What is Multilateralism?

Multilateralism is defined as “the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states” (Keohane, 1990: 731). Often, it is associated with an institutional form, which serves to coordinate relations between several sovereign states by establishing agreed principles, norms and rules of behaviour. Multilateral institutions provide a forum for communication, which reduces uncertainty, constrains activity and facilitates negotiation and compromise (Keohane 1990; Ruggie, 1992).

The following principles are often associated with multilateralism:


  • Indivisibility of interest: Members within a multilateral institution are equal and share common interests. For example, in a collective security system made up of a group of equal states, an act of war against a state is an act of aggression against all.

  • Diffuse reciprocity: All members eventually benefit from the multilateral arrangement.

  • Generalized principles of conduct: This notion touches upon the norms and rules of behaviour that characterize the relations between states in multilateralism. 

  • Dispute settlement: Multilateral institutions incorporate mechanisms for solving disagreements and ensuring compliance with established rules.

Multilateral institutions have been stable and highly influential organizations in the international system. Intergovernmental organisations, such as the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU) are composed of sovereign states and established by a treaty. The UN charter, for instance, covers the general principles of international cooperation with the ultimate objective of upholding international peace and security, while the UNFCCC represents an international environmental treaty addressing climate change. 

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While multilateralism has come under criticism for being inefficient and ineffective, multilateral cooperation remains crucial to overcome global challenges such as the climate crisis. Climate change knows no national borders and affects every country in the world adversely. Only a joint and coordinated multilateral response, of course involving non-state actors such as civil society, cities and businesses from all regions and sectors will be able to mobilize the ambitious climate action so urgently needed.


Harvard Law School. n.d. Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) | Harvard Law School. [online] Available at: https://hls.harvard.edu/dept/opia/what-is-public-interest-law/public-service-practice-settings/public-international-law/intergovernmental-organizations-igos/#:~:text=The%20term%20intergovernmental%20organization%20(IGO,exist%20in%20the%20legal%20sense.

[Accessed 2 June 2021].

Keohane RO. Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research. International Journal. 1990;45(4):731-764. doi:10.1177/002070209004500401

Ruggie, J. (1992). Multilateralism: the Anatomy of an Institution, International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 1992), pp. 561-598.