Home > Essays in Diplomacy > When is multilateral diplomacy more rewarding than bilateral diplomacy?

When is multilateral diplomacy more rewarding than bilateral diplomacy?

UN Security Council Chamber in New York.

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When is multilateral diplomacy more rewarding than bilateral diplomacy?


by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.

Between bilateral diplomacy and multilateral diplomacy, I believe that many diplomats would say that  bilateral diplomacy is more rewarding. For the “bilateralists”, multilateral or conference diplomacy is time-consuming and could be  frustrating.

Arguably, the benefits and impact of bilateral diplomacy are easier to measure  given that there are only two  players  with agenda items somewhat limited in scope. However, bilateral diplomacy is not a panacea. Due to the imbalance of power relations between strong and weak states, the latter may find it incapable of pushing for its national interests in  a bilateral negotiation. Thus, some issues are best addressed among various states. Some of these issues include addressing international challenges in trade relations, climate change, migration, and transnational crimes.

Multilateral diplomacy,  which takes place when there are three or more states in a conference, could address the limitations of bilateral diplomacy and, in these circumstances, is likely to be more rewarding.

A More Level Playing Field

One significant benefit of multilateral diplomacy is levelling the playing field among states with different political and economic levels. The British Foreign Secretary Canning, after returning from a series of conferences after the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, praised normal bilateral diplomacy when he said “each for himself and God for us all”. Such remarks sum up why multilateral diplomacy limits self-interested motivations of the states.

In the United Nations, the veto powers enjoyed by the five permanent members of the Security Council prevent the tyranny of the powerful by ensuring that one veto can outvote any acts  with selfish intention or when one state resort to aggression.  Thus, it could be said that multilateral diplomacy is an effective safeguard against unilateralism and hegemonic ambitions of powerful states.

Coalition-building

In the United Nations, states can form coalitions based on geographic and regional considerations. Some examples or regional groupings includes the Africans, Latin Americans and Arabs, and European Union.  The  Group of 77 is an aggrupation  based on economic commonalities of developing countries.  These sub-groups form coalitions, cooperate, and promote their common interests that may subdue more power states. For instance, the G-77 countries  plus China called for the ending of the Doha Round of  trade talks last year.  Another example is how member countries of ASEAN are able to navigate a region which is surrounded by powerful neighbours such as China and India through the regional  body.

Venue to Address Transnational Issues and Harmonise Policies of States

Multilateral diplomacy is also more rewarding in finding and formulating solutions to global challenges which are transnational in nature.  Some of these issues include peace and security, international trade, climate change, human rights and solving transnational crimes.

Through multilateral diplomacy, states could come up with agreed norms through treaties that harmonises the foreign policy of member-states.  The League of Nations and the United Nations were created to provide a forum for nation-states to prevent war and conflict. Although the League of Nations failed, the U.N. has succeeded in minimizing the possibility of World War III.

Promotes Peace and Security

The U.N. is also involved in peace-keeping operations and  promotes  peace in conflict zones.  The U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda also provides the states with a clear target and benchmarks for global elimination of poverty. In the U.N., states are able to discuss and formulate common agenda on issues such as human rights, including the rights of women and children and rights of migrant workers and their families, which may not be tabled in bilateral diplomatic exchanges.

In the Asian region, the ASEAN+3 is the only confidence-building mechanisms and venue where rival countries such as China, Japan and South Korea could sit and negotiate on issues not just related to North Korea. At the same time, the Six-party Talks, which has as its members the United States, China, Japan, South and North Koreas, is another example of the effectiveness of multilateral diplomacy in discussing and diplomatically engaging North Korea.

Representation through Candidatures

Multilateral diplomacy is also a venue for states to exert influence in the international stage through candidatures in International Organisations. For instance, countries, regardless of political or economic levels, could field their own candidates to the U.N. bodies and International Organisations.   One example is that South Korea supported the candidature of former Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon  as U.N. Secretary-General to project South Korea  as an economic model to the developing world. Likewise, the Philippines fielded the candidature of a Department of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, who lost his bid as Deputy Director General of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) , aimed at projecting the Philippines as  model in managing labour migration.

Inclusivity to Non-state Actors

Lastly, multilateral diplomacy can be more inclusive and therefore more rewarding to non-state actors.  Although the primary actor of multilateral diplomacy remains primarily the state, civil society groups are recognised for their valuable role and contribution to development and may sometimes be consulted in in decision-making process.

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  1. Elizabeth Te
    March 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Hi Jed, just read your blog and wanted to share three comments:

    1) While multilateral diplomacy does, to a certain extent, level the playing field among nation-states, powerful states (e.g., US, UK) wield their influence in the way the UN, its specialized agencies and international organizations operate by, for instance, withholding their membership dues if certain “reforms” are not undertaken.

    2) I have followed events in the DPRK when I was posted in Beijing, when China initiated the three-party talks, which was later expanded to become the six-party talks. The six-party talks may have engaged the DPRK diplomatically, but they had not been successful in attaining the objective of nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

    3) Civil society groups are not only consulted but actively take part in a number of international meetings, including those on climate change, human rights, etc.

  2. March 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks Beth for the thoughtful comments. I hope you are enjoying your stint in Geneve Perm Rep Mission.

  3. March 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Visited your site. Thanks for the wonderful resources. The Diplomatic terrain is challenging in this time and age.

    • March 28, 2011 at 10:31 am

      Thank you very much indeed for your encouraging comment. Diplomacy could work wonders in navigating the complexities in today’s world if applied properly and honestly.

  4. g
    November 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    what is the difference between multilateral diplomacy and public diplomacy ?

    • December 21, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Sorry for the late reply, Public Diplomacy is different from multilateral diplomacy. PD is concerned with promoting the interest of the state by influencing public opinion of citizens whereas multilateral diplomacy is all about promoting of state interests among other states.

  5. Julius Anthony Edroso
    October 15, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    What are the benefit/s of the people from the government pursuit of multilateral diplomacy?

    • December 21, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks for your message. The government’s role is to promote the well-being of its citizens. Through multilateral diplomacy, the state can promote peace, human rights, and economic cooperation, climate change initiatives, among other concerns.

  6. December 21, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Multilateral diplomacy is more need for least developed countries though most of the times is becomes fruitless for developed countries.

    • December 21, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      Thanks Sharif for your comment. Multilateral diplomacy is also very important for developed countries to promote peace and economic cooperation. For example multilateral diplomacy within European Union, NATO and OECD.

  1. March 22, 2011 at 4:47 am

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