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What Is Multilateralism?

U.S., Obama Champion Multilateral Programs

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What Is Multilateralism?

President Obama addresses the U.N., September 21, 2011.

Photo by Samantha Appleton/White House

Multilateralism is diplomatic term that refers to cooperation among several nations. President Barack Obama has made multilateralism a central element of U.S. foreign policy under his administration. Given the global nature of multilateralism, multilateral policies are diplomatically intensive but offer the potential for great payoffs.

History of U.S. Multilateralism

Multilateralism is largely a post-World War II element of U.S. foreign policy. Such cornerstone U.S. policies as the Monroe Doctrine (1823) and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1903) were unilateral. That is, the United States issued the policies without the help, consent, or cooperation of other nations.

American involvement in World War I, while it would seem to be a multilateral alliance with Great Britain and France, was in fact a unilateral venture. The U.S. declared war against Germany in 1917, almost three years after the war began in Europe; it cooperated with Great Britain and France simply because they had a common enemy; aside from combating the German spring offensive of 1918, it refused to follow the alliance's old style of trench fighting; and, when the war ended, the U.S. negotiated a separate peace with Germany.

When President Woodrow Wilson proposed a truly multilateral organization -- The League of Nations -- to prevent another such war, Americans refused to join. It smacked too much of the European alliance systems that had triggered World War I in the first place. The U.S. also stayed out of the World Court, a mediating organization with no real diplomatic weight.

Only World War II pulled the U.S. toward multilateralism. It worked with Great Britain, the Free French, the Soviet Union, China and others in a real, cooperative alliance.

At the end of the war, the U.S. became involved in a flurry of multilateral diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian activity. The U.S. joined the war's victors in the creation of:

  • The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, 1944
  • The United Nations (UN), 1945

The U.S. and its Western allies also created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. While NATO still exists, it originated as a military alliance to throw back any Soviet incursion into western Europe.

The U.S. followed that up with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Organization of American States (OAS). Although the OAS has major economic, humanitarian, and cultural aspects, both it and SEATO began as organizations through which the U.S. could prevent communism from infiltrating those regions.

Uneasy Balance With Military Affairs

SEATO and the OAS were technically multilateral groups. However, America's political dominance of them tilted them toward unilateralism. Indeed, much of American Cold War policies -- which revolved around containment of communism -- tended in that direction.

The United States entered the Korean War in the summer of 1950 with a United Nations mandate to push back a communist invasion of South Korea. Even so, the United States dominated the 930,000-man UN force: it supplied 302,000 men outright, and it outfitted, equipped, and trained the 590,000 South Koreans involved. Fifteen other countries provided the rest of the manpower.

American involvement in Vietnam, coming without a UN mandate, was entirely unilateral.

Both U.S. ventures in Iraq -- the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraqi War that began in 2003 -- had the multilateral backing of the UN and the involvement of coalition troops. However, the United States supplied the majority of troops and equipment during both wars. Regardless of label, both ventures have the appearance and feel of unilateralism.

Risk Vs. Success

Unilateralism, obviously, is easy -- a country does what it wants. Bilateralism -- policies enacted by two parties -- are also relatively easy. Simple negotiations reveal what each party wants and does not want. They can quickly resolve differences and move ahead with policy.

Multilateralism, however, is complicated. It must consider the diplomatic needs of many nations. Multilateralism is much like trying to arrive at a decision in a committee at work, or perhaps working on an assignment in a group in a college class. Inevitably arguments, divergent goals, and cliques can derail the process. But when the whole succeeds, the results can be amazing.

The Open Government Partnership

A proponent of multilateralism, President Obama has initiated two new U.S.-led multilateral initiatives. The first is the Open Government Partnership.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) seeks to secure transparent government functioning around the globe. It's declaration proclaims the OGP is "committed to the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention against Corruption, and other applicable international instruments related to human rights and good governance.

The OGP wants to:

  • Increase accessibility to governmental information,
  • Support non-discriminatory civic participation in government
  • Promote professional integrity within governments
  • Use technology to promote openness and accountability of governments.

Eight nations now belong to the OGP. They are the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, the Philippines, Norway, Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil.

Global Counterterrorism Forum

The second of Obama's recent multilateral initiatives is the Global Counterterrorism Forum. The forum is essentially a place where states practicing counterterrorism can convene to share information and practices. Announcing the forum on September 22, 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We need a dedicated global venue to regularly convene key counterterrorism policy makers and practitioners from around the world. We need a place where we can identify essential priorities, devise solutions, and chart a path to implementation of best practices."

The forum has set four major goals in addition to sharing information. Those are:

  • Discover how to develop justice systems "rooted in the rule of law" but effective against terrorism.
  • Find cooperative ways to globally understand the radicalization of ideals, terrorist recruitment.
  • Find ways to strengthen weaknesses -- such as border security -- that terrorists exploit.
  • Ensure dynamic, strategic thinking and action about counterterrorism efforts.
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