Multilateralism and Foreign Policy

What is meant by multilateralism and, according to some, what role does it play in international relations?

According to Carporaso the study of multilateralism has been underrepresented in the academic world of international relations. Reasons seem to vary. An argument put forward is that actors in International Relations simply tend to not to practice multilateralism (Carporaso 1993:52). Although the years of the Cold War might have justified this reasoning, post-Cold War events in the world stage and the new agendas of economics, environment and complex peacebuilding seem to have altered the nature of files, meetings and cocktails in foreign offices around the world. Has interdependence brought about a definite diffusion of power in international relations and created the perfect environment for multilateralism?

Conceptually, multilateralism fundamentally opposes other ideologies such as: unilateralism, imperialism and regionalism (Nel et al 2001: 5). It is the norms guiding foreign policy, not the number of actors that matter. In practical terms however the practice of foreign policy is messier and the case is more often than not that states in the international system administer packages that mix these modalities in their foreign policy.

The practice of multilateralism privileges issues of time and trust as relevant factors in determining the success of norms, socialization at the international level and cooperation. Under this rational, actors are less likely to free-ride or defect if they know they will lose out in the long run. Hence, the answer to Carporaso’s (1993:55) question of whether multilateralism is a means or an end in international relations is that it can actually be both. It exists at the international realm both as an ideology and as a strategy.

The concept in itself can assume rather different meanings which are important to differentiate in order to correctly read and understand the rational behind the actor’s specific use of the concept. While actors such as Putnam, Ruggie and Keohane recognize the eclectic nature of multilateralism and its meanings they have different takes on their approaches to its role in international relations. These different focuses are condensed by Carporaso into three strands. Keohane’s formal analysis of multilateralism goes beyond the realist-inspired and state-centric 1st strand – the individualist paradigm, adopting the 2nd strand of multilateralism: the social-communicative approach. His Neo-liberal institutionalism updates the systemic “stiffness” of Waltz and focuses on the consequences of the practical rules and norms that multilateral institutions have brought attributing some significance to aspects of communication, language and persuasion.

Ruggie instead seems to adopt the third strand of the institutionalist approach. He instead sees the concept itself as an ideological modus operandi and as having an important role - both in defining and understanding sets of international relations. These sets of international relations that multilateralism comprises go beyond the rigidity and formality of monolithic institutions and have as corollaries indivisibility and diffuse reciprocity (Ruggie 1993: 11). The actors in the international system are actually understood as having the potential to discuss and interact in a forum rather than invariably competing in a “chess-board”. While in a forum, actors constantly recreate themselves, adapt and alter the rules of the game in contrast to the strict relative-gains rules of the Realist game of chess.

How you understand the reasons for states to behave in a multilateral way also has an important role in defining what your understanding of the nature of international relations is. A structural explanation of multilateralism will be markedly different from a functional one. In a structural explanation multilateralism will be seen as the independent variable while in a functional analysis multilateralism comes as the product of rational-actor behaviour that minimizes information costs and curbs inefficiency.

Overall, the strength of looking at international relations through the lenses of multilateralist approaches is that you are better equipped to understand and analyse the dynamic processes of socializing occurring between states and other international actors.

Is there a relationship between middlepowership and multilateralism? If so, how and why?

Some of the first questions that arise when going through the literature on middle powers is a question about its utility. What is it for? So what if a state is a middle power? What is the use of classifying a country as a middle power and give it an ambiguous definition such as “states that are neither great nor small in terms of international power, capacity and influence, and demonstrate a propensity to promote cohesion and stability in the world order” (Jordaan 165: 2003)? Who decides and how consistent is the consensus over which states are middle powers or not?

