010:22). Furthermore, bilateral-policies enacted by two parties are relatively easy. Simple negotiations reveal what each party wants and does not want. They can quickly resolve differences and move ahead with policy (Jones, 2011:1).

Despite all the benefits associated with bilateral diplomacy, this paper still argues that multilateral diplomacy is the preferred path for larger states. As the world becomes smaller through advances in technology and communications, and the more independent the world becomes, the further multilateral diplomacy will develop as a vehicle for international cooperation on major global issues. Regional diplomacy is beginning to develop further with the creation, in the last decades of organisations such as the African Union, the continued enlargement and integration of the European Union after 9/11, and established organisations such as NATO and the Arab League remaining prevalent (Moore, 2012:2).


Both realist and neoliberals make the assumption that states can be treated as unitary, rational actors pursuing their interests in an anarchic international system (Johnson, 2006:57). For the realist, the international system is portrayed as a brutal arena where states look for opportunities to take advantage of each other, and therefore have little reason to trust each other. Daily life is essentially a struggle for power, where each state strives not only to be the most powerful actor in the system, but also to ensure that no other state achieves that lofty position (Mearsheimer, 1995:9).

However, realism’s anarchy problematique is outdated, and multilateralism needs to address the more substantive-global problematique of trans-border human security challenges, such as poverty, pollution, climate change, terrorism, drugs, crime and violence- not just state security but human security (Johnson, 2006:57)

Realists frame the world in terms of sovereign states competing to maximise their power and individual security. Multilateralism is viewed as a kind of mechanism through which states that rely on self-help can cooperate on the basis of temporarily shared interest (Johnson, 2006:58).

Furthermore, the realists consider that the practices, processes and outcomes of multilateralism essentially reflect the participating states’ power and interest which may shift overtime. By contrast, neoliberals see the institution itself playing a role in embedding norms and practices that integrate themselves in further multilateral practice and institutions, in the neoliberal view, “even if the realist are correct in believing that anarchy constrains the willingness to cooperate, states nevertheless can work together and can do so especially with the assistance of institutions (Johnson, 2006:59).


When assessing negotiation approaches for global problems such as nuclear proliferation, it is convenient to assume the liberalist stance of multilateral diplomacy. The commonly cited indispensible element of any negotiation would be to involve all the parties with interests (Diplomats, 2009:1).There are other reasons why multilateral diplomacy such as the six-party talks seems to make sense. Instruments of diplomacy such as economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure are thought to be weaker unless applied multilaterally and there is also the likelihood that a number of bilateral negotiations, where there are conflicting goals, can derail an ongoing multilateral diplomatic effort (Diplomats, 2009:1-2).

For the purpose of this essay, this paper suggests that it is better to “think multilateral and act bilateral”. The bilateral discussions must pre-empt any multilateral talks especially when the North Korean leaderships shows interest to talk. This could be in a series of bilateral meetings (Park, 2005:75-91). A combination of bilateral and multilateral negotiation strategies is the essence of progress in North Korea. The focus however should be on bilateral negotiations that pre-empt framework that suggest “Thinking multilaterally and acting bilaterally”. This reduces the impact of perceived weaknesses of bilateral approaches such as less effective sanctions and conflicting goals and methods. As long as the overriding multilateral framework has transparency and is cloaked by efficient reporting, no issues of isolation, belligerence or lack of consensus would arise (Diplomat, 2009:3-4).


Having critically examined, whether multilateral diplomacy is the preferred path for larger states, and whether bilateral diplomacy still have a role to play, looked at multilateralism from a realist and neoliberal’s perspective, and made a thorough examination of the two diplomatic approaches, this paper arrives at a conclusion. The position of this paper remains that in as much as bilateral diplomacy has a role to play, multilateral diplomacy remains the most effective diplomatic strategy in confronting current global threats.