Unique Challenges of Multilateral Diplomacy

Scientific Essay, 2014
14 Pages, Grade: Merit




Multilateral diplomacy


Bilateral diplomacy






The unique challenges presented by multilateral diplomacy.


The aftermath of World War II has made multilateral diplomacy become a major talking point for many. The 21st Century has brought about a huge change in the world of international relations. Along with the beginning of the rise of Peace and Human Rights, “The last quarter century has been one of extraordinary growth”. (Zakaria, 2009 p.1) Every area has flourished be it economics, politics or technology. Globalization along with the good has brought about a lot of new issues. To name a few of many such as international trade, renewable and non renewable resources, global warming, flow of information, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and disease control such as the current Ebola outbreak for example; need everyone to come together universally in order to find solutions, or at the very least agree on common grounds for some form of management and resolutions. One can say that there is too much happening for any one government to control alone. Including the US. Hence multilateralism or multilateral co-operation is absolutely necessary as only collectively can these matters be solved.

Hence along with globalization multilateralism has become a widespread and significant phenomenon (Ruggie, 1993). However multilateral diplomacy does not come without its shortcomings it in fact faces a number of its own unique challenges. As Zakaria put it “International cooperation is a tricky animal. Even where there is a will, there is often no clear way”. (Zakaria, 2009 P.5) This essay will examine the unique challenges that are presented by multilateral diplomacy. It will do so by first discussing the definition of multilateral diplomacy and its implementation in the United Nations, followed by an in-depth analysis of what can be seen as the major unique challenges: decision making, legitimacy, representation and bureaucracy; whilst systematically working through other factors affecting these challenges such as the comparison with bilateral diplomacy, the role played by America as a superpower and the significance of non state actors and non governmental organizations. Conclusions are then made summing up the importance of multilateral diplomacy and yet its inability to handle the matters of todays world due to its unique challenges.

Multilateral diplomacy

“The new diplomatic era started after the First World War when international relationships became worldwide”. (Islam, 2005 p. 62). Tariq ul Islam discusses the development of multilateral diplomacy, he explains the period as that in which the relationship and practice of diplomacy were no longer confined to European Nations, USA and Japan but in fact the rest of the world too. Early signs of multilateral diplomacy came in the peace conference in 1815 however much more significant implementation was later in 1945. It was also a way to reconstruct post cold war. (Ruggie, 1992 p. 586)

Multilateral diplomacy can be defined as the management of international relations by negotiations among three or more states through diplomatic or governmental representatives. (Boisard & Chossudovsky, 1997). Here Boisard and Chossudovsky give what can be seen as a simple working definition. However many have discussed and analyzed the way multilateral diplomacy works or ‘does not work’; Ideally for multilateral diplomacy to be of any effect there needs to be one rule for all and everyone would need to work together. (Newman et al, 2006). Consensus is to be reached by debates, discussions and compromises but ultimately there would be a democratic vote. In which the majority vote is applied, and this would mean no state is undermined. In reality this is far from what happens.

Jay quotes in his book on political quotations; Albert Einstein once stated, “Powerful states need no ambassadors” (Jay, 1996 p.11). Similarly some will argue that multilateral diplomacy via for example the United Nations is merely a “weapon of the Weak” (Kagan, 2002 p.4). It’s not really until recently that ‘public’ so to speak have taken an interest in diplomatic affairs. Scholars and thinkers have now given a number of different opinions on what multilateral diplomacy is and does for the world today, a few are mentioned here: “Official diplomacy has slowly opened its exclusive activities to the public domain” (Kelley, 2010 p.23) multilateral diplomacy “is the new diplomacy”, (Kjellen, 2008 p. 260) and finally there is the view that the international community is yet to create a better stronger system for international collaboration. (Insanally, 2013)

No matter what view one may have on multilateral diplomacy as Aviel (2005), says “when a crisis broke out- in Balkons in 1914 there was no permanent conference or machinery to try to settle the dispute, which quickly escalated into World War 1.” she goes on to say now we do –(The United Nations) and although at the moment we are not fully aware of its benefits she concludes that at the very least we can respect it. (Aviel et al, 2005 p.229). The United Nations Charter in 1945 gave way for multilateral diplomacy to begin and develop.

The United Nations as a Multilateral Organization was created to promote peace and human rights. The fundamental aims and objectives of the United Nations were stated in the Preamble of the UN Charter. One example is point 4 in Article 1, which states the UN is “To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends”. (UN, 1945(a): article 1 (4)) one of its purposes is to take effective and collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to Peace,

Hence it is a sort of collective Security System (Ruggie. 1992) That came together and made certain commitments for handling and dealing with issues that single governments cannot tackle alone.

