Multilateralism, in its normative dimension, appeared in the nineteenth century when international actors were attempting to resolve problems of mutual interest. As both a resource and constraint for the most powerful, it redefines the power dynamics. The transformations it produces renew the issues of international cooperation, which are now posed in terms of governance.

Multilateralism is a form of collective action, involving at least three states, that seeks to produce “norms and rules to establish a cooperative international order holding sway over international interdependencies ” (Franck Petiteville). The concept, though, is more than merely a cooperation technique, encompassing not just the idea of coexistence but also the intent to resolve problems of mutual interest, whether these are economic (driving the creation of the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine in 1815), technical (signature of the Metre Convention in 1875), social (creation of the International Office of Public Hygiene in 1907) or political (organization of the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907). Though often conceived as an inter-state dynamic, from the very beginning multilateral cooperation has been driven by diverse actors – as evidenced, for example, by the tripartism of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which represents states, workers and employers simultaneously.

Multilateral initiatives can be developed within international organizations, whether these are global (WTO), regional (EU, ASEAN, ALBA, AU), limited in scope (OPEC), generalist (UN) or sector-specific (IFIs), as well as in less formal and institutionalized frameworks like the clubs of major powers (G7/G8, G20 (the financial G20), BRICS), open-ended groups (Open-ended Working Group on Ageing), groups of friends (the Friends of Syria Group), and the major themed conferences – on oceans (2017), financing fordevelopment (2015), and indigenous peoples (2014). The proliferation of these international institutions since the 19th century reflects the rise of multilateralism, which now impacts all sectors and all actors in the global arena.

Members of selected “Gs,” 2018

Sources: The Group of 77 at the United Nations (G77),; G20,; OCDE ; World Bank; FMI; SIPRI and UN-DAES.

Comment: This map, although featuring only a few “clubs,” shows that scarcely any states escape the club logic. Clubs are organized informally on a power basis (G8 and G20), enabling a partial multilateral dialogue to take place, relieved of the constraints dogging negotiations within global organizations; or they can be based on a coalition of states defending the common interests of developing countries (130 for the G77) to represent them in international negotiations.

Multilateralism and power

Multilateralism is helping to redefine power, reformulating the challenges it faces and the legitimate means at its disposal. Multilateral institutions have often been created by the most powerful states: the Covenant of the League of Nations bore the imprint of two individual figures, Léon Bourgeois and Woodrow Wilson, while the multilateral order that emerged after the Second World War (Bretton Woods institutions, UN, GATT) emanated from the United States. Although some powerful states have at times sought “à la carte multilateralism” (Richard Haass), it is difficult for them to wholly disregard the multilateral operation of “collective legitimization” (Inis Claude). Far from being merely a resource for the most powerful, multilateralism constrains them by establishing rules and standards that apply to all, by integrating them within an iterative negotiation process that makes defection more costly, and by compelling them to consider the voices of the majority. Small states, or middle and emerging powers, deploy a range of strategies (niche diplomacy, coalitions like AOSIS in the climate change negotiations, standards-based entrepreneurship) as they seek to participate in defining the rules of the game by activating multilateralism’s equalizing powers. Yet these powers do not prevent the emergence of “international pecking orders” (Vincent Pouliot), which can vary from one multilateral institution to another, underscoring the fact that multilateralism, while not erasing power altogether, is reinventing the way it plays out.

In the process of becoming a standard international mode of operation, multilateralism itself is evolving, addressing increasing numbers of issues (human rights, environment, fighting transnational crime, sustainable development, gender equality) and attracting increasingly diverse actors (states of the South / Third World, NGOs, social movements, multinational corporations, etc.). In 2000, for example, Kofi Annan launched the Global Compact facilitating dialogue between the UN, NGOs and the private sector. Businesses that voluntarily join this initiative undertake to practice and promote the Compact’s principles (on human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption measures) and to give account of their endeavors in a report.

Companies participating in the United Nations Global Compact, 2000-2017

Source: Global Compact, United Nations,

Comment: Launched in 2000 at the suggestion of the UN Secretary-General, the Global Compact brings together businesses, NGOs and voluntary UN actors who share ten norms for more stable, inclusive, and sustainable societies (respect for human rights, international standards for work, the environment, and the fight against corruption). The map featuring the number of businesses committed per country shows that Europe is the pioneer, followed by South America. The curve showing changes in the numbers of members increases ever more rapidly (13,000 in 170 countries by late 2018).

Institutional proliferation

Finally we are seeing a proliferation of institutions. Alongside IOs, clubs are developing, with three defining features: they are limited in scope, often informal or relatively unformalized, and with voluntary participation, membership being decided by deliberate choice and/or cooptation. Overall these changes are producing a complex, opaque multilateral configuration whose actors criticize a lack of efficiency and transparency and an absence of coordination among institutions, programs and projects. Growing debates on global governance and demands around global common goods and common goods of humanity are redefining the issue of international cooperation. On the one hand, contemporary multilateral practices reveal a drive for more functional and inclusive forms of governance, as with the creation of public-private partnerships like Stop TB. On the other – and particularly in their minilateral forms (G7, G20) – they highlight the determination of some actors to maintain the status quo and close ranks.

The fight against tuberculosis: Stop TB public-private partnership, 2018

Source: Stop TB,

Comment: Since 2001, the partnership Stop TB has brought together NGOs, communities, private actors, states, and international institutions (1,700 partners in over 100 countries) for the purpose of eliminating tuberculosis, a preventable, curable disease. It is recognized as a unique international body that has the power to mobilize actors from all over the world with a common aim. The map shows it has a global presence, but it is very strong in Africa and Western Asia where cases are most numerous, prevention is lowest and treatment is underdeveloped.

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