Multilateralism: Definition & International Relations

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson we will learn what multilateralism is, look at an example of multilateralism involving nuclear proliferation, and examine when multilateralism might not work well.

How do you stop North Korea from getting nuclear weapons?

Flag of North Korea
Flag of North Korea

Imagine you are a world leader. Perhaps you are the president of the United States, Japan, or South Korea. Now imagine your country has been threatened with nuclear war by the dictator of North Korea, a country largely cut off from the rest of the world. Pretty scary, right? While many experts believe North Korea's threats are empty bravado, the use of nuclear weapons is still terrifying to most people. How would you respond? Would you try to work with North Korea and other countries, to try to keep stability? Or work directly with North Korea? Or would you try to handle the situation on your own, ignoring the interests of all other countries?

Defining Multilateralism

One possible approach is termed multilateralism. Multilateralism is when at least three governments participate in a particular issue or to try to solve a problem. Multilateralism is an example of cooperation among world governments and used in contrast with unilateralism. Unilateralism is when a state acts without regard to the support or interests of other states. For example, the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq is often given as an example of unilateralism in international relations because it was opposed by many of America's traditional allies like France and Germany. Rather than being a principle of cooperation for the sake of cooperation, multilateralism is believed to be a way to achieve a nation's interest, while promoting stability in the world.

These approaches are both different from bilateralism, or direct talks between two countries. For example, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is an example of bilateralism. In 2010, the United States and the Russia talked directly with each other about how to reduce their nuclear weapons, in order to help prevent nuclear war and nuclear accidents.

An Example of Multilateralism in International Relations: Nuclear Non-Proliferation and North Korea

One example of multilateralism can be seen in attempts to prevent nuclear proliferation, or the spread of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a treaty signed by nearly 200 countries and states that is meant to encourage states from further developing and using nuclear weapons. On the one hand, the treaty has been effective overall, given the number of states that follow it, and thus it is an example of successful multilateralism.

On the other hand, the multilateral approach to the issue of nuclear weapons has not been so successful when it comes to some individual states that really want to develop their own nuclear weapons. For example, in 1994, North Korea said it was going to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After this, a number of states began attempts to encourage North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons.

Christopher Hill, a former United States ambassador to South Korea, represented the United States during many of the six party talks involving North Korea
Christopher Hill

For example, from 2003 to 2009, in a multilateral attempt to solve the issue of North Korea's nuclear non-proliferation, six countries--North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia participated in talks about North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. The countries involved had different interests--North Korea wanted to develop nuclear weapons, while the United States, South Korea, and Japan were all in opposition to this, out of fear of being victims of a North Korean nuclear attack. China and Russia had less to fear from a nuclear North Korea, although neither country wanted to see North Korea develop nuclear weapons.

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