The U.S has always contributed to the UN; Insanally emphasizes the importance of U.S commitment to the UN, since it had a central role in creating it and also in animating it with its own values and ideals. (Insanally, 2013) One assertion that Ruggie had is how America pursued its interests and sought to manage the changing international balance of power but in doing so their US policy makers have certain institutional objectives in mind (Ruggie, 1994 p.64). Nevertheless “Extensive globalization of human endeavors has made international actors interdependent and forced them to work together to a larger and larger extent.” (Leguey-Feilleux, 2009 pp. 228 & 274.) It therefore seems that there is a historic system slowly developing in a fast growing society unable to keep up hence producing a number of unique challenges for multilateral diplomacy. One of the first basic challenges is the decision-making and implementation of these decisions. (Newman et al, 2006).


There are various definitions given by named scholars as to what constitutes as negotiations. Attempts to define this have been many for example Winham defined negotiations to be “the art of management” (Winham, 1989 p 510). Wheras Zartman and Berman suggest it is a method of combining values to form an agreed decision (Zartman and Berman, 1982, p 1. 2). Ruggie talks about how multilateral diplomacy is an instrument for cooperation, consensus, transparency etc. whilst pointing out the importance of institutions (Ruggie 1993 p 74). This is where all the interaction will happen. Coming to a decision is not a simple one step process. Rather quite the unique challenge of multilateral diplomacy full of phases and stages (Zartman and Berman, 1982). There is also the question of rules that lie in within the bargaining and how these influence the outcome. (Hampson, 1995)

The mere fact that there are a number of participants involved and each member has its own values, its own national interests, its own agendas and opinions; coming to a decision that everyone agrees to proves to be a challenge. Moreover there is the issue of different political weighting amongst the negotiators. (Buzan, 1981) Although smaller countries are losing out in terms of resources and size, the use of skillful diplomacy should mean that they are just as powerful when it comes to decision-making and hence should not be underestimated. In fact many ideas have been produced and implemented by smaller states for example the proposal of the International Criminal Court by Trinidad and Tobago (Insanlly, 2003).

Where size is directly affecting participation it is not necessarily affecting success rate. Bargaining on the basis of superior economic or financial means is not per se effective in the one state one vote context (Panke, 2014)

Where there is a group of people certain methods and techniques are used to come to agreed outcomes, these techniques are used because in the opinion of the participants this would be the fairest way to reach a decision. (Hendrick and Holloman 1972) One method of reaching a decision if that of majority voting which is neutral and a decision can be made fairly quickly. However this is nothing near the accurate measure of the collective opinion. In fact the majority vote is violating minority rights. Buzan another supporter of the Consensus method points out the fact that the majority vote can be effective for those smaller nations voting together in blocks however it is not going to work if the minorities are seperated and decided to ignore the outcomes as a result. (Buzan, 1981) Berridge (2005: p.167) speaks about the opportunity made for making decisions by majority voting and how this in effect strengthens the idea of ‘democratic’ diplomacy but the majority vote can often seem like an aggressive turnout and minorities are often left unheard especially if the majority is all following a superpower, therefore “in cases where the international community is threatened by the ruthless action of one country, there is already a growing feeling that whatever its disadvantages, consensus would do less harm” (Thuysbert, 2006)

Today a number of decisions are reached via consensus such as the UN Disarmament Commission and meetings of the executive board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is often a way of searching for widely acceptable solutions. (Barston, 2014). Berridge defines Consensus as “the attempt to achieve the agreement of all participants in a multilateral conference without the need for a vote and its inevitable divisiveness”. (Berridge, 2005 P.168) The consensus method is one of the most specific characteristics of multilateral diplomacy and could be defined as a variation of the unanimity principle. It helps move things along where there is no “outright opposition” moving forward where there is a general feel of fairness and further discussion is not needed. (Thuysbaert, 2006.) however in practice it also has a number of limitations and this produces yet another unique challenge of multilateral diplomacy. Agreements can be blocked until personal demands satisfied. Thuysbaert questions whether ultimately consensus and unanimity aid the slowing down of the whole process of decision-making and add greatly to economic costs. (Thuysbaert, 2006).

Consensus therefore although chosen many times over the majority vote has a huge disadvantage Barston makes it clear that the problem lies in its “protracted nature”, often it will drag the process longer then maybe it should last. Furthermore there is also the question of whether or not countries want to agree or feel obliged due to the “set of obligations with a very high degree of generality” (Barston, 2014).


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Unique Challenges of Multilateral Diplomacy
University of Leicester
International relations
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unique, challenges, multilateral, diplomacy
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Sana Rahim (Author), 2014, Unique Challenges of Multilateral Diplomacy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/285829


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