The relationship between three or more groups of states is known as multilateralism. It consists of some qualitative principles that construct the character of an institution or arrangement. The principles are a commitment to the diffusion of reciprocity, indivisibility among participants on interest, and a system to settle disputes. Though there is a long history, it is mainly associated with the time after World War II. After this era, the United States led the burgeoning of multilateral agreements. The main organisations that strongly embody the principle are found in security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, also known as NATO, and trade, the World Trade Organisation, also abbreviated as WTO.

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Qualitative Principles of Multilateralism in International Relations

The Qualitative Principles of Multilateralism in International Relations are as follows:


Indivisibility is the core principle of multilateralism. The principle of it can be seen in the collective security system like NATO. Here, if a war is declared against a state, then all the states are considered to be in war. Therefore, this signifies that if one member faces aggression, everyone stands united, and all the members respond to such aggression. In the arrangements of security, peace is one of the indivisible aspects. This is so because if members are at peace, participating members cannot be at war. The MFN norm makes the trading system indivisible in commercial policy.

Diffusion of reciprocity

Multilateralism gives rise to a belief among the participants about diffused reciprocity. It is also, to some extent, related and added to the indivisibility principle in terms of interest. According to diffuse reciprocity’s characterisation of the situation, an expectation can be set up that no concessions or obligations in equivalence can be made, even if there is an exchange of any one factor. A balance is always presumed on a potentially indefinite, ongoing exchange series with partners groups.

Multilateralism examples can be seen previously in the system of collective security. The military resources are not expected to be compensated by the members, which the militaries spend to defend the threatened member country. The only benefit they would receive was that the country defending would also get a collective response from the attack.

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Settlement of Disputes

Some norms have been well-formed beforehand, and countries are expected to act according to them. Through multilateral concepts, the states that think their interests are indivisible, arrangements are made by incorporating some mechanism. The third principle of multilateralism is the settlement of disputes. There are various methods to settle disputes by means of compliance available. These include informal arrangements through peer review, having a formal body to take grievances, etc. The member countries, to settle disputes, have to follow the other two principles.

Purpose of Multilateralism

The main objectives of multilateralism are:

  • Developing a bond among powerful nations
  • Discouraging unilateralism
  • Enabling small powers to voice their opinions
  • Empowering smaller powers so that they are vested with the power to exercise their wishes

Challenges of Multilateralism

Multilateralism is sometimes not very effective because of three main reasons: globalisation disillusionment, inadequacy to follow the rules to face new challenges, and lack of good narratives to support the concept.

The multilateralism principles described before are supposed to be in an ‘ideal’ situation. However, several instances, especially after World War II, were when several multilateral institutions did not abide by the ideal model. There are various controversies and arguments about this concept.

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Frequently Asked Questions on Multilateralism

What is ‘VasudhaivaKutumbakam’?

India’s foreign policy is based on “VasudhaivaKutumbakam” and Good Samaritan. “VasudhaivaKutumbakam” means that “the world is one family”. Therefore, India promotes and keeps its commitment to various multilateral initiatives through this initiative.

What is Alliance for Multilateralism?

German and French Foreign Ministers launched the “Alliance for Multilateralism”. This is an informal network that unites countries to promote multilateral orders based on various rules. It helps in promoting international peace and stability, thereby addressing similar challenges.

What is meant by multilateral instrument?

Multilateral Instrument (MLI) is a treaty that is one component of the OECD BEPS project. MLI is designed to assist in implementing the measures that are recommended in order to avoid tax treaties.

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