Unilateralism Versus Multilateralism
Explore why leaders address some challenges independently and others as part of a team.
Work with others or go it alone? Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages.
Working together—known as multilateralism—can allow countries to more effectively tackle transnational challenges, like climate change and global pandemics, that require collective solutions. Multilateralism allows countries to pool resources, enabling them to share the burden of complex and costly operations. Working with others can also give actions greater domestic and international legitimacy, garnering them more support. On the other hand, acting independently—known as unilateralism—can allow countries to quickly pursue their goals and retain more freedom of action.
Multilateralism does not necessarily mean the entire world works together on an issue. Indeed, it’s rare for nearly two hundred countries to agree on even the most basic topics. More often, multilateralism takes the form of smaller coalitions like the Group of Seven (G7), a bloc of powerful democracies that meets annually to discuss the critical issues of the day. Military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are another form of multilateralism. Countries can also choose to form new, ad hoc groups to handle specific challenges, bringing together “coalitions of the willing.”
Equally important, unilateralism does not necessarily mean countries advance their goals without regard for the rest of the world. Many countries act independently to defend human rights, promote security, and combat climate change—especially when they believe other countries do not take those issues seriously enough.
Unilateralism and multilateralism are not binary options; rather, these two approaches exist on a spectrum. Even the most seemingly unilateral actions like drone strikes often rely on behind-the-scenes multilateral cooperation in the form of agreements to fly over foreign airspace or to operate military bases in other countries.
Most countries oscillate between degrees of unilateralism and multilateralism depending on the issue at hand. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong, as both have benefits and drawbacks.
After World War II, the United States led the creation of a series of international organizations and agreements to foster peace and prosperity and deter disruptive unilateral actions. Those multilateral institutions and agreements—including the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—became the linchpin of the so-called liberal world order and were designed to address a variety of issues, including security, trade barriers, monetary policy, and poverty alleviation.
Despite today’s challenges to the liberal world order, many experts maintain that multilateralism is required to tackle global issues such as climate change, cybercrime, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics.
Take the 2015 Paris Agreement, for example. The pact to combat climate change—a crisis that transcends national borders—brought together 195 governments to curb harmful emissions with the understanding that no single country can address climate change alone.
The accord, however, also demonstrates multilateralism’s limitations. Some climate experts have criticized the agreement for not going far enough to address the threat of climate change. Others highlight that the agreement relies solely on pledges from individual countries rather than binding commitments and that it has no mechanism to hold major polluters accountable, including the United States—which temporarily withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2020—and China.
Which approach would you choose?
Let’s look at a few real-world debates over whether to pursue a unilateral or multilateral approach to thorny foreign policy issues. Follow along to understand both sides of the argument and decide which approach you would favor as a policymaker.