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Multilateralism: About History of Multilateralism

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History of Multilateralism

View of the First meeting of the Assembly in 1920

Today, we live in a multilateral world. But what does that mean?


Answering this question involves looking at the meaning of multilateralism, understanding its nature and its place in the workings of the international system.


Although the term only appeared in the aftermath of the Second World War, multilateralism is a significant feature of international relations in the 20th century. The establishment of the League of Nations represents a major turning point in its development. It was with the creation of the first organization founded to maintain peace and foster international cooperation that modern multilateralism truly took shape and was institutionalized. Over the past hundred years, multilateralism has constantly evolved as it has adapted to the transformations of the international system.


Today, multilateralism is at the heart of the international life. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to grasp and remains relatively little studied.

This is partly explained by the very nature of multilateralism, which can be approached at several levels. In functional terms, it is a diplomatic practice based on cooperation between several States, often referred to as multilateral diplomacy. In theoretical terms, it is a key concept on which the architecture of the contemporary international system is based and is therefore an essential element in the study of international relations. Finally, multilateralism is also a dynamic historical process, which cannot be dissociated from the context in which it takes shape.

A tentative definition


What is multilateralism? What is its role? Why is it sometimes criticized? Answering these questions is all the more important as the contours of what is sometimes referred to as a "notion", "phenomenon" or "principle" often remain unclear, both for practitioners and non-specialists.


Multilateralism is often defined in opposition to bilateralism and unilateralism. Strictly speaking, it indicates a form of cooperation between at least three States.


Nevertheless, this "quantitative" definition is not sufficient to capture the nature of multilateralism. Indeed, it is not simply a practice or a question of the number of actors involved. It involves adherence to a common political project based on the respect of a shared system of norms and values. In particular, multilateralism is based on founding principles such as consultation, inclusion and solidarity. Its operation is determined by collectively developed rules that ensure sustainable and effective cooperation. In particular, they guarantee all actors the same rights and obligations by applying themselves continuously (and not on a case-by-case basis, depending on the issue handled).


Multilateralism is therefore both a method of cooperation and a form of organization of the international system.

A shifting paradigm?

Multilateralism has been the foundation of the international system since the end of the Second World War. However, far from being monolithic, its form is not fixed.


First, the framework within which multilateralism takes shape varies. This takes the form of international institutions that can be informal - such as regimes (which are by definition little structured) - or formal - such as international intergovernmental organizations. While there are now several multilateral frameworks, the United Nations is at the heart of global multilateralism.


Secondly, multilateralism has constantly evolved over the past few decades to adapt to changes in the international system. Today, it no longer refers exclusively to collaboration between States. Non-State actors are now considered fully fledged actors in multilateral processes. They participate both in the formulation of multilateral policies and in their implementation.


This evolution has led some authors to speak of the emergence of a "new multilateralism", associating the concept with that of "global governance". It is based on the observation of a growing influence of networks between different actors of civil society, such as non-governmental organizations, but also of the private sector, such as multinationals. Thus, the multilateral framework is not a space reserved exclusively for States, but for many different stakeholders whose nature and interests may vary.


While the principles upon which it is based have remained essentially the same for a century, multilateralism has a tendency to progress and transform. Multilateral processes evolve according to the political, social or economic reality in which they take shape.

The role of multilateralism

In practical terms, multilateralism is an essential instrument for coordinating international action. It allows the different actors to transcend their antagonisms by articulating their interests in a multitude of fields. In a world marked by the effects of globalization and increasingly complex interdependence, it is an essential means of addressing common challenges that go beyond the national dimension and require a coordinated response.


Whether health related or financial, the crises that have marked the international system in recent years have demonstrated that they know no borders and have sometimes spread within a few short days. Today, no State can address issues such as migration or climate change alone. In the near future, the development of artificial intelligence and the inequalities generated by globalization will give rise to new challenges that cannot be met at the national level.


By building an inclusive and coherent international system, multilateralism helps to create the conditions for maintaining and consolidating peace. The use of the multilateral framework also avoids the tensions generated by uncoordinated decisions. In particular, it allows all stakeholders to participate in the decision-making process and make their voices heard. This dialogue plays an important role in defusing tensions by resolving misunderstandings or disputes before they lead to real crises or even conflicts. Moreover, because they are based on common rules, multilateral processes make national policies more readable and predictable for all international actors. It is therefore an essential means of strengthening mutual trust. Finally, the use of the multilateral framework is also a significant source of legitimacy for government action on the international scene.

In the event of a threat to the peace, multilateralism ensures the collective response of States. The principle of collective security is based on the multilateral approach. If one State is attacked, the others commit themselves to react. Multilateralism is also crucial for conflict prevention and resolution. Mediation attempts are reinforced by multilateral action. The use of the multilateral framework is also essential to resolve conflicts that go beyond local issues and cannot be resolved without the support of regional actors or major powers.

View of the metallic structure of the Palais.

Multilateralism: different perspectives

As we have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the League of Nations few years ago, we must remember that multilateralism remains fragile.


