My academic advisor at Victoria University, Dr. Rob Ayson, recently posted an opinion on the Lowy Interpreter blog regarding multilateralism’s place in today’s international political environment. One quote:

“This is my problem: so many of the attacks on multilateralism are aimed at an almost mythically universal form which involves the maximum number of participants and is by that reason alone too cumbersome to deal with the issues that really matter.”

Ayson’s post was in response to a larger blog debate carried on the site, started by Michael Wesley’s initial post, which reads in part:
In my book, There Goes the Neighbourhood, I describe multilateralism as ‘the band aid of Australian diplomacy’.


It’s a habit Australian policy-makers have fallen into, a universal solution to any problem that arises. Once an institutional solution is proposed, it cauterizes the need to think about the problem any more. By focusing on the familiar, comfortable mechanisms of multilateralism, policy-makers can avoid the need to think really hard about the problem itself. Australia has so fetishized multilateralism that the other options in its diplomatic toolkit have been starved of resources and serious intellectual engagement.

Having read the debate, I wrote to Dr. Ayson about his post, because I’m genuinely interested in the topic. As the reader will see below, my interest was sealed after reading a NZ international relations scholar, Terence O’Brien. In “9/11 Five Years On,” in NZ International Review (2006), he wrote that, “By standing apart from multilateralism the US has deprived itself of a vital source of legitimacy.”

Moreover, near the end of the article, his walk-off shot is,

“The case, for example, for resuming a full military alliance relationship with the US is far from clear, even if the US was so disposed. It would certainly be an issue for mature New Zealand reflection and public discussion if for no other reason than that an alliance between a non-nuclear country and a powerful nation committed to nuclear first strike, preventive war, unilateral action and the perfection of the lethality of its military power remains problematic.”

One of O’Brien’s main criticisms, as displayed above, is that the US has acted too unilaterally or not multilateral enough…that context established, what follows is what I wrote to Dr. Ayson about the subject…

Frankly, I’ve been interested in the “multilateral” debate in the sense that, upon arrival, one of the sins ascribed to my homeland was strongly articulated by CSS Fellow Terence O’Brien (sp?). He has used the term “unilateral” in a pejorative manner, many times over, to describe the US in the world. And he’s not unique with this style of argument (see Dominion Post op ed section on days that end in -day).

I don’t see this as effective criticism ~ I see it as a description of means, not ends. There is a continuum/spectrum of foreign policy actions available to every government in the world, ranging from unilateral on one end, to multilateral at the far end. Those two can almost form “ideal types” as nearly every government’s foreign policy actions are conducted in concert with other nations (as you mentioned today, “multi-” doesn’t necessarily mean “everyone”).

The Iraq war was undoubtedly (despite Mr. O’Brien’s best arguments) not unilateral, it was at best (as Victor Cha has put it) “aggressive bilateralism,” although most appropriately the “pluralism” you described in today’s post. Ironically, for all the Kiwi criticism levied against the US for “unilateral” action in 2002-03, Lange’s decision on the Buchanan was clearly more unilateral than Iraq…which, again, doesn’t necessarily make it “bad” for it’s unilateral nature alone (it was a bad call for other reasons).

Anyhow, unilateralism/bilateralism/plurilateralism/minilateralism/multilateralism ~ they’re all just means to an end. They are tools, and will come into favor for a time (i.e. unilateralism: autarky in Europe in the interwar period) and fall out of favor as well (i.e. unilaterialism: post Iraq War).

I thought Wesley’s points were strong; despite multilateralism’s current popularity, it can’t solve everything (neither can economic interdependence, the UN, or President Barack Obama). Not a hard point to grasp, but a good one, nonetheless. It is a tool, and one tool cannot solve all ills.

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