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Multilateralism is a very equivocal term. Its primary usage originated in U.S. foreign policy in 1945 pronouncing that multilateralism was ‘international governance or global governance of the many’ hinged on anti-discriminatory and anti-preferential bilateral agreements. Indeed, the original brand of multilateralism: American post-war multilateralism is actually unapologetically unilateral, with American-based institutional frameworks dominating the world while the framers disregard the rules of the game. President Bush accurately enunciated that “when it comes to security, we (Americans) really don’t need anybody’s permission” (Ikenberry 2003). Time and again, the U.S. has withdrawn or even refused to ratify several multilateral treaties yet expected other entities to subscribe to same.
To contest the first usage, as Robert Keohane states it is “the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states” (Ruggie 1992) and (Bull 2007) defines the multilateral system as “the totality of multilateral organisations, the rules and principles that govern them and the actors that participate in their governance or operations.” Although multilateralism is purportedly the most egalitarian and democratic process to ensure power- and resource-sharing, it also can act as a barrier to more advanced development for developing countries, undermining state sovereignty, implementing counterproductive measures to stall growth, not considering the special needs and idiosyncrasies of weaker states such as weaker infrastructures, technology deficits, limited finances and legitimacy deficiencies (Hale 2013)
Multilateralism, grounded in indivisibility among pledged partners of a collectivity and diffuse reciprocity, enables some understanding to the global political economy to the extent that it democratises global governance via steps made for the ‘common good.’ Oneness in diversity; and one for all and all for one are the prominent themes while multilateral institutions and organisations are the machinery utilised to facilitate cooperative and redistributive programmes. In the meanwhile, contemporary multilateralism engages international neoliberal institutions (Zürn 2004).
Multilateralism, similar to international relations theory, endorses a multidimensional theoretical framework. (Neo)liberalism, Realism, (Neo)Gramscianism, Constructivism, Marxism, Institutionalism, Post Structuralism and Critical Theory are merging paradigms in the study of global governance. This multifaceted approach works best to understand multilateralism since the issues of state actors, non-state actors, hegemonies, collective norms/values/ideals and ideas, institutions, collective security, social class, liberty and rights-orientation demonstrate in part the dynamics of structures and agencies and their concomitant action/ interaction and interrelationships. Multilateralism is proposed as the solution for inevitable common problems threatening security such as political upheaval, conflict, trade relations, environmental risks, health hazards and crime.
Post-1990 multilateralism represents the key vehicle for international cooperation among states ironically enough in a “unipolar” world (Krauthammer 1990; Elsig 2011). (Krauthammer 1990) clearly discerns the inconsistencies in modern post-1990 multilateralism since: “there is a sharp distinction between real and apparent multilateralism. True multilateralism involves a genuine coalition of coequal partners of comparable strength and stature … What we have today is pseudo-multilateralism: a dominant great power acts essentially alone… (giving) its unilateral actions a multilateral sheen. Several developing nations complain that real multilateralism is non-existent since their voices are muted through secret, exclusive and closed door green room meetings. Plus their nations do not accrue the full advantages of multilateral treaties. True, the regional integration of developing states continues to transform the global political and economic landscape, making these member countries more open to development. But, in our globalised era, modern challenges to multilateralism still carry the stigma of discrimination through uneven development and unequal opportunity and distribution in GATT policy while privileging the U.S. and other industrially developed nations. Although multilateral institutions promise a non-zero sum benefit to all signatories with well-adjusted, mutual and reciprocal concessions, aggressive American unilateralism still remains in force especially as it regards trade liberalisation as it has flouted several agreements with impunity (Bhagwati 1990; Tussie 2007).
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