The international organization that emerged after the First World War revolutionized the way diplomacy was conducted by placing cooperation and solidarity at the centre of the international system. Its powerlessness in the face of the crises that led to the outbreak of the Second World War is largely explained by the withdrawal phenomenon that marked the 1930s. At a time when the world needed collaboration and solidarity the most, collective responsibilities were seen as a burden and policies focused on short-term gains were favoured. This is one of the main lessons of the League's experience: multilateralism must be fostered.


Even today, the answers that prevailed during the 1930s may seem all the more attractive because multilateralism is not perfect. Some perceive it as an obstacle to the realization of national interests or as an encroachment on sovereignty. It is sometimes seen as an instrument supported by the "weak" to achieve their objectives on the international scene. Others, however, see it as an instrument at the service of the great powers to perpetuate their predominance and control over the international system. Multilateralism is all the more criticized because multilateral diplomatic negotiations are often long and sometimes frustrating. The results are based on a compromise between different interests and may at times seem disappointing.


Despite criticism, multilateralism is still essential today. As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres noted, "the multilateral arrangements established after the Second World War have saved lives, expanded economic and social progress, upheld human rights and, not least, helped to prevent a third descent into global conflagration" (Guterres, 2019). Indeed, multilateralism is based on an inclusive approach aimed at maintaining the stability of the international system in the long term. While major international conferences occupy the media space, the results they achieve are often achieved in silence, in small steps.


Consultation between an increasing number of actors is undoubtedly a complex process. However, it is the most effective - if not the only - way to address the challenges that require comprehensive and innovative responses. The pressing issues faced by the international community transcend both national borders and institutional boundaries and can only be effectively addressed through the establishment of a networked multilateralism involving all relevant actors. That is the challenge which is faced by the United Nations today.

Multilateral diplomacy: a long history?


Why did the creation of the League of Nations mark a turning point in the development of multilateralism? How can we explain the rise of multilateralism over the past hundred years? Where does the United Nations fit in today?


Although the term "multilateralism" is a relatively recent term, multilateral diplomacy is probably very old. Some authors trace its origin back to antiquity. Others consider that it developed from the Westphalia treaties, which ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. The peace agreements signed in Osnabrück and Münster are now generally considered to be the birth certificate of the modern international system of sovereign States. Peace negotiations are also a major diplomatic effort to rebuild order in Europe and involve more than 190 delegations.


In addition to diplomatic developments, the reflection on how to organize the international system to avoid conflicts is part of a long intellectual tradition. Among the authors of the most illustrious perpetual peace plans are: Abbé de Saint-Pierre, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Penn and Jeremy Bentham. In some cases, the projects developed call for the establishment of international forums to enable States to collaborate and resolve their disputes in a peaceful manner.

The origins of contemporary multilateralism

The genesis of modern multilateralism dates back to the 19th century. The "Concert of Europe" that emerged from the Vienna Congress in 1815 is considered a major step in its development.


After the upheavals caused by the Napoleonic wars, the major European powers established an informal system of consultation to maintain order in Europe. However, the "Concert of Europe" was a form of limited cooperation. It was not institutionalized and was based on the voluntary collaboration of major international actors. Meetings were convened only if they were deemed necessary. Small powers were sometimes consulted, but they rarely, if ever, participated in deliberations. Despite these limitations, the concert of Europe allowed the major powers to get used to meeting before their discrepancies lead to conflicts, rather than at the negotiating table after the end of hostilities. It thus paved the way for the major international congresses of the second half of the 19th century.


At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 marked a new milestone in the development of multilateralism. On the one hand, this was the first attempt to establish mechanisms to prevent war. On the other hand, the 1907 Conference brought together representatives of 42 governments, that is to say a large proportion of the States that existed at the time.


On the technical level, the increase in interactions and exchanges between States generated by the industrial revolution pushed governments to cooperate. It was mainly in the fields of transport and communications that this technical multilateralism was taking shape. This led to the formation of the first international organizations, often called "bureaus" or "international unions". Among the organizations that emerged in the second half of the 19th century were the International Telegraph Union (1865) and the Universal Postal Union (1874). The activities of these technical organizations help demonstrate that governments can cooperate to develop rules in the common interest.

The League of Nations: the rise of modern multilateralism?

The creation of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War marked a major turning point in the process of institutionalizing multilateralism. It was the first international organization created to maintain peace and foster cooperation among States.


Its constitutive document, the Covenant of the League of Nations, established the rights and obligations of the League's members and outlined the functioning of the organization whose headquarters were located in Geneva. Above all, it contained the principles on which the international order must be based: solidarity among members, respect for sovereignty, equal rights, collegiality of decision-making, transparency of international relations, peaceful settlement of disputes and the rule of international law.


The League marked a significant evolution in the development of multilateralism from several points of view. It provided a permanent multilateral framework where representatives of all Member States had the opportunity to meet periodically and discuss all major international issues on an equal footing. While this may seem normal today, it was one of the many revolutionary, and often underestimated, aspects introduced by the League.