The answers to these questions are difficult and problematic however one of the definite uses for the topologies of middle powers is in analysing the empirical products of multilateralism. Indeed, the sub-categories of middlepowermanship advanced by Jordaan and Cooper are useful analytical tools for analysing international relations. Classifying middle powers by “their foreign policy behaviour” (Jordaan 166) can, however be problematic. Evidence is on the three possible approaches to the concept. There are some alternatives that offer an alternative conceptualization of middle power: functional and hierarchical approaches (Chapnick 1999). These compete with this behaviour approach for explanatory power. The behavioural approach appears to be the most nuanced approach despite having to put aside essential players in the international domain such as China and India, discarding them as not being middle powers by summarily describing them as economic deviants and non-Western nuclear powers respectively. (Jordaan 2003:167) This subsequently ignores their important role in bringing about a more multipolar and multilateral-based world. The hierarchical and functional takes on middle powers in effect reject the basic link that Jordaan establishes between middle powers and multilateralism (the practice of multilateralism turns you into a middle power if you are benevolent and influential enough) and see instead its practice, not as a pre-condition for being a middle power but instead, as a likely behaviour and a useful tool for the success of emerging powers. (Chapnick 1999)

If one accepts the behaviouralist approach, in a post-Cold war era the more established middle powers become in the international system the more prevalent multilateralism seems to become (Cooper 1997: 4). The motives for this have to do with how at ease middle powers are in adapting to a multi-tiered international realm where issues do not concern solely security and power anymore. Middle powers thrive in niche diplomacy and have a recognizable role in their respective regional slots (which are not always bounded by geographical proximity), often standing as Cox observes “in the middle in situations of conflict” (1989:244). Overall, domination is less clear-cut and hardly absolute in an interdependent world. A power may even be a leading figure in the military sphere while simultaneously difficulties in the economic and cultural sphere undermine its international projection.

The case of Portugal is illustrative. Although its status as a middle power is again disputable (as is actually the case for most middle powers), it undoubtedly seeks to affirm itself using multilateralism and improve its international status. If one looks at Portuguese foreign policy since the end of the 1980s one can observe that the country has aimed at creating in the CPLP (Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries) a niche where it can affirm itself distinctively vis-à-vis other European Union powers. The CPLP as an organization constitutes an example whereby Brazil and Portugal in particular strive to enhance their international leverage in term of economic competitiveness and political standing. They do so by creating foreign policy synergies at the economic and political levels by means of a common cultural platform – in this case a shared language.

At a more global level, the push towards multilateralism can most obviously be noticed in the current pushes by middle powers such as South Africa and Brazil towards a reform of the United Nations Security council. This leads to the last link of “how” multilateralism and middle power are linked. Institutions have traditionally be seen as one of the “vehicles through which middle power initiative help form such world order” (Cox 1989:250). Brazil’s and South Africa’s pushes towards reform fall into the will of middle powers to set up an international architecture of power that is “forum-like” and fosters cooperation and solution-making as opposed to zero-sum moves in an international chessboard. This represents the essence of multilateralism.


Carporaso, J. 1993 ‘International Relations theory and multilateralism: the search for foundations’ in J. Ruggie (ed.) Multilateralism Matters: The theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form New York: Columbia University Press
Chapnick, A. 1999 “The Middle Power” in Canadian Foreign Policy Vol. 7 No.2
Cooper, A. 1997 Niche Diplomacy: Middle Powers after the Cold War New York: St. Martin’s press
Keohane, R. 1990 ‘Multilateralism: an agenda for research’ International Journal, 45, 4
Nel, P.; Taylor, I.; van der Westhuizen, J. 2001 “Reformist Initiatives and South Africa’s Multilateral Diplomacy” a Framework for Understanding” in Nel, P.; Taylor, I.; van der Westhuizen, J. South Africa’s Multilateral Diplomacy and Global Change: The lmits of reformism Aldershot: Ashgate
Ruggie, A. 1993 “Multilateralism: the anatomy of an institution,’ in J. G. Ruggie (ed.) Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form New York: Columbia University Press
Jordaan, E., 2003. ‘The concept of a middle power in international relations: distinguishing between emerging and traditional middle powers’. Politicon. Vol. 30, No. 2, 165-181

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