… a core concept in Global Context and Atlas105

Concept description

James Scott (2015, reference below) defines multilateralism as the process of organizing relations between groups of three or more states.

Scott elaborates:

“Beyond that basic quantitative aspect, multilateralism is generally considered to comprise certain qualitative elements or principles that shape the character of the arrangement or institution. Those principles are an indivisibility of interests among participants, a commitment to diffuse reciprocity, and a system of dispute settlement intended to enforce a particular mode of behaviour.

“Multilateralism has a long history, but it is principally associated with the era after World War II, during which there was a burgeoning of multilateral agreements led primarily by the United States. The organizations most strongly embodying the principle of multilateralism are to be found in trade (the World Trade Organization [WTO]) and security (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]). Numerous multilateral environmental institutions also exist.

Multilateralism, bilateralism, and unilateralism in foreign policy

Atsushi Tago (2017) writes:

“International relations scholars have long been working on how diplomacy can be understood by distinguishing diplomatic interactions in terms of multilateralism, bilateralism, and unilateralism. The so-called quantity-based approach focuses on the numbers of countries involved. Applying this framework, multilateralism needs more than three states in interactions; bilateralism needs two states; and unilateralism can be pursued by only a single state. However, there are more quality-based approaches to distinguish these interactions. Multilateralism requires states to follow international norms and pay more respect to international institutions; this is contrasted with unilateralism, where a single state can influence how international relations can be conducted. To understand multilateralism in foreign policy, it is crucial to understand how international society has developed institutions, norms, and regimes. By contrast, studies of unilateralism and bilateralism tend to focus on how a powerful state conducts its foreign policy by neglecting international institutions and legal constraints. …

“Multilateralism, whether conceived as a quantity-based definition (foreign policy for more than three states with strategic interactions) or a quality-based definition (foreign policy based respect for international order with indivisibility, generalized organizing principles, and diffuse reciprocity norms), is contrasted with bilateralism and unilateralism. Bilateral deals and a dyadic understanding of international relations, or unilateral engagement and exceptionalism, are different from what a multilateralist foreign policy approach assumes. We must note that since Second World War, the international order has been designed by the hegemonic power (the United States) based on its multilateralist norms even though it could be now facing serious challenges from both within and from outside this order as well. Since multilateralism would require a relatively high transaction cost and ties the hands of nations (through the loss of freedom of action), bilateralism and unilateralism would be the base choice for foreign policy for most states and in most issues. However, multilateralism would be selected when the benefits of legitimacy, information advantage, and burden sharing are desired. As it has been always so in international relations, a mixture of multilateralism, bilateralism, and unilateralism is what we will observe in international relations. This should be especially true when a hegemonic power is on the wane and a nascent multipolar international system has been emerging—and where no state can be so powerful as to act in a solely unilateral way and force the other states to engage with it via bilateral negotiations and bilateral coordination.”

See also, International Order.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Global Affairs and International Relations (core topic) in Global Context and Atlas105.


James Scott (2015), Multilateralism, Encyclopaedia Britannica, at, accessed 10 March 2019.

Atsushi Tago, Multilateralism, Bilateralism, and Unilateralism in Foreign Policy, Oxford Research Encyclopedias, at, accessed 10 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark and Bryan Roh, last modified 10 March 2019.

Image: Trans European Policy Studies Association, at, accessed 10 March 2019.