In particular, the League was considered to be the first version of a collective security system: if a Member State is attacked, all must react. The Covenant provided for the application of sanctions or even the use of force against the aggressor. Peace was seen as a common good and its maintenance implied collective responsibilities. However, war prevention needed first and foremost to be based on dialogue and cooperation.

Contrary to a widely held belief, the multilateral framework of the League was multifaceted. Its concerns encompassed both political and technical issues. In addition to its functions to settle international disputes, the League intervened in a multitude of areas: it provided financial assistance to States in difficulty, fought epidemics, and promoted the codification of international law. It coordinated international action to fight slavery and drug trafficking. It ensured international cooperation in the field of transit and communications. It facilitated intellectual cooperation to enable exchange of knowledge between peoples. Alongside governments, private associations (nowadays referred to as NGOs) were very active and managed to make their demands heard within the League’s organs.


The League officially had up to 60 Member States in 1934, that is to say most of the existing States at the time. However, the Geneva-based organization never succeeded in establishing a global multilateral system, largely because of the absence of the United States, which never joined the League.


The League proved unable to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War. It was powerless in the face of the succession of crises that marked the collapse of the international system in the 1930s. After the conflict, Winston Churchill said: “The League did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because those principles were deserted by those states which brought it into being”. (Churchill, 1946)


The League’s "Great Experience" did not disappear with the Second World War. On the contrary, it left an important legacy. The architecture of the international system that is being built on the ruins of the Second World War is based on an even stronger multilateralism in which the UN now plays a central role.

The United Nations, the multilateral framework par excellence


The United Nations (UN) was gradually established during the Second World War. Its founding treaty, the Charter of the United Nations, was signed in San Francisco in June 1945.


The Charter does not simply define the structure, mission and functioning of the Organization. It is one of the pillars of the international system in which we live today. In his report on the work of the United Nations to the General Assembly in 2018, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recalled that the Charter remains the "moral compass to promote peace, advance human dignity, prosperity and uphold human rights and the rule of law." (Guterres, 2018).


Multilateralism is part of the United Nations' DNA. The UN is at the service of Member States to reach agreements and take collective decisions. The Charter clearly establishes that the Organization is a “centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends” in order to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”, to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” and to “achieve international cooperation”. To this end, the United Nations must, in particular, work to solve “international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character” and develop “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all”.



The Charter also contains the main principles on which the functioning of the international system is based, such as the recognition of the sovereign equality of States, respect for international commitments, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the rejection of the use of force in violation of the provisions of the Charter. Membership of the United Nations also implies the recognition of a bond of solidarity between Member States. It is on the basis of these universal values and collective rules that the UN allows States to collaborate and coordinate their actions.


While the United Nations has been the multilateral framework par excellence for more than 75 years, multilateral processes have diversified. One of the most visible developments in multilateral diplomacy is undoubtedly represented by the increase in the number of Member States: from 51 in 1945, to 193 today. In addition to this horizontal expansion, the multilateral framework has also expanded vertically, including new actors, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private actors and other international organizations. Today, more than 1,000 NGOs and international organizations have observer status at the United Nations.

The United Nations has had to adapt to changing geopolitical, social and economic realities by assuming new responsibilities. From bipolar confrontation to the decolonization process, from the issue of sustainable economic development to humanitarian assistance and the consequences of globalization and climate change, the United Nations has faced (and continues to face) many challenges. Despite crises and criticism, in an increasingly interconnected world, the United Nations remains a unique framework for communication and cooperation among all international actors. Every day, representatives of the international community interact, dialogue and cooperate within the various bodies that make up the United Nations system to find collective solutions to global issues.


Multilateralism has achieved tangible results that have led to major advances, such as for example the eradication of smallpox in the health sector. Important international agreements have also been concluded to limit arms control and to promote and strengthen human rights. The international cooperation within the multilateral framework of the United Nations is saving lives every day.


In 2018, the United Nations provided humanitarian assistance to nearly 100 million people in 40 countries. The number of undernourished people has decreased from 815 million in 2015 to 777 million in 2016. Globally, the under-five mortality rate declined by 47% between 2000 and 2016. The 14 peacekeeping operations are a concrete collective contribution to ensuring peace. The UN also provides a platform for conflict resolution. Mediation efforts within the United Nations framework are often the only way to achieve political solutions to crises. In the field of human rights, in 2018, the human rights treaty bodies considered 165 reports of States parties and received 138 additional reports from States parties on measures taken to implement their international obligations in this area.


The United Nations has a unique ability to bring actors together, propose ideas, stimulate action and find solutions. The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is designed as an integrated and universal framework. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to reduce poverty and build peaceful, prosperous and inclusive societies through coordinated action by Member States and civil society. The adoption of global strategies requires partnerships between State actors, regional and international organizations, non-governmental organizations, private actors and the academic world. In addition to facilitating the exchange of ideas, these collective initiatives ensure the implementation of solutions to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. United Nations partnerships allow for a better sharing of responsibilities among States so that no one State finds itself having to assume everything on its own. This is the very essence of multilateralism.